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  • Whitman's Eugenic Sustainability
  • Abby L. Goode (bio)

Walt Whitman's "The Eighteenth Presidency!" (1928) narrates the emergence of an American agrarian race. Unpublished during his lifetime but likely completed during the 1856 presidential campaign, this tract projects a future in which "the laboring persons, ploughmen, men with axes, spades, scythes" replace the nation's diseased, dysgenic politicians—"feeble old men," "pimps," and "malignants" who thrive on "the tumors and abscesses of the land."1 In contrast to these degenerates, the "true people, the millions of white citizens" represent "a different superior race" of "sturdy American freemen," their noble, working-class character reflected in their physical perfection: "healthy-bodied,… bold, muscular, young" (CP, 1311, 1314, 1312, 1308, 1309). Poised to overtake the despoiled politicians and city-dwellers and realize Thomas Jefferson's agrarian vision, this race of free laborers and farmers "copiously appears" as "the offspring and proof of These States" (CP, 1312). Emphasizing these laborers' physical dominance, "The Eighteenth Presidency!" foretells the rise of the white male working class as a form of population improvement and the path to an agrarian utopian future. [End Page 692]

In this fantasy of demographic purification, "The Eighteenth Presidency!" presents a lesser-known early form of American sustainability rhetoric, one that emphasized breeding a fertile, laboring race that cultivates an equally fertile soil (CP, 1314). Throughout his life, Whitman struggled to preserve Jeffersonian agrarian ideals of small farming, independent labor, and plentiful land against what he believed posed persistent threats to the nation's future: economic inequality, agricultural blight, slavery, and population degeneracy.2 Jefferson had envisioned an ever-sustainable America, a vast expanse of "fertile lands" begging to be tilled and populated by independent farmers.3 But in Whitman's time this vision was far from a reality.

Written following the Compromise of 1850 and the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, legislative measures that failed to protect free laborers' interests, "The Eighteenth Presidency!" reflects Whitman's attempt to rescue the nation's deeply endangered agrarian future. The tract is not unlike Jeffersonian strains of contemporary American sustainability rhetoric that advocate returning to small farming, local economies, and stewardship.4 But rather than rehearse Jefferson's argument that small landowners and farmers are loyal, productive citizens, the essay takes a different rhetorical approach. It converts the seemingly economic ideal of free, independent, agricultural labor into an explicitly physical one of brawn and fertility. In so doing, it begins to reshape Jeffersonian agrarianism into a racial and reproductive discourse—one that envisions the American white working class as a prolific and ascendant race. Rendering these laborers biologically superior, ready to repopulate and invigorate the nation, "The Eighteenth Presidency!" attempts to transcend Whitman's unsustainable present.

Read as a racial progress narrative, "The Eighteenth Presidency!" exemplifies a broader and unexamined trend inflecting Whitman's corpus—a tendency to adapt the [End Page 693] Jeffersonian ideal of small farming to nineteenth-century concepts of selective breeding and racial improvement. In the years preceding the Civil War, Whitman was particularly anxious about the erosion of agrarian values. But as the Free-Soil movement lost traction and slavery threatened to expand, he recognized the limitations of a predominantly political and economic approach to agrarianism. Influenced by American racial science, especially phrenology's popularization in the 1840s, Whitman developed a physiological and hereditarian vocabulary for describing the working class as he prepared his early political writings. This vocabulary permeates antebellum poems such as "A Woman Waits for Me" (1856) and "I Sing the Body Electric" (1855), which celebrate the dignity of average, industrious citizens through physical and seemingly inherited features: their "procreant urge," "strong, firm-fibered bod[ies]," and "massive, clean, bearded, tan-faced, handsome" sons (CP, 190, 256). These poems define agrarian laborers based on physique and fertility rather than economic status alone. Their virility safeguards the nation's agrarian future against dysgenic dangers: the "swarms of dough-face[d]," venereal-diseased politicians and "lousy" slave-holders who threaten to "eat the faces off the succeeding generations of common people worse than the most horrible disease" (CP, 1309, 1314, 1315). Highlighting these workers' reproductive futurity and physical supremacy, Whitman's antebellum writings depict racial progress and eugenic breeding as...


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