Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Political Views
Author:
Hirschhorn, Bernard
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman's editorial writing on politics began at an early age, influenced by his father, who was attracted to the radical political and religious thought of the Enlightenment and felt empathy for working class people. Other influences on Walt Whitman's politics were the panics of 1819, 1837, 1857, and 1873, which triggered economic depressions, and his exposure to the political and economic life in Brooklyn and Manhattan (in the 1820s–1840s). In 1831, at age twelve, Whitman worked as a journalist's apprentice on the Long Island Patriot, a partisan newspaper for the Democratic party in Kings County (Brooklyn), switching, however, to the Long Island Star (the Whig weekly paper, also in Brooklyn) by the summer of 1832. An ardent Jacksonian Democrat, he revered William Leggett, the party's foremost spokesman in the 1830s. In that decade Whitman worked on the Long Island Democrat (in Jamaica, Queens County, from 1838 to 1839), and from 1846 to 1848 he edited the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and King's County Democrat (the paper's full title). He considered the Democratic party the protector of the ideals of the American Revolution, venerating the freethinking of Thomas Paine, the heroic qualities of George Washington, and the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.

Whitman believed in the two-party system and praised national (and presidential) elections. He thought that differing principles dividing the nation into opposing parties—Democrats and Whigs—would not cause the Union to erode. He welcomed partisan conflict as being beneficial to the body politic, placing his confidence in the Democratic party leadership and, indeed, commending the office of the president as "the most sublime on earth" (qtd. in Reynolds 116). The Democratic party was that of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, Whitman affirmed, and the American republic was rooted in Jefferson's revolutionary principles of political equality and the inalienable rights of the individual. Whitman's belief that "the best government is that which governs the least" (Gathering 1:60) borrowed Jefferson's language, echoing his attack in the Declaration of Independence on George III and the monarchy.

Influenced by the Locofoco Party (a radical New York democratic group opposed to bank monopolies and paper money), Whitman considered Jackson the heir to Jeffersonian republicanism, for his 1832 veto of the bank recharter bill had ended the operation of the privately owned second Bank of the United States, charged with monopoly and special privilege. Whitman supported a "tight money" policy and the subtreasury system (depository for the government's funds) established in 1840 by Jackson's successor, President Martin Van Buren. In the age of Jacksonian democracy and the so-called rise of the common man (actually class conflict and economic inequality expanded in antebellum America), Whitman addressed many other public issues. He advocated freedom of speech and of the press, abolition of the slave trade and of capital punishment, reform of schools and prisons, temperance, the widest suffrage, women's rights (including the right to retain property after marriage), sexual liberty for men and women, promotion from the ranks in the army and navy, the sale of public lands at cheap prices to settlers, tenement housing reform, and most vociferously, free trade (a cardinal principle in the democratic creed). Although he feared that aggressive social action portended social disorder, he deplored the existence of slavery, anti-immigration movements (nativism), oppression of the poor, low wages for women, rapidly widening class differences, political corruption in all levels of government, and greed for wealth.

With the coming of the Democratic machine, organized by 1836–1837, Whitman served as a party activist, forming ties with the New York City Democratic party and in 1845 becoming secretary of its Kings County General Committee. In Brooklyn's 1846 and 1847 elections, he worked to get out the Democratic vote, although the Whigs—the anti-Jackson party—won them both. In 1840 Whitman campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Martin Van Buren, who lost his re-election bid to Whig candidate William Henry Harrison. Whitman was saddened by Van Buren's defeat, and on 29 July 1841, at a huge rally of Democrats from New York, Kings, and Richmond counties at City Hall Park in Manhattan, he implored the faithful to carry on the fight for the party's principles; presciently, he also announced that the Democratic candidate in 1844 would be "carried into power on the wings of a mighty re-action" (Uncollected 1:51).

Whitman enthusiastically supported the expansionist policies of James K. Polk, the 1844 Democratic victor, who achieved a huge electoral margin, followed by the annexation of Texas (1845) as well as Oregon (with the 49th parallel as the boundary) and the Mexican War (both in 1846). Whitman felt that annexation of a large amount of territory from Mexico was inevitable and justifiable. It was not greed or the lure of power that motivated his calculations for the creation of new states ("continentalism"), but the desire for American democracy to spread, as it already had in the West.

No public issue engaged Whitman more passionately than slavery and disunion. He had accepted the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Purchase territory north of the line of 36° 30' (except in the state of Missouri, admitted as a slave state). A quarter of a century later David Wilmot, the radical Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania, conditionally stipulated in 1846 that slavery be excluded forever from any territories acquired from Mexico, but the so-called Wilmot Proviso was rejected. Influenced in his thinking by Silas Wright, a rigorous opponent of slavery expansion, Whitman adopted a similar view. He had endorsed Wright in his successful campaign for the governorship of New York in 1844 and campaigned for him in Kings County in 1846, though the governor was defeated for a second term.

At their state convention at Syracuse in 1847, the conservative New York State Democrats (Hunkers) defeated the resolutions against the extension of slavery. The radical wing of the party (Barnburners) bolted and at their own convention at Herkimer hailed the principle of "free soil," bringing down the Syracuse ticket in the local election. Whitman's uncompromising Barnburner opposition to the extension of slavery caused his dismissal from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Isaac Van Anden, the paper's owner, sided with the proslavery extensionist Democrats. Whitman blamed the party's defeat on its indifference to the Wilmot Proviso. Nevertheless, he was not extremist and in fact was highly critical of the extremist Northern abolitionists and Southern fire-eaters, both of whom he considered serious threats to national unity. As for President Polk, Whitman was disturbed by his opposition to the Wilmot Proviso, but he remained loyal.

Whitman defended the rights and dignity of free male labor—white workingmen, i.e., mechanics and farmers, as opposed to the system of slave labor. He criticized the Southern planter class—a minority of 350,000 seeking to create more slave territory and slave states; a larger majority of both parties in the nonslaveholding states, on the other hand, favored opening the territories to free laborers of the North and South.

In the 1848 presidential election, Whitman spurned both nominees: Governor Lewis Cass of Michigan, the Democratic candidate who opposed the Wilmot Proviso, advocating instead "popular sovereignty" (only the people living in the territories, not Congress, had the power to decide the slavery issue there), and Zachary Taylor, the Virginia-born Whig candidate who became a Louisiana sugar planter and slave owner. When the New York State Democrats nominated Cass at their convention in 1848, Democrats committed to free-soilism walked out of the party. Whitman was one of them: he and fourteen other delegates from Brooklyn attended the Free Soil party national convention at Buffalo in August 1848, when ex-President Van Buren was nominated president. A month later, Whitman founded and edited a free-soil newspaper, the Brooklyn Freeman (1848–1849), dedicated to the election of Van Buren and opposing the addition to the Union "of a single inch of slave land, whether in the form of state or territory" (qtd. in Kaplan 145). (Van Buren won 10 percent of the vote.)

The Compromise Law in 1850 (signed by New York's Millard Fillmore, for Taylor had died) infuriated Whitman. It opened up the Mexican Cession (except California) to "popular sovereignty" and included also a more stringent Fugitive Slave Act, which smacked of federal interference. Whitman castigated Northern Democrats like Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts—"dough faces"—for supporting Clay's Compromise of 1850 to subject the Union to the influence of the slave owners. This could cause the destruction of the party system and the Union itself, he warned.

Although the Free Soil party had been badly beaten in 1848, Whitman persuaded John Parker Hale of New Hampshire to accept the nomination in 1852. His advocacy of the free soil policy had long been applauded by Whitman, who hoped the nomination would lead to a "renewed and vital [Free Soil] party" (Correspondence 1:39–40). Reorganizing his supporters as the Free Democratic party, Hale won 5 percent of the vote. More disastrous was the election of Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, the Democratic candidate who, as the Free-Soilers feared, yielded to the proslavery forces.

The issues dividing the North and South were intensified in 1854 when Congress passed and President Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Sponsored by Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, it created two territories—Kansas and Nebraska—opened to "popular sovereignty" and thus specifically repealing the Missouri Compromise. "Civil war" came to Kansas when a proslavery territorial legislature was elected, made possible by proslavery Missourians who in March 1855 crossed the border to vote. Whitman remained adamant on the issue of slavery extension—arguing for no sectional compromise and asserting that Kansas would continue to "bleed" until it was redeemed. The failure of the Pierce administration to challenge political corruption in Kansas contributed to his disillusionment with America's elected rulers and to his apprehension about the future of the republic.

Whitman was also angered by the presidential nominations in 1856: James Buchanan, the "dough face" Pennsylvania Democrat who had been closely connected to the Compromise of 1850, and Millard Fillmore, the American or Know-Nothing party candidate; he viewed both as disunionists. He was particularly frustrated with the Democratic party because he believed that the proslavery policies of Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan contributed to a backlash and consequent growth of the Republican party (he thought it perilous to approve of Republicans for agitating against slavery). These Democratic presidents, "our topmost warning and shame" (Prose Works 2:429), proved unable to hold the Union together, he concluded. In the presidential election of 1856, Whitman left the Democratic party and voted for John C. Frémont, the nominee of the Republican party, founded two years earlier to "save Kansas"; it shifted the nation's course away from compromise by espousing the cause of "free labor and free soil."

Whitman described the events that transpired in the several years before Lincoln's presidency as "more lurid and terrible than any war" ("Death" 3). He feared sectionalism because the jurisdiction of the federal government over matters involving the states was tenuous; this made it unlikely that the South, eager to nationalize slavery, would yield to the national interest. The solution to the issue of states rights and centralized authority, he believed, lay in a Union conceived as a league in which the national government functioned as a consolidation to achieve certain objectives. Each state operated in its own sphere, but while Whitman, a Jeffersonian democrat, continually referred to the nation as "these states," he had no doubt that the national sovereignty, possessing superior power, nourished them.

When the Civil War started, Whitman turned the issue of states rights vs. national power into the issue of secession vs. union. He observed that Northern sympathy for secession—disunion—was significant and that the North and South were equally culpable for the conflict. But in his view the war was not a "struggle of two distinct and separate peoples" (Prose Works 2:426). South Carolina's declaration (on 20 December 1860) that the Union was dissolved and the 1861 collapse of the Democratic party culminated in the disruption of American democracy. Whitman called it the "Secession War" or preferably the "Union War"—rarely the "Civil War"—confident at least in his public writing that the Union would ultimately survive.

Whitman cherished Lincoln for his full commitment to nationalism and to the Union and claimed to have voted for him in 1860. (Whitman was not a zealous Republican.) He fervently supported the first national military conscription law passed by the 37th Congress in early 1863, even though he was disappointed that it was not a universal draft (men won exemption either by paying substitutes or by paying three hundred dollars outright). Whitman championed the war, denouncing Northern Democrats who impeded the war effort and who wanted to recognize the Southern confederacy: the so-called Copperhead Democrats. The war strengthened his faith in the average human, and it restored his respect for political leaders and government institutions. The absolute defeat of the attempted secession demonstrated the steadiness of the democratic republic and, with the abolition of slavery, settled more than the issue of free soil: but like Lincoln and the majority of the people of the Union, Whitman was not prepared to accept the political and social equality of white and black races.

He backed the reconciliation policies of Presidents Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, which he believed would ease the return of the secessionists and reestablish a sense of nationality. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, moreover, afforded federal guarantees of civil and political rights for the black race. The disputed election of 1876, however, led to another deal—the Compromise of 1877, which awarded the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate, in return for the withdrawal of the last federal troops from the South—and this end of radical Reconstruction led to the Republican abandonment of the freedmen. Still, Whitman thought that Hayes helped strengthen ties between the North and South.

Whitman berated the crass materialism of the Gilded Age and, disturbed by corruption among avaricious and wealthy businessmen as well as the growing "trust" problem and bitter labor-capital strife, he feared for American democracy. But he also recognized that material progress improved American life, and he welcomed the accelerated pace of industrialization and technological invention. He hoped that all people would share in the nation's wealth and come to have a stake in society, not penetrating the dark side of economic individualism.

Whitman was fundamentally optimistic about the average individual, believing that democratic government, with all of its possibilities, would work itself out in future generations and promote human happiness. Constantly dwelling on this theme, he asserted that there must be continual additions to our "great experiment of how much liberty society will bear" (Gathering 1:11). The nation would then become truly unified. But Whitman contradicted himself (as he suggested) by continuing to hark back to America's past, the republican traditions of the Revolution of 1776.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Brower, Brock. "Patriot Days." Civilization May–June 1995: 38–45.

Erkkila, Betsy. "The Political Whitman." Democracy's Poet: A Walt Whitman Celebration. New York: Museum of the City of New York, 1992. 4–5.

____. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Parrington, Vernon Louis. "The Afterglow of the Enlightenment—Walt Whitman." Main Currents in American Thought: The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America. Vol. 3. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1930. 69–86.

Pessen, Edward. Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey, 1969.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Age of Jackson. 1945. Boston: Little, Brown, 1950.

Sixbey, George L. "Conscription and Walt Whitman." Long Island Forum (Feb. 1942): 25–26, 35–36.

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.

Trachtenberg, Alan. "Whitman's Visionary Politics." The Mickle Street Review 10 (1988): 15–31.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

____. "Death of Abraham Lincoln." Memoranda During the War & Death of Abraham Lincoln. Ed. Roy P. Basler. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1962. 1–14.

____. "The Eighteenth Presidency!" A Critical Text. Ed. Edward F. Grier. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 1956.

____. The Gathering of the Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. 2 vols. New York: Putnam, 1920.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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