Whitman has often been criticized for his comments on the Fugitive Slave Law, since he argued that runaway slaves should be returned to their owners. Yet he was outraged by the law itself. For many readers, this has seemed very contradictory. But, given the brief history above, can you see how Whitman's comments are more understandable in the context of the issues of the time? If it were left up to the states to honor the Constitutional guarantee to return slaves to their owners, then states could presumably be lax in their enforcement, if they so chose. Whitman endorses "good faith" here, but not federal intervention. If the U.S. government and its military were to enforce the law with a stringency that the states did not agree with, and if the U.S. treasury began paying slaveowners' expenses (as the Fugitive Slave Law mandated), then Whitman, like many others, was outraged. 


They must. Many things may have the go-by, but good faith shall never have the go-by. 

By a section of the fourth article of the Federal Constitution These States compact each with the other, that any person held to service or labor in one State under its laws, and escaping into another State, shall not be absolved from service by any law of that other State, but shall be delivered up to the persons to whom such service or labor is due. This part of the second organic compact between the original States should be carried out by themselves in their usual forms, but in spirit and in letter. Congress has no business to pass any law upon the subject, any more than upon the hundred other of the compacts between the States, left to be carried out by their good faith. Why should Congress pick out this particular one? I had quite as lief depend on the good faith of any of These States, as on the laws of Congress and the President. Good faith is irresistible among men, and friendship is; which lawyers can not understand, thinking nothing but compulsion will do. 

But cannot that requirement of the fourth article of the Second Compact be evaded, on any plea whatever, even the plea of its unrighteousness? Nay, I perceive it is not to be evaded on any plea whatever, not even the plea of its unrighteousness. It should be observed by The States, in spirit and in letter, whether it is pleasant to them or unpleasant, beholding in it one item among many items, each of the rest, as important as it, and each to be so carried out as not to contravene the rest. As to what is called the Fugitive Slave Law, insolently put over the people by their Congress and President, it contravenes the whole of the organic compacts, and is at all times to be defied in all parts of These States, South or North, by speech, by pen, and, if need be, by the bullet and the sword. 

Shall we determine upon such things, then, and not leave them to the great judges and the scholars? Yes, it is best that we determine upon such things. 

(Early 1850s)

[from "The Eighteenth Presidency," Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, 2132-2133.] 

Under that vital part, or lungs of the American system of government, our independent State Sovereignty, clannish wealth, or majorities, or powerful sectarian feeling, have at various times, in their own limits, neglected or palpably offended, the letter and spirit of our Supreme and National Law.-- For any neglect or offence of this kind, as it is confined in State limits, and to their own citizens and does not seriously annoy the operations of the general government, there is no help.-- It must be left to time and the native good sense of the people.-- The principle of sovereign state control of state soil and independent management of domestic affairs is one of the most important principles of the compact, and it cannot be contravened by the general government on any pretence whatever, that I can think of as likely to arise.-- In Connecticut that law has been that debtors unable to pay could be sold by the creditor into temporary slavery to pay the demand.-- In Maryland the constitution provided for the levy by the state of a general tax for the support of certain priests.-- In South Carolina no man has been eligible to be elected governor unless he was worth £10,000 During the four years antecedent to 1808, the slave trade was provided for by legislative enactment in some states, and that time nearly 100,000 poor wretches were kidnapped in Africa, and those who lived throu the horrors of the passage were landed here and sold. For a long time, in New Hampshire, New Jersey, North and South Carolina, and Georgia, no Roman Catholic could be elected or appointed to any high office.-- In Delaware office holders were required to profess their belief in the Trinity.-- In some states, men and women have been sold to pay their passage at sea.-- In Pennsylvania offices could not be enjoyed except by people who acknowledged the inspiration of the Old and New testaments.-- In Massachusetts too were very intolerant religious tests.-- Some of these undemocratic unnational unAmericanisms are among dead things, and some are still partially among live things.-- Slavery, the greatest undemocratic unAmericanism of all is very live.-- But all of them the moment they stretch out beyond the lines of the states, where they are enacted, melt under the national law, like a lump from the ice house brought under the July sun.-- 

Fellow Democrats One of the covenants of our Constitution binds each state to the observance of the following clause: No person bound to service or labor under the laws of one state and escaping into another state, shall be made free by the laws of that other state, but shall be delivered up to those to whom the labor or service is due.-- This immensely overrated clause of Article 4th of the Constitution is in reality simple, unexceptionable, easily understood, and not at all inconsistent with the rest so long as you keep it in its place and due proportion and subordination to the rest. It is not the whole Constitution and Primary Compact. It should be strictly and faithfully observed by every state, as far as its plain meaning goes.-- It should of course be construed in deference to the evident spirit of the rest of the Supreme Law, and under the control of the head and heart thereof as much as possible.-- It is not to be taken out and madly made the pretext for violating all the rest.-- Over and above this part of the covenant, it is imperatively reserved to each state, by the letter and spirit of the bargain, to decide who those escaped servants are, and to honorably perform the whole obligation, as they perform any other obligation, by due process of law and without any violent intrusion from abroad.-- I doubt very much whether Congress has any just right to meddle in this matter at all, it being simply any agreement between the old thirteen states, without empowering any body to enforce it: and like many other of the agreements they made, best carried out when left as among gentlemen of perfect blood, to high-toned honor which is always identical with palpable interest.-- However that may be, I say that the Congress of these States has no right either from Law, Constitution, Compact, or any source whatever, to the unparallelled audacity of intruding in the midst of the local communities any where, north or south, armed police, strangers and irrisponsible to state laws, who at their pleasure, without trial by our juries, decide in the most summary manner, which man among us has a right to his liberty and which has not.-- I say that the prerogative to send here by authority of the President, officers paying no deference to the sovereign independence of our soil and our courts, who seize with violence on what our laws only know, until duly advised different, as peaceful Americans, white or black, who have made themselves amenable to no punishment whatever under our statutes or customs, was never delegated to any man or body of men on this earth--that it violates every atom of the theory of state rights, and that the people of any state in the Confederacy would be no true American freemen if whenever it be tried on, it do not fetch up the iron arm of rebellion which we keep for time of need.-- 

Is this a small matter?-- The matter of tea and writing paper was smaller.-- But this is every way a large matter.-- It involves the point whether we or somebody else shall possess the simplest control of on our house, on our premises.-- It is so large that it demands of the Republicans, every live man of them, Speak I would have you speak to these official intruders whenever and wherever they come among us, not in the snivel of prayer meetings nor with the genteel moderation of northern congressmen but in tones something like the crack of the artillery at What fetches you here?-- What do you want, you among my haughty and jealous democracies of the north?-- I do not discuss any nigger question with you now; this is a vital question of my own dignities and immunities, which I decide at once and without parley.-- Have you no better excuse than to say you wont lay your hands on me, or my woman, or my flesh and blood.-- I know you will not for certain excellent reasons.-- But that's not to the purpose.-- These streets are mine.-- There are my officers and my courts.-- At the Capitol is my Legislature.-- The warrant you bring with you we know it not.-- It is foreign to my usages, as to my eyes and ears.-- Go back to the power that sent you.-- Tell it that having delegated to it certain important functions, and having entered into certain important engagements with our brother states, we like all the rest, have reserved more important functions, emboding our own primary rights, exclusively to ourselves.-- For such insult and intrusion upon those rights you well deserve the penalty of all purchased agents of tyranny.-- When in olden days, in classical lands, the officers of the great King, the Persian, came with attempts far less degrading than these, the proud democracies of Athens and Sparta answered them with the short quick answer of Death--though all they asked was a little water and a handful of Grecian earth.-- As for you, while now you go away in peace, remember to stay away,--and come no more with demands like these to my free cities, or my teeming country towns, or along my rivers, or sea shore.-- 

But why do I babble here?-- This hour--this moment while I talk such big words, the police of the President might march in here and by law of Congress passed by votes of my delegates lay their hands upon my shoulder, and in the name of the statute and under its penalties order my active assistance to capture some ignorant wretched countrymen of mine, born and bred on American soil, his father or grandfather very likely a white man, and this poor unhappy brute hunted by greater brutes avowedly for no crime, but because some Southern or Northern gentleman owns the title deed of him, and he has made a run for it.-- Is [the] whole land becoming one vast model plantation, whose inhabitants suppose the ultimate and best ends of man attained when he drives a profitable business, no matter how abject the terms--and when he has enough to wear, and is not bothered for pork?-- 

(Early 1850s)

[from "Slavery--the Slaveholders--" in Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, 2183-2190] 

The constitution covenants that the free states shall give up runaway servants--that we all know.--But by the letter and spirit of its most important provisions, we hold the right to decide how to do it, who the runaway servants are, and to perform the whole obligation as we perform any other obligation by due process of law without any violent intrusion from abroad.-- 

(Early 1850s)

[from "Autobiographical Data," Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, 213-214] 

But when a voice in our hearing excuses this damned Act, because it binds no leg and chains no wrist of ours, the true response is, Can you talk no nigher the purpose than that?-- Have we squashed in the mud so far, that you make a parley about the freedom of our own personal flesh, on our own independent soil, and assure us as if there were any debate about it[?] The irresponsible police of the President will not touch us our women, nor the coal in that cellar not the horses in that barn?-- We know they will not, for certain excellent reason.-- Passing over the more direct ones, the heart of the theory under which we are secure from such outrages, and an endless programme of others, is, state sovereignty, dispensed through the hands of equal, well-defined, all-powerful Law, unwarped by any outside influences, complete in itself broad, benignant. 

(Early 1850s)

["But When a Voice," Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, 2170] 

O yes the Fugitive Slave Law is obeyed northerly every day in the year--except three hundred and sixty five. 

(Early 1850s)

["Other Notebooks," Daybooks and Notebooks, 768] 

Whitman Poems Dealing with Fugitive Slaves

Whitman's poetry in the 1850s has a different tone than his prose. As he turns to the issue of fugitive slaves, we find less of a concern with the Constitutional and legal issues than with a growing sympathy with the human experience of fleeing enslavement. 


The slave that stood could run no longer, and then stood by
    the fence, blowing panting and covered with sweat,
And his eye that burns defiance and desperation hatred
And the buck shot, were
And how the twinges that sting like needles his breast and
The murderous buck-shot planted like terrible
This he not only sees but
He is the hunted slave
Damnation and despair are close upon him
He clutches the rail of the fence
His blood presently oozes from and becomes thinned with
    the plentiful sweat
See how it
And trickles down the black skin
He slowly falls on the grass and stones,
And the hunters haul up close with their unwilling horses,
And the taunt and curse dark dim and dizzy in his ears

[1854? See Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, 109-110]

"A Boston Ballad" (1854)
To get betimes in Boston town I rose this morning early,
Here's a good place at the corner, I must stand and see the show.

Clear the way there Jonathan!
Way for the President's marshal--way for the government cannon!
Way for the Federal foot and dragoons, (and the apparitions
    copiously tumbling.)

I love to look on the Stars and Stripes, I hope the fifes will play
    Yankee Doodle.

How bright shine the cutlasses of the foremost troops!
Every man holds his revolver, marching stiff through Boston town.

A fog follows, antiques of the same come limping,
Some appear wooden-legged, and some appear bandaged and

Why this is indeed a show--it has called the dead out of the
The old graveyards of the hills have hurried to see!
Phantoms! phantoms countless by flank and rear!
Cock'd hats of mothy mould--crutches made of mist!
Arms in slings--old men leaning on young men's shoulders.

What troubles you Yankee phantoms? what is all this chattering
    of bare gums?
Does the ague convulse your limbs? do you mistake your crutches
    for firelocks and level them?

If you blind your eyes with tears you will not see the President's
If you groan such groans you might balk the government cannon.

For shame old maniacs--bring down those toss'd arms, and let
    your white hair be,
Here gape your great grandsons, their wives gaze at them from
    the windows,
See how well dress'd, see how orderly they conduct themselves.

Worse and worse--can't you stand it? are you retreating?
Is this hour with the living too dead for you?

Retreat then--pell-mell!
To your graves--back--back to the hills old limpers!
I do not think you belong here anyhow.

But there is one thing that belongs here--shall I tell you what it
    is, gentlemen of Boston?

I will whisper it to the Mayor, he shall send a committee to
They shall get a grant from the Parliament, go with a cart to the
    royal vault,
Dig out King George's coffin, unwrap him quick from the grave-
    clothes, box up his bones for a journey,
Find a swift Yankee clipper--here is freight for you, black-bellied
Up with your anchor--shake out your sails--steer straight toward
    Boston bay.

Now call for the President's marshal again, bring out the govern-
    ment cannon,
Fetch home the roarers from Congress, make anotherprocession,
    guard it with foot and dragoons.

This centre-piece for them;
Look, all orderly citizens--look from the windows, women!

The committee open the box, set up the regal ribs, glue those that
    will not stay,
Clap the skull on top of the ribs, and clap a crown on top of the

You have got your revenge, old buster--the crown is come to its
    own, and more than its own.

Stick your hands in your pockets, Jonathan--you are a made
    man from this day,
You are mighty cute--and here is one of your bargains.


As you read this poem and think about the Anthony Burns case, consider the ways that Whitman protrays the incident of Federal marshalls taking the slave Burns through the streets of Boston to the harbor where he would be returned to the South and to slavery. What is Whitman's tone here? Is his attitude different from that in the prose excerpts above? "Brother Jonathan" was a common term for the representative American, a kind of counterpart to "Yankee," so, when Whitman addresses "Jonathan" here, he is addressing all Americans, especially Northerners, in a casual and slangy way. What parts of American history is Whitman's narrator reminding "Jonathan" of? Who are the "Yankee phantoms" that arise from the dead, and why does Whitman's narrator imagine King George (the King of England when the American colonies fought the war for independence) exhumed and given a crown again?

This poem was included in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and, even though it is very much concerned with a specific 1854 incident, Whitman continued to include it in every subsequent edition of Leaves. Consider why Whitman would continue to republish this poem written for a particular occasion: what are the larger issues that he addresses here? Even after slavery is abolished, the poem still seems important for Whitman. Why?

from "Song of Myself"

The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy
    and weak,
And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured
And brought water and fill'd a tub for his sweated body and
    bruis'd feet,
And gave him a room that enter'd from my own, and gave
    him some coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and
    pass'd north,
I had him sit next me at table, my fire-lock lean'd in the
. . .
I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn'd with
    the ooze of my skin,
I fall on the weeds and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,
Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head
    with whip-stocks.
Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself
    become the wounded person,
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and

(1855, revised 1881)

These two passages from Whitman's epic poem "Song of Myself" are part of a recurring pattern in the poem of concern with slavery. In some ways, "Song of Myself" can be read as a slave-escape narrative, where the narrator gradually comes to identify with the slave and ultimately experiences his pain as he is captured.

By representing himself in the first excerpt as part of the underground railroad--housing fugitive slaves, feeding them, and helping them on northward--Whitman is portraying himself as a lawbreaker, as someone like Thomas Wentworth Higginson willing to take part in civil disobedience in order to endorse a cause that seems higher than the law. How does the behavior of Whitman's narrator here correspond to the views expressed by Whitman in the prose passages above? Does the poetry indicate a different view of the Fugitive Slave Law than the prose? Or does the poetry make you read the prose in a different way?

In the second excerpt, Whitman becomes "the hounded slave," and plays upon the same tropes Emily Dickinson uses to explore the issue of being a fugitive--an animal tracked and attacked by hounds. How does Whitman's imagery of the fugitive differ from Dickinson's? Which poet is more effective in using images of the caught animal to explore the larger issues of enslavement? How do Whitman and Dickinson both come to identify with the slave and to discover ways that all humans can learn about themselves by examining the issue of slavery?

from "Longings for Home" (1867 Leaves of Grass)

O magnet-South! O glistening, perfumed South! My South!
O quick mettle, rich blood, impulse, and love! Good and evil!
    O all dear to me!
. . .
O the cotton plant! the growing fields of the rice, sugar,
The cactus, guarded with thorns--the laurel-tree, with large
    white flowers,
The range afar--the richness and barrenness--the old
    woods charged with mistletoe and trailing moss,
The piney odor and the gloom--the awful natural stillness,
    (Here in these dense swamps the freebooter carries his
    gun, and the fugitive slave has his concealed hut;)
O the strange fascination of these half-known, half-
    impassable swamps, infested by reptiles, resounding with
    the bellow of the alligator, the sad noises of the night-
    owl and the wild-cat, and the whirr of the rattlesnake . .
    . .


In this poem, originally published in 1860, just as the nation was moving to civil war, Whitman seems at once to embrace the South, calling it his own territory (he did live in New Orleans for several months in the 1840s) and expressing affection for it, while also emphasizing the landscape of the Southern swamp, which, as he points out, is the territory of the fugitive slave. What is Whitman's attitude toward the fugitive in this passage? Is it different than in the excerpts from "Song of Myself" and "A Boston Ballad"? How? Can this poem be usefully read as Whitman's last-ditch attempt to keep the Union from violently coming apart?

The poem was published in the Southern Literary Messenger, one of the South's most popular magazines, in 1860. How would you imagine Southern readers just before the Civil War would have reacted to the poem? When Whitman republished it in his 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass, after the Civil War was over, what kind of cultural work would it have done then, and how would its effect have been different after the war than before the war?


"It is almost as if the radically sympathetic depiction of blacks compels Whitman toward an equally radical and new poetic form. What accounts for these new forms? It is worth noting that Whitman's depiction is of a fugitive slave, as opposed to the slaves of the earlier portraits who could be plantation slaves. Whitman is narrowing his poetic focus along the lines of his political interests, and, in doing so, his poetic voice is gaining power. Thus, as Whitman's attention turns from slaves in general to fugitive slaves, his verse becomes more passionate, realistically detailed, and sympathetic. The passion of his poetry about slaves, first begun in 1847 ('I am the poet of slaves'), now combines with his passion about the Fugitive Slave Law to produce a poetry that surpasses his previous efforts, a poetry that is but one step--a small but crucial step--from the representations of blacks in Leaves of Grass." 

(Martin Klammer, Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass

"It is precisely the appearance of the 'runaway slave' at two separate points in ['Song of Myself'] that gives voice to Whitman's deeper engagement with the reality of slavery. . . . For Whitman, the escape motif had a more local significance as well, as it pointed to a source of friction between northern antislavery forces and the federal government, which since 1850 had attempted to impose the Fugitive Slave Law by sending in officers to recapture and extradite escapees. Whitman's first poetic encounter with the 'runaway' . . . does not celebrate either the slave or his own actions. Instead, it imagines his caring and generosity toward a fellow human being. . . . Only in the last line does Whitman reveal the deeper significance of his anecdote: he will not only share his food, clothing, and house with the needy slave but will both defend his freedom ('my firelock leaned in the corner') and invite him to participate in the communal ritual of mealtime ('I had him sit next me at table'). At the same time, the poet takes a great deal of bodily pleasure in imagining the scene, which is filled with images of sensory awareness, especially of a tactile nature [which] all suggest the sense of physical intimacy informing Whitman's imaginative involvement with the slave's body. . . . In section 33 of the poem Whitman presents the opposite scenario: a 'hounded slave' who is recaptured before successfully escaping to the North. In order to understand more fully the suffering of the slave, Whitman moves from the position of onlooker and helper to a total identification with his plight. . . . If Whitman has not yet found a discourse of interiority for the slave's suffering, he has at least begun to enter into the identity of the slave in a direct and physical way: through the perforations in his skin." 

(Christopher Beach, The Politics of Distinction