The President and The Poet

25 Mar 2023 9:30 AM | Wendy S. Allen (Administrator)

This article originally appeared in the pages of the Gettysburg Times, March of 2023. It was penned by John Tuskan, Historian/Archivist, of the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, in the hopes of sharing the work the Fellowship does. 

In 1855, Abraham Lincoln came within five votes of becoming a U.S. senator from Illinois, and Walt Whitman (1819-1892) published the first edition of his masterwork, Leaves of Grass. At that time, few people would have predicted that Lincoln and Whitman would go on to become two iconic figures united in American history, whose powerful democratic voices echo to this day.
Early on, Whitman sensed Lincoln’s uniqueness. On February 19, 1861, he saw Lincoln for the first time as the president-elect traveled through New York City. As his respect and warm approval for President Lincoln grew, he noted Lincoln's "striking appearance" and "unpretentious dignity,” and trusted his "supernatural tact" and "idiomatic Western genius.”

Whitman believed that he and Lincoln were “afloat in the same stream” and “rooted in the same ground.” He reflected, “After my dear, dear mother, I guess Lincoln gets almost nearer me than anybody else.” Lincoln and Whitman were certainly kindred spirits in their commitment to democratic principles and ideals, preservation of the Union, and a belief in and celebration of the greatness of the people – the common folk.
Lincoln knew of Whitman and his works. Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon bought a copy of Leaves of Grass when it first appeared and took it to their Springfield office, where law clerk Henry Rankin later wrote that Lincoln often read passages aloud.

Whitman and Lincoln shared many similarities in literary styles and inspirations. There was a poetry to many of Lincoln’s public speeches, especially the Gettysburg Address. Prominent Lincoln scholar, Harold Holzer brilliantly proffered that, “The Gettysburg Address was the poetry to the Emancipation Proclamation’s prose” and Professor Gabor Boritt insightfully proposed that, “The beauty of the language of the Gettysburg Address helps explain its glory over the years.”

The Gettysburg Address and many poems in Leaves of Grass invoke an American democratic ethos and egalitarian principles. In his poem “Song of myself”, Whitman says “I am large,/I contain multitudes,” and in “America,” he declares the nation as “Centre of equal daughters, equal sons, /All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,”– conveying the complex American identity and great democratic voice.

Whitman never met Lincoln in person but estimated that he saw Lincoln about twenty to thirty times between 1861 and 1865. Whitman wrote that Lincoln nodded to him as he passed by in his carriage, but some historians have argued that Lincoln nodded to many passersby as he traveled and may not have actually recognized Whitman. Whitman and Lincoln were in the same room twice: At a reception in the White House in 1861, and later when Whitman visited John Hay, Lincoln's private secretary, at the White House.

Deeply moved by Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865, Whitman eventually added four poems in tribute to Lincoln in his volume about the war, Drum Taps: “Oh, Captain! My Captain!, “Hush’d be the Camps To-day,” “This Dust was Once the Man,” and arguably his greatest and most enduring poem,” When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.“ On April 16, 1865, Whitman said of Lincoln: “He leaves, in my opinion, the greatest, best, most characteristic, moral personality.” 

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