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Title: "Black and White Slaves."

Creator: Walt Whitman

Date: April 2, 1842

Publication information: New York Aurora 2 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.00422

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




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"Black and White Slaves."1

We received, yesterday afternoon, from A. Donnelly, 19½ Courtlandt street, a lithograph picture inscribed with the words which head this paragraph.2 The print represents two different localities—the one to the right, a scene in England—that to the left, another in America. The figures of the first, are a laborer's family, his wife lying dead upon a heap of straw, an infant endeavoring to draw moisture from her breast, two or three famished children near by, and the laborer himself seated disconsolately upon a stool by the side of the corpse. Looking on, is a fat, pompous, lordly parish officer, evidently no stranger to the good things of life. He is speaking: "Come, pack off to the work house; that's the only fit place for you!"

The set off to this, is a delineation of domestic life at the south. A gentleman and lady, with two children, come to pay a call at the shanty of a family of their slaves. Every thing bears the impress of cheerfulness and content.

There is a good moral conveyed in this picture. It would be well if the English abolitionists were to reflect upon it. John Bull raises a great bluster and outcry,3 because of the oppressed condition of the American negroes. He gets quite sentimental in his sorrow—blubbers, and even sometimes goes so far as to contribute moneys for the support of itinerant abolitionist lecturers. And all the while, the British have within the borders of their own country, miseries compared to which those of the southern slaves are as a wart to Ossa.

In England, nine-tenths of the population do not enjoy the common comforts of life. Their inequality of laws, their oppressive taxation, their established church, and their undue proportion of inhabitants, contribute to bring about this horrible state of things; and they are the people who can come to us with monitorial teachings of what is our duty to "our colored brethren!"

Let our transatlantic neighbors take the beam out of their own eyes—and then they can reasonably find fault with the mote in ours. Let them cease to coin the sweat, and labor, and blood, and misery of the mass, into an inflated prosperity for the few. Let them pull down the lumbering fabric of monarchy and aristocracy that has stood long enough, and too long. Let them destroy the prevalence of the spectacles of famine, penury and death, that make Britain but one vast poor house—and then they can send us some of their charity and their sympathy.


Notes:

1. This editorial is Whitman's earliest known commentary on slavery. As scholar Martin Klammer notes, "Whitman's seemingly inconsistent and self-contradictory attitudes toward slavery have long been a source of critical debate. On one hand, Whitman's opposition to slavery is demonstrated in Leaves of Grass by the way in which he consistently includes African Americans in his vision of an ideal, multiracial republic and portrays them as beautiful, dignified, and intelligent. On the other hand, various Whitman texts show that he had little tolerance for abolitionism, that he thought blacks were inferior to whites, and that his opposition to the extension of slavery had little, if anything, to do with sympathy for slaves." This editorial falls into the latter category described by Klammer, as Whitman expresses obvious disdain for abolitionists and little sympathy for the plight of slaves in the United States. Whitman would make a similar argument in Franklin Evans, the temperance novel that he would publish later in 1842. For a general overview of Whitman's views on slavery and abolitionism, see: Martin Klammer, "Slavery and Abolitionism," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 640–643. For further reading on Whitman's early-career proslavery leanings, including discussion of this Aurora editorial, see: Klammer, Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 7–26; and David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 125–127. [back]

2. The lithograph to which Whitman refers was actually entitled "Black and White Slavery," and was created by a Northern slavery apologist named Edward Williams Clay. It compares Britain's "white slaves" (factory workers) to America's black slaves in an effort to show that the latter actually enjoyed much better lives. This was a common argument amongst proslavery writers and speakers of the time ("America," Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003690759/ [accessed October 2, 2016]). [back]

3. John Bull is a symbol of the United Kingdom, much in the same way Uncle Sam is to the United States. He originated as a character in John Arbuthnot's The History of John Bull (1712). He became widely known from cartoons by John Tenniel published in the British humor magazine Punch during the middle and late nineteenth century. In those cartoons, he was portrayed as an honest, solid figure, often in a Union Jack waistcoat, and accompanied by a bulldog. He became so familiar that his name frequently appeared in books, plays, periodical titles, and as a brand name or trademark. Although frequently used through World War II, since the 1950s John Bull has been used less often to portray the UK ("John Bull and Uncle Sam: Four Centuries of British-American Relations," Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/british/britintr.html [accessed October 2, 2016]). [back]


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