Whitman's ideal of America was not born in a vacuum, but created out of a series of explicit or implicit contrasts with other places and nations. The most formative point of contrast, of course, was Britain, and public discourse frequently illustrated the alleged virtues of democracy by recalling corruptions possible under monarchial rule, or in a parliamentary system. The rest of Europe, however, was much less stable than England: in 1848 a wave of popular rebellions across Europe seemed poised to bring either U.S.-style democracy or total anarchy to the Old World. Neither happened, but at midecentury France had exchanged an authoritarian, imperial regime for an unstable monarchy; Spain was embroiled in a debilitating legitimacy crisis leading to civil wars; and the states that would later comprise Germany were frequently unstable. Observers in the U.S. tended to judge these trials to be the natural result of worn-out political systems, and Whitman was no exception.
Whitman's interest in global affairs is also visible in his careful observation of the phenomenon of immigration ("See, in my poems immigrants continually coming and landing," he writes in "Starting from Paumanok" ). In the decade leading up to the publication of Leaves of Grass, the largest wave of immigration yet to hit the U.S. occurred: 3 million people in 10 years, many of them Irish Catholics who seemed threatening to the social order. Then, as now, there were loud denunciations of these "foreigners" and concerns about whether they could truly be included in a participatory democracy. Although it is easy to see a certain degree of nativism in Whitman's early and vigorous defences of the nation's integrity, he takes care to include immigrants in his totalizing vision of America--as he does with African-American slaves and Indians.
A passage in one of the most famous catalogues in "Song of Myself" 15 demonstrates this:
The half-breed straps on his light boots to compete in the race,
And in "I Sing the Body Electric," Whitman reiterates the equality of "foreigners" in America:
The man's body is sacred and the woman's body is sacred,Particularly in his later writing, Whitman pondered how to extend his aetics of equality outside of the local American context and across the globe. Toward the end of his life and particularly after his death, his work became more and more popular in other parts of the world. To some foreign readers, he came to represent a kind of essential American spirit-- whether for good or ill. To others, he established a model that any national poet should follow: the idea that "a bard is to be commensurate with a people," singing the specific qualities of a place in the common language of its people. Important writers from the Chilean Pablo Neruda to the Austrian Stefan Zweig have responded to this call in a way that acknowledges Whitman's profound influence upon them.