Date of this Version
McMullen, Kevin. "“This Damned Act”: Walt Whitman and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 37 (2019), 1-45.
“THERE IS A SIN OF OMISSION often laid at [Walt] Whitman’s door by ardent humanitarians,” Clifton Furness wrote in 1928; “‘How is it,’ they say, ‘that a poet of democracy and humanitarianism did not express himself on the subjects of abolition, ill-treatment of slaves, the Missouri Compromise, and the national issues leading up to the Civil War?’”1 For all his expansiveness of both form and content, Whitman was indeed, on certain key matters, a poet of omission. As Kenneth M. Price, Martin Klammer, Ed Folsom, and others have demonstrated, the poet repeatedly grappled with issues of slavery and race in his manuscripts, only to often erase such issues in the final, published versions of works.2 The same is true of Whitman’s thinking on other explosive political measures of the antebellum years. Whit- man’s manuscripts and unpublished writings of the period reveal that he was closely attuned to such debates, and highly opinionated about their outcomes; indeed, we see in these documents some of the most fiery, impassioned writing of his entire career. And yet his published works bear few traces of such engagement.
It is in examining Whitman’s unpublished writings that we find what was for him the most important political issue of the day: not slavery, per se, but the host of political and legislative debates spawned by that hateful institution—foremost among them the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The general scholarly consensus about Whitman’s attitude toward the law has been that he opposed it, not out of humanitarian concerns for the fugitive slaves, but out of anger over the federal overreach that the measure represented.3 Indeed, as scholars have often pointed out, in “The Eighteenth Presidency!”—an unpublished prose tract from 1856—Whitman bluntly stated that fugitive slaves “must” be returned, not out of an obligation to the 1850 law but out of good faith to the Constitution’s so-called “fugitive slave clause.”4 While it is certainly true that Whitman despised the federal intervention in state’s affairs occasioned by the Fugitive Slave Law, his unpublished writings from the mid-to-late 1850s reveal that he was also greatly conflicted about his obligation to the actual fugitives that the law targeted, to the point that, as I will reveal, he considered removing his infamous pronouncement in “The Eighteenth Presidency!”—a key omission, heretofore unacknowledged, in one of the page-proofs of the essay that offers an opportunity to reevaluate his stance on this contentious issue. Yet despite his repeated and passionate engagement with the law in his unpublished prose, “A Boston Ballad” remains the only poem in which Whitman addresses the law in his published work—and there, in a poem about the return of a fugitive slave, the slave himself is nowhere to be found.