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Title: Old Land Marks

Creator: Walt Whitman

Date: April 18, 1842

Publication information: New York Aurora 18 April 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.00413

Contributors to digital file: Jason Stacy, Lucas Reincke, Jake Byers, and Kevin McMullen




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Old Land Marks.

Today the suffrage party in little Rhode Island hold meetings for the purpose of practically exercising their rights—rights which they claim under the great Bill of American freedom, but which have hitherto been denied them, because inconsistent with the provisions of their royal charter.1 Although we are not conversant with the minutia, the minor particulars of the Rhode Island difficulty, we perfectly understand the grand features of the matter. It is undoubtedly a question between the supremacy of wrong, and one sided laws, merely because they have been the old custom—and the natural prerogatives of man, given to him at his birth, and which no charter, no legislature, no enactment can rightly take from him. Were we a resident of Rhode Island, we should be a revolutioniser, in the front rank. As it is, the liberal party have our heartiest wishes for their success.2

Most men possess, from the earliest dawn of judgment, a great horror of attacking any thing which has received the sanction of a legislature—whether that legislature lived three hundred years ago, or lives now. What is a legislature? A body of men, just like those we see about us—no better than, and very likely not near as bright as, people whom we are hourly in business and intercourse with. They are as liable to error, commit as ridiculous blunders of judgment, are swayed by their tempers, or their selfish passions, or their personal whims—just like the common mass of society. Looking back through the history of the past, what has there been done in the way of legislation to make us place much confidence in law, as consistent with justice?

We are free to confess, for ourself, that we have no reverence for the statute book, any further than it jibes with our notions of truth and justice. Government is at best but a necessary evil; and the less we have of it, the better.

Let no man think, because we see in this country no throne and no titled nobles, we can have no oppression. Human nature is the same, whether in a republic or a despotism; and human nature is so constituted that a desire to raise one's self above his peers, even through infringing on the rights of those peers, will actuate individuals and portions of communities.

Who does not love power? And few are they that are willing to forego the pleasant exercise of more of it than their mates can boast of possessing. There has always existed in the United States a faction professing to think that the main body of the people are unfit to govern. In former times, many of them may have been honest in their belief; but the chilliness and narrowness of their doctrine ought ever to have damned them—and more especially so now, when experience has proved the fallaciousness of their premises.


Notes:

1. On this day, April 18, 1842, the people of Rhode Island elected Thomas W. Dorr Governor under the "People's Constitution," adopted the previous November. This "constitution" allowed suffrage for all white (domestic and naturalized) males over twenty-one. There was dissent regarding the issue from those who already had the right to vote under the former charter. It was not until 1843 that there was a new official state constitution that dropped the property requirement for white U.S. born males, but it kept the requirement for naturalized citizens (Delegates of the 1841 Rhode Island Convention, Constitution of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: as adopted by the Convention, assembled at Providence, November, 1841 [Providence, RI: Knowles and Vose, printers] Article 2 Sections 1–3). For further reading, see: Chilton Williamson, "Rhode Island Suffrage since the Dorr War," The New England Quarterly 28, no.1 (1955), 24–50. [back]

2. The liberal party sided with Thomas Dorr, who advocated for suffrage for all white males (see previous note). Whitman supported their cause. [back]


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