Historical Perspective of the Preface

The 1850s were an unprecedented time of political corruption: vote-buying, wire-pulling, patronage on all levels of state and national government. In New York, Fernando Wood was elected mayor in 1854 as a result of vote fraud.

In the "Bloody Sixth" Ward, there were actually 4,000 more votes than there were registered voters. Three of the most corrupt presidencies ever were at this time: Fillmore (1850-53), Pierce (1853-57), and Buchanan (1857-1861), "Our topmost warning and shame," according to Whitman. These three exhibited incompetence, mostly over antislavery issues. The slavery issue not only divided the country, but complicated matters even for the North. According to one estimate in 1847, two-thirds of Northerners disapproved of slavery, but only 5 percent went along with abolitionists. Immediate emancipation, it was feared, would flood the North with cheap labor and racial disharmonies (even Lincoln steered a cautious course: until the second year of the Civil War, Lincoln believed that slaves, after being gradually freed, should be shipped out of the country). Both Whitman and Lincoln criticized abolitionism; both were concerned about spreading slavery, and both became gradually more progressive with time.

In the Compromise of 1850 California was admitted into the Union as a free state, but there would be no legal restrictions on slavery in Utah and New Mexico (where, it was argued, the climate was not salubrious to slavery). To satisfy the South, a stringent Fugitive Slave Law was put into effect.

Whitman's Response

Whitman, as a journalist, had a front-row seat to all of this political corruption, and in the "Preface" we see a man who has become fired-up about these issues, and who wishes to instruct people to open up and get rid of these corruptive forces and compromises.

His demands on readers were meant to shake awake a slumbering, passive nation and inspire a loving, proud, generous, accepting union of active thinkers and thoughtful doers.

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, reexamine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body. (10)

What is requested here is just as astonishing as how it is stated. The unidentified speaker of the "Preface" possessed an extreme, provocative confidence that could be seen in the eyes and stance of the image on the frontispiece. His prophetic message for America was delivered in lines that evoked the passages and rhythms of holy books; the above section, for example, may be compared with Romans 12:1-19 in the Bible's New Testament. But while the

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