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Title: [It is a fearful thing]

Creator: Walt Whitman [unsigned in original]

Date: April 12, 1842

Whitman Archive ID: per.00392

Source: New York Aurora 12 April 1842: [2]. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue. Original issue held at the Paterson Free Public Library, Paterson, NJ. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the journalism, see our statement of editorial policy.

Editorial note: This piece is unsigned. However, Whitman was the editor of the Aurora when this editorial was written, and Herbert Bergman identified him as its author in Walt Whitman, The Journalism. Volume I: 1834–1846 (New York: Peter Lang, 1998). The Whitman Archive editors agree that the style and content of the piece are consistent with other known Whitman writings of this period.

Contributors to digital file: Lucas Reincke, Eric Rohman, Emily Mills, Jason Stacy, and Kevin McMullen

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☞ It is a fearful thing that our country has arrived at a pass where parties will openly sell their influence to cabals, for the votes of the cabals. The Tammany papers1 may try to gloss over the scandalous bargaining between their party and the Hughes faction;2 but it is plainly the most complete piece of political chicanery that ever disgraced the annals of the land. The Irish "Independent Democrats" threatened—and Tammany plucked up spirit enough, at first, to resist.3 The Irish threatened a second time, and with double fierceness; and Tammany bowed her neck to the very dust.

We are sure that there must be such men as American democrats in Tammany. Where were they while this abominable game was going on? Where was their patriotism—their hatred of interweaving priestcraft with politics—their love of liberty undefiled—and their care for the interests of their children? That they could tamely have stood by, and consented to this thing—for God’s love we could hardly believe. They must have been caught napping; the enemy must have entered the citadel in the dark.

And now only one thing remains. Let them show that paltry partizanship has not deadened every remnant of love of country. Let them—we beseech them as American republicans—let them not cast away self respect and self rights at the command of the minions of foreign convents, and the menaces of an Irish riffraff. Every suffrage given by a democrat for the Tammany ticket4 is so much to aid the behests of the Hughs clique.

There is no candidate in the field who has the least claim upon a true American voter. In particular, let those men who have so anxiously sought Catholic patronage, that they have given up every thing to Catholicdictation5—let them, we say, rest exclusively on Catholic support. It certainly is not becoming for honorable democrats, to countenance them. A defeat of the Tammany ticket might teach the Tammany leaders a wholesome lesson.

We call, then, upon all American hearts to join in a determination to abstain from supporting the so called democratIc ticket. We ask this, "not that we love Caesar less, but that we love Rome more."6 We love (why should we conceal it?) we love the name of democrat. It has been our pride and glory to keep the title untarnished, as we inherited it from those who carried the then opprobriousterm7 amid the stormy political tempests of Jefferson’s day.8 But we cannot flatter the base, and fawn to hypocrisy, and wriggle, and lie, for the interests of any petty cliques. True democracy requires such things of no man for any purpose.

Today, the opportunity will be presented for democrats to show whether they, as individuals, are content to be lickspittles to Austrian monks,9 and filthy foreign vagabonds. If they cannot say NO! let them at least not say YES!


1. Whitman here most likely refers to Levi Slamm's New Era, which supported the Maclay Bill in the spring of 1842. The Maclay Bill proposed to fund parochial schools with public funds, and therefore had the support of many Irish-Catholics in New York, most of whom were Democrats. By "Tammany papers," Whitman means the newspapers who supported Tammany Hall, the headquarters of the New York Democratic Party. Tammany Hall feared the loss of Irish-Catholic support, and therefore supported the Maclay Bill. Though Democratic, the Aurora rejected the Maclay Bill and echoed the nativist rhetoric of the period in support of defeating it. [back]

2. Bishop John Hughes (1797–1864), who led Irish Catholic support for the Maclay Bill in spring 1842. For further reading, see: Charles P. Connor, "Dagger John: The Unquiet Life and Times of Archbishop John Hughes of New York," Catholic Historical Review 66, no. 2 (April 1980): 254-255. [back]

3. The "Independent Democrats," supported by Bishop John Hughes, threatened to run a candidate against pro-Tammany Democrats if Tammany Hall supported Robert H. Morris, who was initially against the Maclay Bill. However, with the passage of the Maclay Bill on April 9, days before the mayoral election on April 12, Morris changed his stance on the bill to avoid a split Democratic vote. [back]

4. This refers to the Democratic candidates who were seeking office in the 1842 election. [back]

5. "Catholicdictation" is almost certainly meant to be "Catholic dictation." [back]

6. This is taken from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene II, Line 1555. [back]

7. This is meant to be "opprobrious term," "opprobrious" meaning "expressing scorn or criticism" (Oxford English Dictionary). [back]

8. This is likely referring to the emergence of the Federalist and Republican parties in the 1790s, which began the first two-party system. For further reading, see: Jeffery L. Pasley, "Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800," Journal of Southern History 72, no. 4 (2006): 871-908. [back]

9. Lickspittles are "abject parasite[s] or sycophant[s]" (Oxford English Dictionary). [back]


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