- “Where is the Real America?”: Politics and Popular Consciousness in the Antebellum Era
“The Eighteenth Presidency!” is one of Walt Whitman’s more energetic prose pieces. Written in the summer of 1856, in the contexts of “bleeding Kansas” and an unpromising presidential race, it is at once a free-soil tract, a rumination on the nature of the American Constitution, a celebration the ordinary citizen, and a fulmination against parties and politicians. The latter is particularly striking. “At present,” he begins, “the personnel of the government of these thirty millions . . . is drawn from limber-tongued lawyers, very fluent but empty, feeble old men, professional politicians, dandies, dyspeptics, and so forth. . . . [N]ot one in a thousand has been chosen by any spontaneous movement of the people; all have been nominated and put through by great or small caucuses of the politicians, . . . and all consign themselves to personal and party interests.” The great list-maker warms to the task as he describes the “nominating dictators” who saddle the people with a Buchanan or a Fillmore. Issuing from “lawyers’ offices, secret lodges, . . . bar-rooms, . . . gambling hells . . . the jail, the venereal hospital, . . . the tumors and abscesses of the land,” they are, among other things, “robbers, pimps, . . . [End Page 225] conspirators, murderers, . . . body-snatchers, bawlers, bribers, . . . sponges, ruined sports, expelled gamblers, . . . duelists, carriers of concealed weapons, blind men, deaf men, pimpled men, scarred inside with the vile disorder, . . . crawling, serpentine men, the lousy combings and born freedom sellers of the earth.” “Where is the real America?” Whitman asks in genuine anguish. “It does not appear in the government.” 1
“Of course the fault,” Whitman states, “is for reasons, and is of the people themselves, and will mend when it should mend.” 2 Uncharacteristically, the “reasons” are not specified, and this vague indictment of the American public is pursued no further. What deficiency in the “real America” did Whitman have in mind? How could robust and freedom-loving people permit political affairs to fall into the hands of verminous “freedom sellers of the earth”? How, indeed, could Whitman conclude that they had done so, given the apparently widespread enthusiasm for politics among ordinary Americans, the ubiquitousness of political discourse in party newspapers published all across the nation, and the very high turnout of voters at one election after another? Political historians of the antebellum era are inclined to dismiss such accusations, and to subordinate complaints about venality and power-hungry partisanship to a more positive view of politics within a broadly and intensely engaged electorate, and of a genuinely democratic society in which “politics seem to enter into everything.” 3 While not free from the corruptions and mediocrity Whitman describes, this was an outstanding political age, perhaps the apogee of American participatory democracy. The scholarly consensus must be that Whitman was merely using (and embellishing, in his inimitable way) a ritualized grammar of political corruption in order to give vent to some understandable frustration about the course of political events in 1856.
But was he? There is a great deal in the documentary record of the antebellum era that suggests a more serious consideration of Whitman’s lament that “the real America . . . does not appear in the government,” and of his implication that the distance between Americans and their representatives derives from some significant default on the part of the people. We propose that both can be understood as elements of a more complex and conflicted relation between Americans and their politics than historians have thus far recognized—a set of highly variable relations, in fact, that stretch from the enthusiastic popular engagement that historians do recognize to various degrees of skepticism and [End Page 226] detachment that remain to be explored. 4 Where, in relation to politics, was that “real America” that lay beyond the torchlight parades and polling places? How can we enrich our understanding of the variable responses of Americans to the panoply of political affairs and to the political system as a whole?
Several reasons for positing a more complex and conflicted relation to politics among Americans emerge from even a preliminary consideration of politics as one of a number of influences...