Walt Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas”: Imagining Democracy’s Soul

Carla Seaquist
14 min readJun 20, 2024


Walt Whitman (1819–1892) — American bard of the 19th century who famously claimed “I contain multitudes” — had a vision of American Democracy that was likewise multitudinous.

In brief: In his majestic essay “Democratic Vistas” — a proper essay for our times —Whitman posited that, of all forms of governance, democracy, which places the individual at its pinnacle, was superior to the “feudal, caste, and ecclesiastical orders” which reigned “over there” in Europe and which consigned the individual to the basement, as it were, as mere cog in the machine serving only grandees.

Such conception entails highest stakes: “The United States,” Whitman surmised, “are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time.” Of course, this high conception required a high sort of individual: To put it unpoetically, if this self-governance thing were to work, the self must be mature and responsible and in all other ways up to the task. If he were up to the task, the reward was precious beyond all fathoming: Unencumbered by feudal or ecclesiastical overlords, the individual could achieve, and bask in, his own Soul. And if a critical mass of individuals so achieved, America would fulfill its destiny.

Such an exalted view of American Democracy was, as Whitman well knew writing in the aftermath of the horrendous bloodletting of the American Civil War, a project for the future. “America,” he wrote in his prelude, “counts, as I reckon, for her justification and success….almost entirely on the future.” Thus, Whitman’s contributions to that future were cast as “speculations,” aimed at “vistas” he imagined, “though dimly yet.”

In our current unhappy moment, when American Democracy is under siege from within — fully one-third of the populace is bent on the anti-democratic project of disenfranchising certain voters, abolishing certain rights, declaring legitimate elections illegitimate, even mounting a bloody insurrection and calling it “legitimate political discourse” — it might be tonic, galvanizing even, to revisit Whitman’s majestic essay. Besides, at a 150-year remove, perhaps the future Whitman envisioned is right on schedule? Because, for sure, the conscientious public feels in its bones: This grand American project, at this unhappy juncture, could go either way — up or down.

To stay with that happy future, let Whitman the poet speak:

“To-day, ahead, though dimly yet, we see, in vistas, a copious, sane, gigantic offspring. For our New World I consider far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come. Sole among nationalities, these States have assumed the task to put in forms of lasting power and practicality, on areas of amplitude rivaling the operations of the physical kosmos, the moral political speculations of ages, long, long deferr’d, the democratic republican principle, and the theory of development and perfection by voluntary standards, and self-reliance. Who else, indeed, except the United States, in history, so far, have accepted in unwitting faith, and, as we now see, stand, act upon, and go security for, these things?”

Key to that happy future, Whitman held: our Literature. “At all times….the central point in any nation, and that whence it is itself really sway’d the most, and whence it sways others, is its national literature, especially its archetypical poems.” Of course a poet put poets foremost: If you contain multitudes, you are not shy. “The priest departs,” Whitman wrote, “the divine literature comes,” the poet of the modern (about which, more later).

Winslow Homer, “Weatherbeaten” 1894

But first, context: In the two-year span, 1868–1870, when Whitman wrote his essay, he took the coordinates by which to project his vistas. Postwar economic recovery was fast underway: “The wonderful wealth-producing power of the United States,” he marveled, “has already obliterated, almost wholly, the traces of the greatest of modern civil wars.” This prosperity was of “wide and equable distribution.” Politically, thanks to the North’s victory, suffrage — the right to vote — was expanded among the population of 40 million. But, with spot-on prescience, Whitman fears this expansion would spark a great reaction against the freed slaves; he regrets “reconstruction is still in abeyance.” “I will not gloss over the appaling [sic] dangers of universal suffrage in the United States. In fact, it is to admit and face these dangers I am writing.” Addressing the conscientious reader, he describes “the mass, or lump character”: “To him or her within whose thought rages the battle, advancing, retreating, between democracy’s convictions, aspirations, and the people’s crudeness, vice, caprices, I mainly write this essay.”

With this, Whitman unloads on our mass national character. “[S]ociety, in these States, is canker’d, crude, superstitious, and rotten.” Going on, he writes, “[T]he element of moral conscience, the most important….to State or man, seems to me either entirely lacking, or seriously enfeebled or ungrown.” While a degree of prosperity is needed for a democracy to function, it can’t be at the cost of Character, which Whitman found “in a state of somnolence.” Thus, he writes: “I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease.” His bill of particulars is long:

“Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present…. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, (for all this hectic glow….) nor is humanity itself believ’d in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appaling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the litterateurs is to find something to make fun of. [C]hurches….usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage…. The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration…. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time. In business, (this all-devouring modern word, business,) the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain.”

Note the resemblance to the American character today? Whitman would not like learning his vaunted judiciary, at the supremist level, is now tainted with ethical blight. Thus more than ever, his conclusion rings true:

“I say that our New World democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development….is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, and esthetic results. In vain do we march with unprecedented strides to empire so colossal, outvying the antique, beyond Alexander’s, beyond the proudest sway of Rome. In vain have we annex’d Texas, California, Alaska…. It is as if we were somehow being endow’d with a vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.”

Now, for the “Vistas”: the riches that inhere in a democracy, the advantages that small-d democrats could enjoy that no serf or vassal could — if only we do the requisite mining. As Whitman wrote of this lode, “[F]ew suspect how deep, how deep it really strikes.” I will endeavor here, briefly, to extract the nuggets.

The sine qua non of this historic enterprise is the individual, “properly train’d in the sanest, highest freedom.” Today’s reader will immediately see the problem: not just the “train’d” part (though we still resist civics), but the “sane” (insurrections held as “legitimate political discourse”?). But without a sane individualism, “the entire scheme of things is aimless, a cheat, a crash.” To sanity, Whitman adds “that Something a man is….standing apart from all else, divine in his own right, and a woman in hers….this image of completeness….of individual personal dignity.” Only “perfect individualism” is capable of self-governing, the mark of democracy: “Political democracy….with all its threatening evils, supplies a training-school for making first-class men. It is life’s gymnasium…. A brave delight, fit for freedom’s athletes.” Notes Whitman again, “[T]he premises of….[this] new spirit, under the new forms, started here in our America.”

But that’s political man; there is the higher, spiritual man. Political man tends to the democratic structure and prospering economy. Whitman urged that, no matter how vile elective politics may be, we not abandon the arena; at the same time, “To be a voter is not so much”; it is but gateway. Whitman broaches the spiritual thus: “What Christ appear’d for in the moral-spiritual field for human-kind — ” Immediately I sense teeth itching in today’s reader, who feels (as do I) that religion remains “usurped,” now by a political party (the insane one, to use Whitman sane-insane dichtomy). Yet while Christ is cited, Christianity is not invoked. What’s invoked is: a sense of the Infinite, “the consciousness of mystery, the recognition of the future, of the unknown, of Deity over and under all, and of the divine purpose.” (Our unhappy times made unhappier by spiritual depletion, just the word “Infinite” refreshes.) This is the realm of the soul, which always was Whitman’s theme: “[T]he soul emerges, and all statements, churches, sermons, melt away like vapors…. Bibles may convey, and priests expound, but it is exclusively for the noiseless operation of one’s isolated Self, to enter the pure ether of veneration, reach the divine levels, and commune with the unutterable.” This is Whitman’s beautiful vision, Democracy’s soul, and he rhapsodizes.

Aligned with the soul is conscience; while the former can remain aloft, conscience has an earthly function. “I must not fail, again and ever,” Whitman writes, “to pronounce myself on one [part], probably the least attended to in modern times — a hiatus indeed threatening its gloomiest consequences after us. I mean the simple, unsophisticated Conscience, the primary moral element.” Again I sense teeth itching in today’s reader: We have an allergy to things moral (which allergy I do not share). But Whitman predicted, rightly: “If I were asked to specify in what quarter lie the grounds of darkest dread, respecting the America of our hopes, I should have to point to this particular.” What else but our moral allergy accounts for election to the White House of an amoral (Whitman’s term) “lump”?

Annie Spratt / Unsplash

Finally, the delivery-system of this grand project: Literature — “vigorous, yet unsuspected Literatures….original, transcendental, and expressing (what, in highest sense, are not yet express’d at all,) democracy and the modern.” I suspect that I, as a writer and playwright, enjoy more than most Whitman’s take-down of writers of his day (“the copious dribble…. of rhymesters”) and those who came before. His reason: “Literature, strictly consider’d, has never recognized the People” — not as the beings with souls he envisioned. He added:

“Speaking generally, the tendencies of literature, as hitherto pursued, have been to make mostly critical and querulous men…. I know nothing more rare….than a fit scientific estimate and reverent appreciation of the People — of their measureless wealth of latent power and capacity…. far surpassing all the vaunted samples of book-heroes.”

Whitman acknowledges the supreme power of ideas: “Dominion strong is the body’s; dominion stronger is the mind’s.” Continuing, he writes:

“What has fill’d, and fills to-day our intellect, our fancy, furnishing the standards therein, is yet foreign. The great poems, Shakspere [sic] included, are poisonous to the idea of the pride and dignity of the common people, the life-blood of democracy. The models of our literature….have had their birth in courts, and bask’d and grown in castle sunshine; all smells of princes’ favors…. But touch’d by the national test, or tried by the standards of democratic personality, they wither to ashes… I think I hear….the scornful laugh of the Genius of these States.”

(While Whitman saluted Shakespeare’s dramas as the most superb — “the superbest poetic expression of feudalism” — I concur with scholar Harold Bloom that Shakespeare “invented the human,” because while, yes, Shakespeare wrote of kings and princes, he rendered them real. And, turning to his own time, presumably Whitman dismissed Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” for its “critical and querulous” Captain Ahab, but narrator Ishmael surely was a heroic soul.)

Whitman’s benediction to future artists inspires: “Not ours the chance ever to see with our own eyes the peerless power and splendid eclat of the democratic principle, arriv’d at meridian — there is yet, to whoever is eligible among us, the prophetic vision, the joy of being toss’d in the brave turmoil of these times.” Further benediction: “To-day, doubtless, the infant genius of American poetic expression….lies sleeping far away, happily unrecognized and uninjur’d by the coteries, the art-writers, the talkers and critics of the saloons — lies sleeping, unrecking [sic] itself.” Given Whitman’s vision, he agrees with a librarian of Congress: “The true question to ask respecting a book, is, has it help’d any human soul?” Such books bear “a moral purpose….underlying all.”

Mathew Brady, “Carver Hospital, Washington, D.C.”

Whitman came by his magnanimous vision tending the Civil War wounded and maimed, about which he writes: “I realize that it is finally from what I learn’d personally mixing in such scenes that I am now penning these pages.” Of “the late secession war,” he claimed:

“[P]opular democracy, whatever its faults and dangers, practically justifies itself beyond the proudest claims and wildest hopes…. [N]o future age can know, but I well know, how the gist….resided exclusively in the unnamed, unknown rank and file; and how the brunt of its labor of death was, to all essential purposes, volunteer’d. The People, of their own choice, fighting, dying for their own idea, insolently attack’d by the secession-slave power….its very existence imperil’d.”

Whitman, however, honored both sides of the war, alluding to “the plentifully-supplied, last-needed proof of democracy, in its personalities”: “every bit as much from the south, as from the north. Although I have spoken only of the latter, yet I deliberately include all. Grand, common stock! Let no tongue ever speak in disparagement of the American races, north or south, to one who has been through the war in the great army hospitals.”

Women were presented their own “vistas”: Though Whitman voices equality for women with men, he here exalted them more for their maternity. But, the epitome of fair play, he imagined a day when “the women of America” become “great…..as any man, in all departments; or, rather, capable of being so, soon as they realize it, and can bring them- selves to give up toys and fictions, and launch forth, as men do, amid real, independent, stormy life.” He could foresee, though, “something more revolutionary” might be needed.

Indigenous peoples suffer a blind spot in Whitman’s vision. When he writes of the American “beating up the wilderness into fertile farms,” he is silent on who is beaten in the building, also that they were native American. Perhaps for this reason, some view Whitman as a voice of white supremacy. But my reading of Whitman is of a seer who wanted all Americans to discover their soul, then soar from there.

Of course, Whitman’s triumphal vision — if mishandled by those not “properly train’d in the sanest, highest freedom” and not operating with moral conscience — runs the risk of grandiosity, abuse, overkill. Which, sadly, is the case with present-day America (readers can supply their own bill of those particulars). For me, that bill leads with unnecessary wars (Vietnam, Iraq) and, in the personal sphere, Whitman’s theory that “man….may and must become a law, and series of laws, unto himself.” (In the margin I wrote, Attenzione: This tips over into the narcissism and lawlessness we have today.) Whitman addresses this risk — of mishandled maximal power — only briefly:

“I am reminded as I write that out of this very conscience, or idea of conscience, of intense moral right, and in its name and strain’d construction, the worst fanaticisms, wars, persecutions, murders, &c., have yet, in all lands, in the past, been broach’d, and have come to their devilish fruition…. For abstract religion, I perceive, is easily led astray, ever credulous, and is capable of devouring, remorseless, like fire and flame.”

The main thing is: “to prevent fanaticism.” This is most superb — “superbest” — counsel. Whitman would be heartbroken to learn America, today, is throttled in fanaticism; “polarized” in wildly antagonistic politics. But he would not be surprised at the locus: Whitman feared internal division infinitely more than external threat. He repeatedly voiced this fear, speculating, again, it would relate to “the appaling [sic] dangers of universal suffrage” attaching to the freed slaves. “[T]o become an enfranchised man….impediments removed, to stand and start without humiliation and equal with the rest, whose end (perhaps requiring several generations,) may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman — that is something.” That “something” is not only not realized; the historical implications of slavery itself are angrily resisted by the “insane” political party. But, says the visionary Whitman, the “ballast of the State” is “secured in no other way.” Failing a reckoning, on race and other grounds, destruction looms. He confessed: “[T]he fear of conflicting and irreconcilable interiors, and the lack of a common skeleton, knitting all close, continually haunts me.”

Frederick Douglass, 1880, portrait by Mathew Brady

To close: With America now at a low point, this essay provides both fuel and map to the disheartened conscientious public. It is a novel thing, also instructive, to be addressed on the subject of national character, by one who so thoroughly grasped and could wax poetic why the American character is exceptional. (Today we are plagued with “influencers.”) Whitman conceived of History as competing empires, and while the age of empire is over (and must be unpacked by former colonial powers), the competition among great powers goes on, always. And it makes all the difference to a free life which great power “wins.”

In this competition, Whitman’s vision — of the sane handling of freedom, of the Soul to be realized — is what another of my favorite thinkers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, would call “inspiriting.” (Researching this commentary, I learned Emerson came to Whitman’s rescue after the latter’s self-published “Leaves of Grass” sank without trace. Emerson wrote Whitman that his book was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed…. I find incomparable things said incomparably well.”)

In this competition of nation and character, amidst evidence of American decline, the American must gird up. The struggle will be fierce: Wrote Whitman, with wit Emerson praised, “Behold the cost…. Thought you greatness was to ripen for you like a pear?” Americans resist philosophy, but we’re more philosophical than we know: We’re in love with an idea, the idea of freedom. Now, to defend it — by maturing our character.

Whitman wrote at a time when America was already three centuries in the making; when its constitutional origins were still “within the memory of people now living”; when memory still crackled with “a fierce sense of wrongs” suffered from a foreign king. Yet, so encumbered with History, this visionary could project to our time. Now, in terms of years, America is mature. But in terms of character, We the People are not mature — not yet. Whitman knew there was something exceptional about America (I believe, too). He would like knowing that, despite today’s cynicism, Americans are not fatalist — not yet.

In girding for this odyssey, another Whitman title comes to mind: “Now Voyager.”



Carla Seaquist

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" (Vol. II). Playwright. Fmr. HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.