Antebellum Ideologies of Liberation
By Christopher B. Daly
March 25, 2022 / Boston University
In this essay, I will be presenting some highlights from a new book I am working on, called The Democratic Art. That book is an exploration of how, between the 1840s and the end of WWII, the newsrooms of America served as ports of entry and incubators for many major figures in American literature and the visual arts.
Today, I want to focus is on three bold figures active before the Civil War: Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and Frederick Douglass.
All three were successors to the Founding generation. All three were journalists. All three helped formulate a sweeping new agenda for social justice.
In brief, the Founders had engaged in a rights revolution that we might call “leveling down.” That is, among the goals articulated in their pamphlets, in the Declaration, and in the Constitution were some truly revolutionary changes to British society: no monarchy, no hereditary aristocracy, no primogeniture. We might think of that bundle of changes as “topping” the upper reaches of society. That is: rank, titles, and power would all be capped. The result (for propertied white males at least) would be a society whose upper ranks would be relatively broad and much less steep than the upper ranks of British society.
After the Revolution, however, it is important to note that the lower ranks of American society remained at least as unequal as those in Britain.
–Indentured servitude was widespread.
–Women and girls were treated as appurtenances of males.
–The population of enslaved chattel was subject to routine brutality.
So, while the American Revolution deserves its place in the history of liberating individuals and making society, as a whole, somewhat less unequal, much remained to be done.
Between 1845 and 1855, a cohort of loosely connected allies radically widened the agenda for freedoms. Freedoms that were personal, intimate, and innate. This trio of journalist-activists demanded nothing less than an end to sexism, homophobia, and racism.
Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and Frederick Douglass emerged to me as heroes. In their writings, they all pointed the way to a fairer and freer world. Fuller battled sexism; Douglass battled racism; Whitman, in his way, battled homophobia. They raised their voices to promote the idea that each individual matters and that each individual has an equal right to self-determination. Like leaves of grass, none are taller, better, or more important. But also like leaves of grass, none are lesser, inferior, or unimportant.
In their time, Fuller, Douglass, and Whitman took republican democracy as a starting point and envisioned a leveling in an upward social direction – no more enslaved people, no more second-class citizens. All are one. All are not identical, but all are equal in worth and dignity.
First, Fuller. Born in 1810, Margaret Fuller was the oldest child of Timothy Fuller, a prosperous lawyer and member of Congress representing Cambridge, Massachusetts. He poured all his talents and energy into educating Margaret, up to the point where the boys her age were preparing to enter Harvard and other colleges. But with no college in America accepting girls at the time, Margaret faced a closed door. She tried many stratagems to keep pace with the men her age – beginning with teaching.
At the time, a paradox defined the status of most women. They were supposed to live up to two conflicting ideals.
After thinking about her own situation and ransacking the pages of classic and contemporary literature, Fuller put forth a bold agenda. In her 1845 book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she took up the question her own life presented: why are women treated so poorly?
On the one hand, women, especially middle- and upper-class women, were considered delicate flowers who needed to be sheltered from the filth and strife of activities like business, the military, and politics. They were expected to be virgins until marriage. After that, they were expected to become the center of the home, where they would provide moral uplift and basic education to a large number of children.
At the same time, women, especially working-class and poor women, were also considered beasts of burden who should cook, clean, wash, nurse, and meet the needs of others all the livelong day and well into the night. They were seen by men as sturdy, dirty, and flirty. In almost no case did men consider it worthwhile to educate girls; they were too often seen as ruled by feminine “sensibility” (emotions) and not by manly “sense” (reason).
Education would be wasted on girls. Even worse, it might leave them discontented with their lot in life.
In her Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller raised key questions: Why should men exercise a power that amounts to legal conservatorship over women? Why should women be relegated to the status of children or mental defectives?
Fuller advanced two remarkable arguments. First, she argued, men and women are not opposites, and one sex is not superior to the other. Indeed, she said the evidence suggests that men and women are complementary and that the elements of the gender extremes are usually present in everyone, to varying degrees. Thus, she continued, most men are “womanly” to some extent, and most women are “manly” to some extent.
In other words, everyone is a mixed case of attributes. Since the sexes are not fixed at opposite poles, there is no basis for saying that one sex is suited only for certain activities — and therefore no basis for denying members of either sex the opportunity to find out what they are good at. Not everyone will be equally adept at all things, but we will never know if we don’t let individuals find out for themselves. Of course, it stands to reason, then, that girls should be educated alongside boys. Given a chance, she wrote, there was nothing that women could not do. In a famous formulation, she wrote: “Let them be sea-captains if they like!”
Next, Whitman. Born in 1819 into a downwardly mobile family in Brooklyn, young Walt went to school for a few years, then began to learn the printer’s trade. Like many bright boys with nimble fingers, he started by learning to set type, working at New York City’s growing roster of newspapers, magazines, and book publishers.
Throughout much of the 1840s, while he was in his 20s, Whitman was composing his poetic masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855. During that drafting period, we know that he was reading Fuller and Douglass.
We also know that Walt Whitman loved men.[i] Of that there is no doubt. But almost every other aspect of Whitman’s sexual life is shrouded in mystery, red herrings, misconceptions, hints and rumors, claims and counter-claims, along with outright fabrications. We also know for sure that Whitman never married.
Of course, the text can be considered separate from the man. But I believe that when an author declares again and again that his main poetic purpose is to compose and sing songs of himself, then we cannot help but ask: OK, poet, just who are you anyway?
For Whitman, in matters of love and sex, the stakes were very high – both for his actions and for his words. During Whitman’s lifetime, it was illegal in New York state for a man to have sex with another man. Moreover, as Whitman well knew, a sizable portion of the population considered sexual acts between men repugnant. Indeed, the very terms “gay” and “homosexual” as we understand them were not part of the nineteenth century American consciousness or vocabulary. So, in trying to reveal himself as a man who loved men, Whitman had to be somewhat circumspect.
By his own accounts, he knew quite a few men intimately. In New York, he was a frequent rider of the horse-drawn omnibuses, even when he had no particular place to go, just so he could meet the drivers. He knew all the bus teamsters and spent a lot of time with them – “not only for comradeship, and sometimes affection.”
Looking back years later, Whitman added: “I suppose the critics will laugh heartily, but the influence of those Broadway omnibus jaunts and drivers and declamations and escapades undoubtedly entered into the gestation of Leaves of Grass.”
In his debut edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Whitman downplayed the homoerotic elements of his life and poetry. It was not until the 1860 edition that he dared to include the “Calamus” cluster of poems, which are replete with phallic imagery and passionate promises to one or more male lovers.
In an essay on the bicentennial of Whitman’s birth in 1819, the author and critic Jeremy Lybarger argued that Whitman’s homosexuality was key to his development as a poet:
. . . The Whitman who remains most central to whatever has become of the “American experiment” is the poet who cruised the streets of New York, who skinny-dipped with rough trade, who caroused in pick-up bars and lowdown dives, who ministered to the bodies of young soldiers, who loafed with boys in the fields and backwoods of a perpetual frontier.
In the end, with such a sparse record about the sex life of such a complex character, there may be no simple answer to Whitman’s sexuality and its consequences. But I think that, as always, Whitman was himself pointing us to an answer.
Even considering the standards of literary decorum and good taste in the Victorian era, Leaves of Grass was quite daring about sex. Whitman was actually quite frank and even bold.
Throughout, he not only praises sexuality in general. He not only hails the bodies (and body parts) of both the male and the female. He also leaves behind flags and emblems telling readers that he himself is not only heterosexual, he’s also homosexual, pansexual, and sometimes beyond-sexual. Whitman gives us the sense that if he could, he would make love to the whole world – one by one, or all at once! This attitude underlies his pervasive sense of solidarity with all people. Like Fuller and Douglass, Whitman resisted all invidious distinctions, declaring, for example, that “I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man.”
Just a peek into his vast masterpiece:
The section we now know as “I Sing the Body Electric” is a chant for equality – between the sexes, between the races, between the slave and the free. Whitman says we all have these amazing bodies; that alone makes us equal. He shares with readers a glimpse of his “loveflesh swelling and deliciously aching / Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous . . . / quivering jelly of love”
For all his frankness, though, Whitman could not possibly have written an explicit manifesto for gay rights in the midst of the Victorian era. Given that same-sex sex was widely considered a sin or a crime or both, he was boldly telling the world to think anew.
Finally, Douglass. Born into slavery, likely in 1818, Douglass essentially taught himself to read and write – skills forbidden to almost all enslaved people. At age 20, he liberated himself from enslavement in Maryland and made his way north. He joined the organized abolition movement, becoming a popular paid speaker bearing witness to the horrors he knew from his upbringing. When he tired of telling his story over and over again, he decided to write it down. The result was his great Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the first of three autobiographies he would write. He published it in 1845 – the same year Fuller published Woman in the 19th Century.
Naturally, Douglass was a fierce opponent of slavery. But it’s worth noting what kind of opponent he was. Douglass was a radical abolitionist. That meant several concrete things:
- He demanded immediate emancipation (no gradualism; no compensation)
- He demanded full equal rights (no colonization or return to Africa)
In 1847, he became a “movement journalist” – publisher, editor, and writer of the North Star, a weekly abolitionist newspaper in Rochester, New York.
In 1848, he traveled to nearby Seneca Falls to take part in the first convention devoted to women’s rights, inspired in part by Margaret Fuller’s book of three years earlier. Douglass was not the only man at the gathering, but he was the only Black delegate.
Douglass remained a steadfast, public supporter of women’s rights for the rest of his life as well as a personal friend to Anthony and other suffragists.
To bring this all to a point.
In 1851, Douglass merged his North Star with another paper and brought forth a new publication, which he candidly titled Frederick Douglass’ Paper. For that new newspaper, he also rolled out a new motto:
ALL RIGHTS FOR ALL.
ALL RIGHTS FOR ALL.
There, in four words, Douglass encapsulated the most expansive social-justice agenda possible. Taken literally, it would mean an end not just to slavery but also to racism, sexism, homophobia, and all other forms of oppression. It could serve as the rallying cry for all the progressive movements that were to come.
Together, then, Fuller, Whitman, and Douglass had laid out a broad challenge: it was not enough to lower the top end of society. It was just as urgent to raise up the bottom.
All rights for all.
All are not identical, but all are equal in worth and dignity. This was one of the main meanings of Whitman’s notion of “leaves of grass.” Society should be broad; it should be diverse; but none should tower over others. None should be permanently subjugated. None should be despised for being themselves.
Together, those three antebellum radical journalists outlined an agenda of personal liberation that we are still working to fully realize.
That was – and is – the great project. All Rights for All.
[i] This discussion of Whitman’s sexuality draws on a large and growing body of scholarly and critical work that has emerged in tandem with the modern gay rights movement. For about a century, the subject little attention – either because scholars and critics considered it taboo or because they found that Whitman’s expressions of love for men, while exuberant, fell within the nineteenth-century understanding of same-sex affections. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, discussions of Whitman’s sexuality have become more numerous and more frank. Throughout this section, I draw on works by David S. Reynolds, Justin Kaplan, Jerome Loving, Hugh Ryan, Ed Folsom, Ted Genoways, Betsy Erkkila, Martin Murray, and others.