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.
RUNAWAY SLAVES BE DELIVERED BACK?
Many things may have the go-by, but good faith shall never have the
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.
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
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
"The Eighteenth Presidency," Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts,
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.--
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.--
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.--
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
"Slavery--the Slaveholders--" in Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts,
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.--
"Autobiographical Data," Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts,
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.
When a Voice," Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, 2170]
the Fugitive Slave Law is obeyed northerly every day in the year--except
three hundred and sixty five.
Notebooks," Daybooks and Notebooks, 768]
Poems Dealing with Fugitive Slaves
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.
slave that stood could run no longer, and then stood by
the fence, blowing panting and covered with
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
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
I love to look on the Stars and Stripes, I hope the fifes will play
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 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
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?
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
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
Now call for the President's marshal again, bring out the govern-
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.
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?
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?
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 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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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?
for Home" (1867 Leaves of Grass)
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
The range afar--the richness and barrenness--the old
woods charged with mistletoe and trailing
The piney odor and the gloom--the awful natural stillness,
(Here in these dense swamps the freebooter
gun, and the fugitive slave has his concealed
O the strange fascination of these half-known, half-
impassable swamps, infested by reptiles, resounding
the bellow of the alligator, the sad noises
of the night-
owl and the wild-cat, and the whirr of the
rattlesnake . .
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?
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?
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."
Klammer, Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass)
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."
Beach, The Politics of Distinction)