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This article is taken from PN Review 176, Volume 33 Number 6, July - August 2007.

Whitman and Two Democracies Sean Wilentz


Whitman is not only the greatest poet of American democracy; he was also one of its first. This is important to any understanding of Whitman's development as a poet. Whitman famously sang the word democratic as a summa of his humane American vision. Yet Whitman's preoccupation with democracy and his definitions of it developed out of his particular experiences in a particular place and at a particular time, when democracy itself had only just become a term of political and social affirmation rather than something fearsome and dangerous.

Although there were elements of democracy in the infant American republic after the Revolution, the republic was hardly democratic. Nor, in the minds of those who governed it, was it supposed to be. A republic - derived from res publica, or the public thing - secured the common good through the ministration of the most worthy. But a democracy - derived from demos krateo, or rule of the people - perilously handed power to the passionate, unenlightened masses. Democracy, the eminent Massachusetts Federalist George Cabot wrote in 1804, was 'government of the worst'. As late as 1837, the nation's most distinguished legal commentator James Kent spoke in private of the destructive 'democracy of radicalism and numbers' embodied by Andrew Jackson. Yet as Alexis de Tocqueville discovered, by the 1 830s most Americans, at least in public, proclaimed that their country was a democracy as ...

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