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Walt Whitman to the Editors of The Daily Crescent, 10 October 1848

Eds. Crescent:

Last evening, by dint of an early appearance on the ground, and waiting resolutely amid those annoyances and commonplaces that full up the first hour of a "mass meeting," I got a first-rate view and hearing of John Van Buren1—saw him in the strong glare of a thousand firework lights, and heard every word that he uttered. This was my best sight yet of Prince John; and I tugged the matter through on purpose to give your good Crescent a full description of the great Barnburner.2 As to the meeting, (it was on the old spot, in the Park,) it was one of the big ones. Standing on the front steps of the City Hall, the most vitreous of moonlight bathing the whole scene, I stretched my eyes in vain to mark the confines of the mighty crowd. Lord, what a lovely night it was, though! And the great roar of Broadway and Chatham street—the dark and dim trees of the Park—long row of printers' lights in the top stories from Tammany Hall to Spruce street: know you not those features from your own remembrance? Surely you do.

The personal appearance of Van Buren would hardly warrant one in expecting from him any high evidences of intellectuality. His complexion is light; hair ditto; no beard; full and placid blue eye; frame tall enough and stout enough, and with an evidence of youthful freshness and vigor that would attract nineteen women's eyes out of twenty:

"You may look from east to west, And then from north to south, And never an ampler month; A softer tone for lady's ear, A daintier lip for syrup, Or a ruder grasp from an axe or spear, Or a firmer foot for stirrup."

With his pink color, rather expressionless visage, and no earthly means of telling from his manner what tack he is going to take, John Van Buren gets small good from any earliest impressions on his audience. The matter is not mended either by the quality of his voice, which, neither deep nor sonorous, strikes you at first like the chromatic notes after hearing regular ones. But that voice reaches and pierces clearly to a remarkable distance in the largest and most noisy assembly. Mr. Van Buren has probably systematized his pitch of voice on acoustic principles, and from close experiment and practice. Nor would it be unprofitable for public speakers generally to follow his example; for some of the loudest and showiest speakers can neither be heard distinctly by those near them, or the rest at a distance. Not so with Mr. Van Buren. You have the comfort of losing not a word—not the inflexion of a syllable even. By-and-by, too, the voice becomes more agreeable, and you find it inimitably fitted to the dry and crispy humor that makes so large a portion of his address.

The fire of oratory, as we are accustomed to picture it to our minds is the historical exemplars of that divine art—the sweeping train of regal ornament—the impassioned appeal—graceful and dignified gestures—such a grand temper and port as we would identify with Cicero,4 or such lightning breath as in Demosthenes,5 or such molten scorn and persuasion as in Patrick Henry6 or Clay7 in his best days—all or either of these, in any excellence, Mr. Van Buren does not possess. His manner, on the contrary, is serene and smooth: not like the ponderous smoothness of Silas Wright,8 that carried with it the signs of depth that common plummet hardly could sound; but a calm complacency more like that of an indifferent, heedless child. He uses very little gesture; when he bends down it is almost a sure thing that he gives one of those sarcastic bits of humor that cut to the very hearts of his victims. And yet all seems done in good humor. There is not a particle of malignance or spite. I question, indeed, whether any one of John Van Buren's speeches shows a jot of those qualities. Honored be he, for his, at any rate! We have too much, among our politicians, of personal bitterness, and its exposure in their public proceedings. Even those at whose expense he launches his jokes may generally laugh with the rest.

If I were asked to give the leading peculiarities of Mr. Van Buren's style and matter, I should say they were condensation, clearness and wit. He often presents no very new arguments; but he invariably presents them in a new and clearer light—so clear, indeed, that they come upon your mind like an explained problem in mathematics. This is assisted by his slow and deliberate manner; no hurry, no feverish pushing forward, but every thing in its due order. The difference between him and other speakers is a good deal like the difference between a man working by the day, and another working by the job. John Van Buren never tired an audience in his life, I am sure; and never worried them by his rapidity. His wit is of the purest sort in the world. It would extort a laugh from the most morose anchorite. Nothing artificial, nothing strained; but it comes into the body of his remarks apparently just as much a matter of course as the prepositions and conjunctions. No words can describe the droll way in which he now and then turns off a sentence on some of his opponents—thousands, meanwhile, shaking with laughter, does as well as friends. He possesses that rare faculty of appearing perfectly unconscious of his own wit; he never utters the points of a joke with an air which seems to demand, "Isn't that a good one?" While others laugh, he is cool, dry and caustic, changing not a muscle; and not a put on gravity, either.

Perhaps some free and easy spectator takes advantage of his right of "free speech" to utter a criticism or a question. He never does it a second time, however. Mr. Van Buren seizes upon the interpolation, and turns the laugh so totally upon the offerer of it, that he is fain to clinch his tongue in his teeth for the rest of the evening. His sarcasm has no venom, however; it is the edge of the keenest razor, not the tooth of the snake. It cuts so clean and clear, that you wonder for a moment whether there be any cut at all. Polished and vulgar, educated and ignorant, alike appreciate John Van Buren his humor, his logic, and his aim. There is a charming abandon about him; you are fully convinced that there are no hidden motives, no finesse, no clap-trap or mean selfishness, behind what he has arrayed before you. Right or wrong, whatever the man and his mind may be, there they are, without any tricks of curtaining or shading.

You have doubtless wondered that such a man as Martin Van Buren9 should have such a son as Master John. Well, I have had the same wonder. For John has utterly thrown overboard and set at defiance all the old rules and observances among professional politicians. The young men, here, would almost lay down their lives for him. He will prove the type of a thousand, before ten years are past. He will, in all likelihood start a newer and better school of political speech-making; which heaven help forward! The turgid and flippant manner, the senseless and stale matter of the whig and democratic spouters, of late years, had grown vile beyond endurance!

Newspaper reports of Mr. Van Buren's addresses, unless they are strictly verbatim, contain but a faint copy of his wit. The latter consists generally in the turn of a sentence, conveying a contrast or an image so irresistibly comic—so Hogarthian—that you cannot for your life help laughing. It is not the broad humor of puns and distortions; it is fine and diffused. It is not farce, but the highest and most intellectual comedy. It is not an idea, one of whose parts is very funny; it is the whole idea, so ludicrous. It is not a dashy stroke of color in the picture, making a novel effect; it is the general color, pervading the whole work.

In England such a man as John Van Buren would command any gift the government had to bestow. Perhaps it is not that his aid would be invaluable; but that his enmity would have to be bought off at any price. He could do more than argue down the First Lord of the Treasury and his measures—he could make him and them ridiculous. If I were a near friend of the President, I wouldn't have John Van Buren in the opposition, and in Congress, for the Presidential salary. Randolph's10 attacks had so much acerbity that there was a rebound after them; but where, in a different and purer vein, John Van Buren's lampooning paint has once touched, there remains such an appearance of the preposterous in him whose garments wear the mask, that neither high station nor erasive soap will ever get it out.

Some of the papers will probably furnish you, if you have a curiosity of seeing them, a tolerable report of Mr. Van Buren's remarks of last evening; a correct report, as I have said, is almost out of the question. The sentiments of the Radical leader, here, however, are not likely to be preserved long, as he gives them in these addresses. They are for listening audiences, not for the pages of books. They will not be preserved. His merit is, in some sort, more the actor's merit than any other. Whether the sentiments will tell in future upon the action of government, time will show.

Will you allow me, (I am sure you will) to say one word of justice to the New York Free Soilers, 11 for publication in a region where their movements are too often unfairly represented? Not a breath, not a thought, of unfriendliness, exists in the Van Buren party of New York, toward the South, or Southern men. From what I have heard and seen, I believe that the fraternal bond of union and good will, from this section toward the South—toward Louisiana and Texas in an especial manner—holds its brightness and its warmth unabated. At this very moment, should danger or wrong threaten any of the Southern States, or any general harm to life or property, thousands of those great masses who form the Van Buren phalanx here, would rush to your aid, and fear neither for comfort or life in giving it, as brother should give aid to brother. If I know anything of my native State and her people, (and I have lately had an opportunity of observing them nearly all) the general heart holds this faith and love toward the South, with as true and steady a truth as human nature can know. But the democracy of New York believe in the great principle promulgated at Buffalo;12 and the democracy of New York were virtually excluded from the Baltimore Convention.13 While they live, they will adhere to that principle; nor will they submit to any injury from other portions of their party. Let a few years hence decide the right or wrong of the dispute; they are content to leave it so.

Certain persons, either in error themselves or from the worst of motives, are in the habit of painting the Van Buren party of the North as identical with the "Abolitionists." A greater or grosser untruth was never written. Nearly every document emanating from the Free Soilers, recognizes the well understood constitutional guaranty, that over all subjects not expressly reserved to the General Government, States, whether they be North or South, have sovereign jurisdiction within their own limits. Of the remainder of the points at issue, I presume you do not desire any labored disquisition. Common justice, however, demands that no one in the South should charge the Radicals of New York with enmity toward their Southern fellow countrymen, as no one will make that charge who knows New York. As to any danger, from this at present warmly conducted dispute, to our Republican Union, we laugh the idea to scorn! The acorn has not yet germinated, whose product oak shall be ruffled by winds that howl the tidings of her dissolution. The man is mad, or worse, who talks of it, in the same hour with his talk of events either probable or to be endured.



  • 1. John Van Buren (1810–1866) was a lawyer, politician, and advisor to his father, Martin Van Buren (1782–1862), the eighth president of the United States. [back]
  • 2. Barnburners and Hunkers were terms used to describe opposing sides of the fracturing Democratic party in New York during the mid-nineteenth century. The Barnburners held radical anti-slavery views and were willing to destroy banks and corporations to end corruption and abuses. The Hunkers were pro-government; they favored state banks and minimized the issue of slavery. The divisions between these factions in New York reflected the national divisions that would lead to the American Civil War (1861–1865). [back]
  • 3. These lines are from the poem "Troubadour" by the English politician and poet Winthrop Mackworth Praed (1802–1839). [back]
  • 4. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC–43 BC) was a Roman statesman, an accomplished orator and lawyer, and a writer who introduced the primary arguments of Hellenistic philosophy into Latin. [back]
  • 5. Demosthenes (384 BC–322 BC) was a professional speechwriter, orator, and lawyer in ancient Athens. [back]
  • 6. Patrick Henry (1736–1799), a Virginia native, was an attorney and a planter. He later became a politician and orator. He twice served as the Governor of Virginia, and is best known for stating, "Give me liberty, oro give me death!" in 1775, before the Second Virginia Convention in Richmond. [back]
  • 7. Henry Clay (1777–1852) was an attorney who went on to serve as a United States Representative and a United States Senator from Kentucky. Clay ran for president in the elections of 1824, 1832, and 1844, and, although he was unsuccesful in his bids for the presidency, he was one of the founders of the Whig Party and of the National Republican Party. [back]
  • 8. Silas Wright (1795–1847) of Massachusetts studied law and set up a practice in New York before entering politics. He served as a member of the United States House of Representatives from New York, as a Senator from New York, and as the state's fourteenth governor, from 1845 to 1846. [back]
  • 9. Martin Van Buren (1782–1862) was the eighth president of the United States, serving from 1837 to 1841. Whig candidate William Henry Harrison defeated the incumbent Van Buren in the 1840 election to become the ninth president of the United States. Van Buren later became an anti-slavery leader and was the Free Soil candidate for president in the 1848 election; the Whig Candidate Zachary Taylor (1784–1850) defeated Van Buren and went on to serve as the twelfth president of the United States. [back]
  • 10. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]
  • 11. Formed during the 1848 election, the Free Soil Party opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories of the western United States, which included the territory that Mexico had ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo following the Mexican-American War. When neither the Democratic nor the Republican party presidential nominees would rule out the expansion of slavery into these territories, the Free Soil Party was formed in response. The Free Soil Party was active for six years, from 1848 to 1854. [back]
  • 12. Whitman is referring to the first National Free Soil Convention that was held in Buffalo in August 1848. The Free Soil Party opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories of the western United States. At the convention, attendees endorsed Martin Van Buren (1782–1862) as the Free Soil presidential candidate and nominated Charles F. Adams (1807–1886) for Vice President. [back]
  • 13. Whitman is referring to the 1848 Democratic National Convention, which was held in Baltimore, Maryland, from May 22 to May 26, 1848. The purpose of the convention was to nominate the Democratic Party's candidates for President and Vice President in the 1848 election. The nominees were Lewis Cass (1782–1866) for President and William O. Butler (1791–1880) for Vice President. [back]
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