Walt Whitman's seemingly inconsistent and self-contradictory attitudes toward slavery have long been a source of critical debate. On one hand, Whitman's opposition to slavery is demonstrated in Leaves of Grass by the way in which he consistently includes African Americans in his vision of an ideal, multiracial republic and portrays them as beautiful, dignified, and intelligent. On the other hand, various Whitman texts show that he had little tolerance for abolitionism, that he thought blacks were inferior to whites, and that his opposition to the extension of slavery had little, if anything, to do with sympathy for slaves.
Whitman's attitudes toward slavery and abolitionism can best be understood by tracing the development of his thinking in the context of the national debate over slavery from the mid-1840s until the Civil War. Whitman began his journalistic career as an ardent Free-Soiler, but within several years his poetry experiments articulated a much different and more sympathetic attitude toward slaves. Whitman held these two attitudes in unresolved tension until 1854, when national events related to slavery radicalized Northern opinion and so encouraged Whitman to publish his poetry. In the 1855 Leaves of Grass Whitman's passages on slaves and slavery proclaim a radically egalitarian vision of persons of African descent while at the same time argue for popular political positions, such as opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law. A brief review of how Whitman's attitudes evolved makes clear the significant role slavery plays in his development as a poet.
Whitman's involvement with slavery began with his newspaper editorials on the 1846 Wilmot Proviso. The proviso, which stated that slavery was to be excluded from territory acquired in the war with Mexico, was eventually blocked by the Senate in March 1847 after rancorous sectional debate. But despite the proviso's defeat, the bill gave rise to the "free-soil" sentiment that would lead in 1848 to the formation of the Free Soil party.
Whitman consistently supported the Wilmot Proviso and the free-soil movement, beginning with his first editorials at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle until the 1850 Compromise. In his Eagle editorials in 1846-1847 Whitman argues, as did free-soil Northerners in Congress, that the introduction of slavery into new territories would discourage, if not prohibit, whites from migrating to those areas because white labor could not economically compete with slave labor and would be "degraded" by it. In this way, Whitman's opposition to slavery was directly connected to his dreams for the settlement and expansion of democracy into the West. "The voice of the North proclaims that labor must not be degraded," Whitman writes in a 27 April 1847 editorial. "The young men of the free States must not be shut out from the new domain (where slavery does not now exist) by the introduction of an institution which will render their honorable industry no longer respectable" (Gathering 1:205-206).
From 1846 until the Civil War Whitman consistently opposed the extension of slavery on these grounds. He did not directly criticize the institution of slavery in the South and in fact opposed abolitionism, which he considered the work of radical extremists to destroy the compact of the Union. Such attitudes were already apparent in his 1842 temperance novel, Franklin Evans, or the Inebriate. In one episode of the novel, Whitman's protagonist journeys south to a Virginia plantation where he comes to understand from a wise slave owner that, contrary to abolitionist arguments, slavery is not sinful but beneficial, a source of sustenance and happiness for slaves. Moreover, Whitman's depiction of a Creole slave woman in this episode as sexually alluring yet also violent and vengeful suggests that his attitudes about blacks were drawn largely from contemporary racist stereotypes. Whitman's seeming indifference to the plight of blacks in his journalism and early fiction reflects a standard attitude of many white Northerners, including the New York Democratic party's Barnburner faction, of which Whitman was a member.
In 1848 Whitman became more active in the free-soil movement, serving as a local delegate to a national convention in Buffalo that August, when the Free Soil party was born, and editing a short-lived free-soil newspaper, the Brooklyn Freeman. While the Free Soil party elected only a few members to Congress that November, it succeeded in forcing the Whigs and Democrats to consider slavery as the primary issue on the national agenda.
By 1850, however, compromises between North and South so weakened the free-soil movement that Whitman abandoned his free-soil journalism. When regional divisions cast the future of the Union in doubt, Congress passed a series of resolutions that cumulatively came to be known as the 1850 Compromise. Whitman and Free-Soilers were outraged by several of these resolutions, including the organization of some Western territories without restrictions on slavery and a stringent Fugitive Slave Law. Yet Unionist sentiment prevailed, and Whitman, who had focused much of his journalistic writing on slavery, wrote three letters to the free-soil journal National Era that fall, but was not to be heard from again for several years.
In these same years, however, Whitman was experimenting with an altogether different voice and attitude toward slavery in his notebook poetry experiments. Begun in 1847, this poetry makes clear the vital link between Whitman's emerging sense of a poetic self and attitudes toward slaves and slavery which are startlingly unlike those of his free-soil journalism. When Whitman breaks into poetry in these notebooks, his first fragment proclaims: "I am the poet of slaves and of the masters of slaves / I am the poet of the body / I am" (Notebooks 1:67). Whitman defines his very vocation as poet in terms of slavery, leveling the differences created by slavery and claiming to represent both slaves and their masters. Further on Whitman adds: "I go with the slaves of the earth equally with the masters . . . Entering into both so that both will understand me alike" (Notebooks 1:67). Neither Whitman's radical egalitarianism nor his identification with slaves could have been anticipated by his free-soil journalism, with its focus on white labor.
How Whitman achieved such a vision is difficult if not impossible to trace. One possibility is that Whitman's reading of Emerson, which occurred at about the same time, may have prompted Whitman toward a sense of his own divinity which he recognized as connected to the divinity of all others, including slaves. He may later have been sensitized to the plight of slaves during a four-month stint as editor of the New Orleans Crescent in 1848, when he wrote about persons of color he encountered and likely witnessed slave auctions. At any rate, by the late 1840s Whitman had established a pattern of opposing the extension of slavery as a Free-Soiler journalist while imagining persons of African descent in radically sympathetic and inclusive terms in his poetry.
Whitman was not heard from as a journalist or a poet in the early 1850s. Yet when two national events in 1854 radically altered Northern attitudes about slavery, Whitman discovered an audience that would now be receptive both to his free-soil concerns and his new poetry about slaves. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May infuriated many Northerners because the bill repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise ban on slavery north of 3630'. Such a repeal seemed to reserve Nebraska for freedom and Kansas for slavery, violating the fragile trust between North and South that had emerged with the 1850 Compromise. Northern reaction was further galvanized a short time later when Anthony Burns, an escaped slave from Virginia, was arrested in Boston and placed under federal guard. When anger fomented by the Kansas-Nebraska bill inspired an attempt to rescue Burns in an attack on the courthouse, federal troops were called in to ensure Burns's return to his master. By June 1854 these two events ignited an explosion of antislavery sentiment in the North. Several Northern state legislatures called for the immediate repeal of both the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Fugitive Slave Law.
With the public mood shifting, Whitman felt liberated, perhaps even compelled, to publish his poems in 1855. In the wake of recent events, Leaves of Grass portrays both the suffering and the dignity of African Americans, seen in the present as victims of slave-catchers but envisioned in the future as partners with whites in an egalitarian democracy. In the "hounded slave" episode from "Song of Myself" (section 33), the speaker not only sympathizes with, but in fact identifies with, the fugitive slave: "I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs." Whitman's change of the pronoun from "He" to "I" some time earlier in his notebooks now signals a central moment in the poem as the speaker merges his identity with others in the world: "I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person." Yet this passage also reveals how Whitman's portrayal of slaves could serve his political purposes, especially his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law, which was based, in fact, not on sympathy for slaves but on what he felt was the unwarranted intrusion of federal authority in a local matter.
Elsewhere in Leaves of Grass Whitman portrays African Americans with great depth and sensitivity. In the portraits of the "negro" drayman in "Song of Myself" or of the slaves at auction in "I Sing the Body Electric," Whitman celebrates African-American beauty, dignity, and strength in contrast to popular stereotypes, and he demonstrates the centrality of black persons to the democratic future of America. "Examine these limbs, red, black or white," ("I Sing," section 7) Whitman says of the auctioned slave, figuring him as emblem of a multiracial body politic. In the 1855 poem that later became "The Sleepers," Whitman gives voice to the slave's desire for vengeance which most Americans wished not to acknowledge: "I have been wronged . . . I am oppressed . . . I hate him that oppresses me, / I will either destroy him, or he shall release me" (1855 Leaves).
After 1855 Whitman would diminish the power of these images and claims by the diffusion of focus on blacks through the addition of new poems. None of the new poems in 1856 or 1860 contain passages longer than two lines on slavery. Moreover, Whitman's prose writings in these years appear to apologize for slavery and disavow any humane commitment to slaves. In an 1857 editorial he avers that "the institution of slavery is not at all without its redeeming points" (I Sit 88), and in 1858 he editorializes: "Who believes that the Whites and Blacks can ever amalgamate in America? Or who wishes it to happen?" (I Sit 90).
Whitman's seeming change of heart must be understood in light of the effect of historical circumstance on his fundamental understanding of slavery. Whitman consistently believed that slavery was to be judged according to its threats to democracy. In the late 1840s Whitman's free-soil writings respond to the threat to democracy posed by the extension of slavery into the West. By the late 1850s Whitman's antislavery rhetoric turns conciliatory in response to the threat to the very existence of the Union.
Yet these political positions do not explain the eloquent empathy in his passages about blacks in the 1855 Leaves of Grass. One way to make sense of Whitman's seeming inconsistencies on slavery is to recognize that his journalism addressed the realities of the present, while his poetry pointed toward his hopes for America's democratic future. Whitman writes in the 1855 Preface concerning the great poet: "As he sees the farthest he has the most faith" (Complete 9). In this way Whitman's poetry about slaves captured what his politics could not, a faith in the humanity and dignity of African Americans and in their rightful place as free and equal citizens in the United States.
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