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Title: Defining "Our Position"

Creator: Walt Whitman

Date: March 30, 1842

Publication information: New York Aurora 30 March 1842: [2].

Source: Original issue held at the Paterson Free Public Library, Paterson, NJ. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue.

Whitman Archive ID: per.00386

Contributors to digital file: John Clayton, Nolan Shan, Victoria Bruno, Jason Stacy, and Kevin McMullen




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Defining "Our Position."

From one of the best known and most respectable citizens of New York—one who, as formerly occupant of a high official station under the general government, and distinguished no less for his abilities in literature and science, has identified himself with the first men of the western world—we yesterday received a note somewhat taking us to task for the course this paper has lately pursued, and offering certain suggestions for our future conduct. Were we permitted to give the name of our correspondent, our readers would perceive with what propriety we can depart in this instance from our general course, and "give explanations." The writer of the letter says:—

"Notwithstanding that I, in common with nearly all whom I have conversed with upon the matter, cannot deny the evidently patriotic motives, the eloquence, and the unflinching courage, which characterise your attacks on what you have enmity toward—yet there appears a kind of vindictiveness, a want of charity, a disposition to ultraism,1 which must be highly offensive to persons of correct views. You have loaded those whom you dislike with abuse and opprobrium to a degree that I do not recollect ever to have seen equaled before; the fiercest invective, and the hottest hate can hardly lead you farther than you have already gone. I question whether the English language affords superlatives more superlative than you have plied on, mountain high, upon the heads of certain individuals whose conduct you disapprove.
"And most decidedly I do condemn your stand against FOREIGNERS. That body, like all that is human, have their demerits, undoubtedly; but it is too late in the day to get up a crusade against them. You might as well deprive the tree of its sap, as America of its influx of foreign emigrants."

Our reply to the above will be very brief. And we shall answer first, that which our respected correspondent has complained of last.

The motives of the Aurora, in some of its recent steps, have been much misunderstood. We have no antipathy or bigoted ill to foreigners. God forbid! Our love is capacious enough, and our arms wide enough, to encircle all men, whether they have birth in our glorious republic, the monarchies of Europe, or the hot deserts of Africa—whatever be their origin or native land. Our mind is not one of that narrow description which confines its good will by a shore or a boundary line; we look upon all human beings as brethren, entitled all to our regard, our good offices, the protection of government, and the enjoyment of freedom.

Yet we cannot shut out eyes to the painful truth that this nation—all vigorous in the bloom of youth, and, like youth, susceptible to a lasting stamp from chance impressions—is in danger of being deterred from a proud and lofty path, by influences of an anti-American tendency spread through its width and breadth, and made more plenty by every packet and steam ship that arrives in our docks from abroad.2 We possess in this republic the advantages and the capacities, for evolving the Great Problem—the problem of how far Man, the masterpiece of cunningest Omniscience, can have his nature perfected by himself, and can be trusted to govern himself. We possess the chance of spreading to the gaze of the world, the glorious spectacle of a continent peopled by freemen—freemen, not as those of vaunted Rome, and voluptuous Venice—not free in grades—but free men in a reality far beyond even what our nation now enjoys.3 We would that all the taint of time defiled custom—all the poisonous atmosphere of European philosophy—all the fallacious glitter of a literature which, being under the patronage of courts and princes and haughty church, is not fitted for our beloved America—all the aristocratic notions, interwoven so closely with social customs, as to be almost ineradicable—we would that all this might have no sway in the land. These things are not for such as we. A higher and holier destiny, a more worthy mission, we sincerely hope, belong to us.

And now the public can see what kind of Americanism will characterize the Aurora. We glory in such principles; we would rather use our strength in diffusing them, than, like some of our contemporaries, reap the harvest of basely pandering to error, and feeding vanity. There are among the conductors of our newspapers too many

"dastard sycophants and jesters—
Reptiles who lay their bellies in the dust,
Before the frown of majesty."4
He who chalks out the campaign for the Aurora, is not of them.

Our correspondent also takes it ill that some of our editorials show "the fiercest invective, and the hottest hate." It would be affectation, were we to pretend not to understand what the instances alluded to. We are well aware that we used strong language; we meant to. Though professing to be by no means of excitable temperament—we are ever roused to the utmost, by any such conduct as this of the dastardly Hughes,5 and his kindred fanatical demagogues. The farthest stretch of condemnation cannot go too far against any proceedings which put in jeopardy the soundness and purity of the elective franchise.6

We never intend to mince matters—to stop for honeyed words—to crust the wholesome doses we administer, with sugar—to be polite unto filthy vice—to stand on ceremony with a traitor—or treat a scoundrel with dainty punctilio.7


Notes:

1. "Ultraism" is defined as "[t]he principles of those who advocate extreme measures" (Noah Webster, John Walker, An American Dictionary of the English Language [New York: N. and J. White, 1839]). Whitman here quotes a critic who claims that the Aurora's politics border on fanaticism in its concentration on exclusively "American" topics. [back]

2. Whitman argued that the influx of foreign culture and custom was trampling "American" principles of life. [back]

3. Whitman here echoes the sentiment of writer and editor John O'Sullivan in his article "The Great Nation of Futurity," in which O'Sullivan wrote: "The American people having derived their origin from many other nations, and the Declaration of National Independence being entirely based on the great principle of human equality, these facts demonstrate at once our disconnected position as regards any other nation" (John O'Sullivan, "The Great Nation of Futurity," The United States Magazine and Democratic Review 6, [1839]: 426–430). [back]

4. Whitman here quotes from the play Tragedy of Brutus written by John Howard Payne in 1818. [back]

5. Bishop John Hughes (1797–1864) represented Irish-Catholic interests in the fight within Tammany Hall over the Maclay Bill, which proposed to fund parochial education with public funds. [back]

6. Whitman is referencing here the New York mayoral and common council election of April 12th, 1842. [back]

7. "Punctilio" is defined by Webster as "A minute detail of conduct in a ceremony or in observance of a code" (Noah Webster, John Walker, An American Dictionary of the English Language [New York: N. and J. White, 1839]). [back]


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