Walt Whitman, Free-Soil Journalist

Selections from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
August 1, 2003

 

Walt Whitman was not just the great American poet and author of the groundbreaking Leaves of Grass; in the years before the Civil War, he was also an accomplished journalist. One of his early ventures was the Brooklyn Freeman, a newspaper he founded in 1848 to express his opposition to the extension of slavery. Whitman wrote for the Freeman, edited it, and possibly even did the typesetting. The Trent Collection of Walt Whitman includes a copy of the first issue of the Brooklyn Freeman, the only extant copy of any issue of the newspaper.

Brooklyn Freeman
Brooklyn Freeman,
Volume 1, Number 1
September 9, 1848

The son of liberal-minded parents, Whitman grew up supporting working-class ideals. He left school at a young age but continued to educate himself informally through visits to museums, libraries, and theaters. During an 1848 trip to New Orleans, he witnessed a slave auction, an experience many scholars say sparked his fury against slavery. When Whitman returned to Brooklyn, he joined forces with his friend Judge Samuel Johnson to found the Brooklyn Freeman as a Free-Soil newspaper. The paper’s primary objective was to raise support for political candidates who opposed slavery, including presidential hopeful Martin Van Buren.

The first issue of the Freeman, which appeared on Saturday, September 9, 1848, priced at two cents, features excerpts from the writings of Thomas Jefferson, as well as a reprint of Van Buren’s letter accepting the nomination for president. Whitman himself wrote all of the other articles, including “How things have been managed in Kings County,” “Our enmity to the south,” and “General Taylor’s Principles.”

Whitman intended to expand the paper to a daily edition, but his plans were foiled by a fire that ravaged Brooklyn and destroyed his office just one day after the first issue of the Freeman was published. He was able to resume printing in November 1848 and presumably produced additional issues, though no copies are known to have survived. In November 1849, feeling betrayed by fellow Free-Soilers who joined forces with their former enemies, the Hunkers, Whitman ceased publication.

The Brooklyn Freeman is just one of many noteworthy items in the library’s Trent Collection of Walt Whitman, established in 1942 and named in honor of the four daughters of its donors, Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans and her late first husband, physician Josiah C. Trent. The bulk of the Trents’ private collection had originally been gathered by Richard Maurice Bucke, Whitman’s friend and literary executor. After 1942, Gay Wilson Allen supplemented the library’s holdings with his own large collection of Whitmaniana.