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About this Item

Title: Heart Rending

Creator: Walt Whitman [unsigned in original]

Date: April 5, 1842

Whitman Archive ID: per.00580

Source: New York Aurora 5 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.

Contributors to digital file: Tyler Young, Jason Stacy, Michael Seibert, and Kevin McMullen

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Who can peruse the accounts brought by every arrival from England, without having his tenderest sympathies touched. Destitution is abroad, in her most fearful aspect—starvation is striding over the fairest districts. Americans, who have revelled in the lap of plenty, can have but a faint conception of the horror of the scenes which are every where to be met with in the manufacturing districts of Great Britain.1 An anti corn law association recently instituted an enquiry into the actual state of the case,2 and persons were appointed to the sad duty of visiting the regions of distress, and carefully investigating the matter; and the result of their enquiries was appalling.

It is not in one district alone, says an English publication, but in all districts alike, that we hear the wail of suffering and of deep distress. In the course of the enquiries, discoveries of the most soul harrowing kind have been made—such as would scarcely have been credible but for the ocular proof and demonstration. Mothers, newly become such, laid upon pallets of dirty straw or shavings; half naked children lying huddled together in corners of damp cellars, or sitting shivering over the flickering embers of a half cold grate; fathers bowed down by care, and want, and famine—with no work, no food—listening only to the piteous wailing of the wretched creatures around them;—such have been the familiar sights encountered by the visiters of the poor during the last few weeks.

It is added, that more than one third of the Skipton Union are at present subsisting on an average of only fifteen pence per head per week!3

Think of these things, Americans!—and remember they are the legitimate offspring of that oppressive government.4 But while you are rendering grateful ascriptions for the blessings you enjoy, forget not to mingle a petition for the relief of those who suffer.


1. Whitman is likely describing the English county of Lancashire in northwest England. Lancashire was the center of English industrial activity during the early-to-mid-nineteenth century, particularly for coal and cotton production. Towns such as Bolton, Oldham, and especially Manchester became famous for their industrial output and infamous for their rampant poverty. See Theo Balderston, "The Economics of Abundance: Coal and Cotton in Lancashire and the World," The Economic History Review 63, no. 3 (August 2010): 569–590. [back]

2. A number of organizations in England at the time were attempting to repeal Great Britain's Corn Laws, which "regulated the importation and exportation of cereals, and imposed duties on foreign corn." These laws protected domestic manufacturers, lowered the wages of the working class, and reduced employment. Anti-Corn Law organizations, such as the well known Anti-Corn Law League, believed repealing the laws would lower food prices, encourage consistent employment, and alleviate food shortages. See Henry Miller, "Popular Petitioning and the Corn Laws, 1833–1846," The English Historical Review 127, no. 527 (August 2012): 882–919 (quote from 882); and Metropolitan Anti-Corn-Law Association (London), "Repeal of the Corn Laws. Address of the Metropolitan Anti-Corn Law Association" (London: T. Brettell), 1840, 3–8. [back]

3. Whitman is likely referring to the people living in the Skipton Union Workhouse in Skipton, England. The Skipton Union Workhouse was created in response to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, commonly referred to as the New Poor Law (NPL), which "established a commission to oversee a national system of relief for the poor." As industrial production increased in Skipton, the numbers of the poor and destitute increased accordingly. See Charlotte Newman, "The Place of the Pauper: A Historical Archaeology of West Yorkshire Workhouses 1834-1930" (PhD diss., University of York, 2010), 27–75. [back]

4. Whitman further describes his opinion of the living and working conditions of England in the New York Aurora editorials "Black and White Slaves" on April 2 and "The Latest and Grandest Humbug" on April 8. In "Black and White Slaves" he writes, "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". [back]


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