Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Democratic Party
Author:
Harris, Maverick Marvin
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The Democratic party is the older of the present two major political parties in the United States and is, in fact, the oldest political party in the world. Commonly called the "party of the people," from its beginnings it has drawn members and a power base essentially from such citizens as small farmers, producers, small mercantile traders, and blue collar workers, though both major parties tend to be heterogeneous groups organized to win elections for the purpose of controlling policymaking more than homogeneous groups agreed upon clearly defined programs. Walt Whitman was associated with the Democratic party from the early 1830s until his defection to the newly-formed Republican party twenty years later.

Whitman's workingman heritage, which came from his father, a member of the Workingman's party, led him to the Democratic party early in life. At the age of twelve Whitman worked for the Long Island Patriot, a weekly paper that served as the organ of the Democratic party in Kings County. He had a good record in the party at first and felt quite at home in Tammany Hall. Actively involving himself in the affairs of the party, he campaigned vigorously for Martin Van Buren in 1840 and later for James K. Polk, served as the secretary of the General Committee of the Kings County Democratic party in 1846, and wrote and stumped in support of the candidates and doctrines of the Democratic party in New York State—one time addressing a Democratic rally in City Hall Park attended by 15,000 people.

Whitman felt that the Democratic party championed that which was noblest and most progressive in a republican form of government. Thus, he held expansionist views based upon the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and felt the Democratic party should promote the ideal of democracy southward even into Central America. In his writings, especially those while editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, he espoused the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian ideas fundamental to the Democratic party's philosophy: diminished government, free trade, opposition to a national bank, resistance to morality laws, hostility to trade unions, and belief in America as a noble experiment in liberty.

Though not an abolitionist, Whitman firmly believed that slavery should be disallowed in any state entering the Union. Within the Democratic party, liberals who avidly held to the free-soil position ("Barnburners" and "Locofocos") were opposed by conservatives whose sympathies lay with the Southern Democrats favoring slavery ("Hunkers"). The Wilmot Proviso of 1846 (ultimately defeated), which prohibited slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico, split the Democratic party in New York. The failure of the party in New York to take a stand on the issue, Whitman believed, cost it the local election in November 1847 and the presidential election in 1848. The national Democratic party, fearing the alienation of Southern Democrats if it took a stand to support the free-soil position, chose to compromise and support the policy of letting prospective states choose whether to allow slavery or not—which later the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854 provided.

During the bitter controversy, Whitman, as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, unabashedly stated his support for the Wilmot Proviso and other liberal views. The compromise in the Democratic party clearly angered him, for he felt that by compromising, the party had unjustly resorted to chicanery and subterfuge. He blamed the social conditions of the period on control of the Democratic party by slave-owning Southern Democrats. Eventually, his editorials favoring "free soil" and his attacks on the policy of the Democratic party were more than Isaac Van Anden, owner of the Eagle and a Hunker, could abide. Whitman was fired.

Shortly thereafter, Whitman accepted the editor's position of the New Orleans Crescent. But this position was short-lived, for after only three months (25 February–25 May 1948) he returned to edit a Free Soil Democratic paper, the Brooklyn Freeman. Whitman was becoming more and more disenchanted with the Democratic party, however, for after being fired from the Eagle for his "radical" position on free soil and then being deserted financially by Free Soil Democrats, he felt the politicians in the Democratic party had betrayed not only him but also the fight for liberty and justice. Indignant, he aligned himself with the newly-formed Republican party in the 1856 election, though he never became politically active after this time.

His indignation can be seen in "Blood-Money" (1850), "Dough-Face Song" (originally published as "Song for Certain Congressmen") (1850), and "The House of Friends" (1850).

Maverick Marvin Harris

Bibliography 

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

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

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

Whitman, Walt. The Early Poems and the Fiction. Ed. Thomas L. Brasher. New York: New York UP, 1963.

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

Winwar, Frances. American Giant: Walt Whitman and His Times. New York: Tudor, 1941.

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


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