May 31 marks the bicentennial of Walt Whitman’s 1819 birth. That merits celebration because, to many, he was America’s foremost poet. His Leaves of Grass had a greater impact than any other book of American poetry. However, in addition, Whitman had an extensive editorial and journalism career, which according to the Columbia Encyclopedia could be said to “foreshadow the later, enduring writings of the poet.”
For instance, the same commitment to individuality and freedom as he described in his poetry in A Backward Glance—“I have allowed the stress of my poems from beginning to end to bear upon American individuality and assist it”—already characterized his work as an editor at the New York Aurora at age 22. Since the extent of individual freedom depends on the role government plays, Whitman addressed that role.
And his thoughts on that matter are worth revisiting because what Leadie Clark called “his belief in laissez-faire and the complete freedom of the individual” was not only being widely abandoned at that time but has also become almost unrecognizably distant from the views held by most Americans today.
In the course of five Aurora editorials in 1842 and two Brooklyn Daily Eagle editorials in 1846 and 1847, Whitman made more sense about the role of government than what Americans read on any editorial page today.
The True Democratic Principle: March 16, 1842
"The best government is that which governs least.”...the true democratic principle, the genuine principle of the American system-teaches that the “best” governing power is that which puts its power in play “least”...[We] desire our experiment of man’s capacity for self-government carried to its extreme verge.
Every time that congress or a state legislature meddles in matters of finance, they only plunge the interests of the people deeper and deeper into difficulty....our law makers go through their farce of officious intermeddling--and invariably with results of more evil to the country at large than pressed upon us at the commencement of their session.
It needs that the machinery of government be simplified and narrowed--that a small circle be drawn, and that no stretching out thereof be permitted...let the smaller divisions, the local districts, the individual people, retain the rights and prerogatives of free men, in their own respective hands.
Reform It Altogether: March 22, 1842
Few evils are greater in these blessed United States, than the officiousness of the law-making powers. They meddle with everything, and derange everything…the great mass are gulled in these matters--they have an idea that the learned fathers in legislation can concoct a panacea for all evils. In plain truth, senators and representatives, and assemblymen, are no more and no better than other men.
The Latest and Grandest Humbug: April 8, 1842
What right has one man to expect that the fostering care of government may be given to him more than to his neighbor?...People do that, indirectly, which, were it done directly, would be scouted from one end of the land to the other.
Old Land Marks: April 18, 1842
What is a legislature? A body…[who] are as liable to error, commit as ridiculous blunders of judgment, are swayed by their tempers, or with their selfish passions, or their personal whims--just like the common mass of society. Looking back through the history of the past, what has there been done by way of legislation to make us place much confidence in law, as consistent with justice? Government is at best but a necessary evil; and the less we have of it, the better.
Let no man think, because we see in this country no throne and no titled nobles, we can have no oppression...a desire to raise oneself above his peers, even though infringing on the rights of those peers, will actuate individuals and portions of communities.
There has always existed in the United States a faction professing to think that the main body of the people are unfit to govern...when experience has proved the fallaciousness of their premises.
Legislation And Morality: April 20, 1842
Were communities so constituted that to prune their errors, the only thing necessary should be the passage of laws, the task of reform would be no task at all. Unfortunately, however... enactments are unable to supercede nature.
That government was at best but a necessary evil...might afford the motto for a new school of political economy...the old and monstrous, and miserable creed, than in order to make men good and happy, you must govern them, is…to be exploded…every being with a rational soul is an independent man…all sovereign rights reside within himself, and…it is a dangerous thing to delegate them to legislatures.
As things are, it will admit of considerable discussion, whether governments (we except none) do not generate nearly as many evils as benefits. As things should be—ninety-nine hundredths of legislative prerogatives lopped entirely away--people might enjoy all the benefits without the evils.
We are no friends to the fearful caprice of mobs. But the iron arm of the thousand fingered law is as tyrannical--interferes as unjustly and oppresses as cruelly.
You cannot legislate men into morality. The more lumbering and numerous become the tomes in a lawyer’s library, the longer and stronger grows the list of penalties for crime--the oftener the farce of the people “in legislative assembly convened” is played--just so much more is popular crime fostered, and just so much more is the holy cause of human progress hampered.
Duties of Government: April 4, 1846
It is only the novice in political economy who thinks it the duty of government to make its citizens happy. Government has no such office. To protect the weak and the minority from the impositions of the strong and the majority--to prevent any one from positively working to render the people unhappy, to do the labor not of an officious inter-meddler in the affairs of men, but of a prudent watchman who prevents outrage--these are rather the proper duties of a government.
Under the specious pretext of effecting “the happiness of the whole community,” nearly all the wrongs and intrusions of government have been carried through…Indeed, sensible men have long seen that “the best government is that which governs least.” And we are surprised that the spirit of this maxim is not oftener and closer to the hearts of our domestic leaders.
Government: July 26, 1847
The recognized doctrine that the people are to be governed by some abstract power, apart from themselves, has not, even at this day in this country, lost its hold…the people expect too much of the government. Under a proper organization, the wealth and happiness of the citizens could hardly be touched by the government…Men must be “masters of themselves,” and not look to Presidents and legislative bodies for aid.
Although government can do little positive good to the people, it may do an immense deal of harm…the Democratic principle…would prevent all this harm. It would have no man’s benefit achieved at the expense of his neighbors. It would have no one’s rights infringed upon…the sum and substance of the prerogatives of government…While mere politicians, in their narrow minds, are sweating and fuming with their complicated statutes, this one single rule, rationally construed and applied, is enough to form the starting point of all that is necessary in government: to make no more laws than those useful for preventing a man or body of men from infringing on the rights of other men.
Walt Whitman is celebrated as the poet of the common man. But that is an incomplete view of someone who said that poets “are the voice and exposition of liberty” and “More precious than all worldly riches is Freedom.” Seventy years after the Declaration of Independence, Walt Whitman still echoed its view of freedom and government’s only essential role: defending that freedom.
As Leadie Clark put it,
If the freedom of the individual was to be attained, Whitman felt that someone had to point the way.
Therefore, “Whitman can best be used...to reawaken and revitalize the spirit of liberty.” Consequently, perhaps Americans should spend a moment during his bicentennial to consider how much of that freedom, which allows each individual, as far as possible, to govern his or her own actions, persists today.