Walt Whitman seemed to anticipate Lincoln, orbiting him like a moon. Years before he first used Lincoln’s name in print, he described to a friend his dream of an American leader.
I would be much pleased to see some heroic, shrewd, fully-informed, healthy-bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced American blacksmith or boatman come down from the West across the Alleghenies, and walk into the Presidency, dressed in a clean suit of working attire, and with the tan all over his face, breast, and arms; I would certainly vote for that sort of man, possessing the due requirements, before any other candidate.
Inspired by the war he relocated from New York to Washington, scrambling to find government work while volunteering as a nurse in army hospitals. Though he never met Lincoln, they often crossed paths. Whitman once commented in a letter to his mother that, “I guess Lincoln gets almost nearer me than anybody else.”
Lincoln’s murder inspired a creative outpouring from Whitman, from which he would earn a reputation as America’s national poet. As Lincoln, an unpopular, controversial and broadly disliked President was transmuted into civic sainthood, Whitman became his priest and prophet. Though we fondly remember elegies like “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryards Bloomed,” Whitman could not have achieved his hallowed national stature without works we are less inclined to revere and tend to selectively forget.
Whitman’s elegies to Lincoln were a bridge to his more powerful role as the poet of national reconciliation. His stature as Lincoln’s muse placed him in a unique position to promote and define a new mythology of white supremacy, an ethic that could join light-skinned people from all over the country together in a new spirit of unity.
Artists amplify a mythology, giving it form and narrative, packaging it up for contagion. Whitman didn’t invent Lincoln, the man, but he may have invented Lincoln the everyman hero, the god in our civic pantheon. Myths follow power, but in the years after the Civil War many powers vied to dominate the American future. Artists like Whitman made choices that tipped the scales in this battle toward terrible ends.
Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1840’s had made plain the power of artists to define a nation. His essay, “The Poet,” was an explicit call for “men of more delicate ear” to put to words the “primal warblings” that then become “the song of nations.”
See the power of national emblems. Some stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle, or other figure, which came into credit God knows how, on an old rag of bunting, blowing in the wind, on a fort, at the ends of the earth, shall make the blood tingle under the rudest, or the most conventional exterior. The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!
It’s likely Whitman read Emerson’s call, and he certainly answered it. What he heard and wrote was the zeitgeist of his time, a sense gathering form around the world, that the light-complected, English-speaking people of the world were a race set apart, with more to unite than to divide them. Despite his enthusiasm for Lincoln and abolition, Whitman insisted that African-Americans were inherently an “other” that could never be absorbed into the national identity. From a newspaper article he wrote in 1858:
Who believes that Whites and Blacks can ever amalgamate in America? Nature has set an impassable seal against it. Besides, is not America for the Whites? And is it better not so?
The war was barely over when Whitman turned on the emancipators, choosing to find common cause with the slaveholders who had torn the country apart. An unpublished manuscript from the 1860’s titled, “Of the Black Question,” blasts the “sentimentalities” of Reconstruction reformers who were battling against the certain laws of “evolution, by natural selection.” A few years later Whitman would starkly lecture a friend, “The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated. It is the law of races.”
Whitman was one of the earliest architects of a version of the Lost Cause narrative, which came to see the presence of Africans on US soil, rather than the institution of slavery, as the source of North/South conflict. In this mythology slavery, though perhaps unpleasant, was the natural state of Africans. Abolitionists were wrong to insist so vehemently on its destruction, and by doing so unleashed “the Black Question” on the wider nation.
As white violence was finally giving the planter class the upper hand in the battle over Reconstruction in 1875, Whitman bemoaned the presence of Blacks in elected office as, “black domination, but little above the beasts.” In a speech probably delivered in the 1870’s Whitman knitted a vision of a shared white identity into a bandage to close the wounds of war.
Tonight I would say one word that South – the whites. I do not wish to say one word and will not say one word against the blacks – but the blacks can never be to me what the whites are….The whites are my brothers and I love them.
Whitman is describing a powerful new formula, taking Alexander Stephens’ political notion of “equality” among members of the master race and pairing it with sentiment, even patriotism. In the late 1860’s and early 70’s, while whites were waging a campaign of brutal terrorism to push freedmen back into submission, Whitman was siding with the terrorists. He traveled to give lectures that knitted Lincoln’s legacy into a new white nationalism. In that new vision, the deadliest war in US history still to date, was merely a family squabble, triggered by misguided concerns over some trivial outsider. Whites, in this mythology, are brothers.
Prior to the Civil War, this notion that “the whites” were a mystic brotherhood, something greater than an incompatible calico of English and Scottish and Irish and planters and white trash and Anglo-Saxons and North and South, was not commonly expressed. Like others around him on both sides of the Atlantic, Whitman was breathing mythic life into a formula of white herrenvolk democracy that might have seemed ludicrous before the war. Whiteness wasn’t just a color. It wasn’t just a race. Whitman was converting whiteness into a unifying mythological fraternity, with all the emotional power of family.
Anything freedmen were owed due to slavery was magically washed away by the blood of battle and emancipation. Whitman helped breathe into being a new American identity in which the Civil War, instead of liberating Blacks, forged a new, unified, wholly superior white race, glowing under the halo of a generous, undeserved emancipation of their inferiors.
There were powerful rivals to Whitman’s white supremacist vision. However, much of the political and artistic ferment that had been poured into abolitionist art like the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the rousing anthem, John’s Brown’s Body which became The Battle Hymn of the Republic, waned after the war. Northerners seemed anxious to take their trophy and go home, leaving the freedmen at the mercy of their wounded, but still powerful former overlords. Energy that had powered abolition was mostly diverted into other causes like poverty relief or women’s suffrage.
There were exceptions. Harper’s Weekly continued for many years to publish commentary and cartoons supporting the Freedmen. This 1876 cartoon addressed the violence directed at Black voters in the South.
The NAACP’s founding members included white progressives like Mary White Ovington, Henry Moskowitz, William English Walling and Oswald Garrison Villard. However, none had the political reach or the artistic heft to make their roles resonate far into the white community.
As white supremacy gained force and turned its racist violence toward immigrants, particularly the Chinese, Emma Lazarus penned her famous poem, New Colossus for the Statue of Liberty. It was a powerful note of dissent against a tide of bigotry, but too few others joined that weak chorus.
By 1896, voices like Whitman’s helped the Supreme Court justify the official repression of Black Americans in its Plessy v Ferguson decision. A newly invented medium would cap off that repression, lending its power to a wave of violence that would finally define white supremacy, and white nationalism, up to our era.
Thomas Dixon, Jr is often referred to as a professional racist. A Baptist pastor and politician, in 1905 he published a novel, The Clansman, influenced by his father’s involvement in Ku Klux Klan terror during Reconstruction. Successful as a novel, it would become a sensation as a film.
DW Griffith was a ground-breaking young director in the brand-new film industry. He was best known for daring to produce a biopic on Pancho Villa on location in Mexico in the midst of that civil war. Griffith found a kindred spirit in Dixon, as Griffith’s father had also fought for the Confederacy. Griffith turned The Clansman into the most influential motion picture of all time under the title, Birth of a Nation.
Birth of a Nation is very nearly a perfect propaganda film, easily a rival to Battleship Potemkin or Triumph of the Will. Text introducing the film’s first motion sequence laid down the first mythological premise of white supremacy, “The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.” What follows is a shot of a pilgrim with a newly arrived slave, that slave (a white man in blackface) cowering in an animal pose.
Griffith rewrites centuries of American history in seconds. By tying the “African” to “disunion,” then presenting a Puritan, symbol of the North and antithesis of the Southern Cavalier as the responsible agent, Griffith has asserted that an Edenic unity once existed among a white race. That unity was broken by the North, not the South. The slaves were “Africans,” not Americans, an external wedge introduced into the primordial unity of whiteness. Those Africans are a corrupting, lower force filled with danger. The rest of Birth of a Nation flows perfectly from these mythological messages, depicting the Klan’s Reconstruction-era terror campaign as a righteous white rebellion to protect themselves, and especially their women, from the predations of an inferior race.
This popular new medium brought Southern ideology to Northern audiences just as waves of Black refugees from white terror were streaming into Northern cities. The results were electric. President Wilson, who screened the film at the White House, described it as “history written in lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Inspired by Griffith’s film, William Joseph Simmons, a former pastor in Georgia hatched a plan to bring the Klan back to life. On Thanksgiving night, 1915, he gathered several friends to burn a cross atop Stone Mountain, a ritual missing from the original Klan, but appearing in Griffith’s film. Their movement caught fire in the atmosphere of xenophobia unleashed by Birth of a Nation.
The new Klan was not the old Klan. Klan Classic was a guerilla insurgency founded and led by military officers with a coherent set of goals, mostly the restoration of Antebellum elite privileges. It possessed an authority structure, could be steered toward strategic objectives, and where necessary for self-preservation, restrained.
New Klan was a rattletrap social club, part pyramid scheme, part Birth of a Nation cosplay convention, part white terrorist bowling league. This new iteration of the Klan was interesting for the ideology it incorporated. Though aspiring to the elan of the old Southern Cavalier culture, this was a populist movement reflecting many concerns of middle- and working-class voters. The old planter class kept the Klan at arm’s length, in much the same manner that modern Republican donors and Senators regard the Tea Party and the MAGA movement.
The new Klan’s definition of us was modified from the Anglo-Saxonist ideology more common in the Antebellum North and among lower-caste Scots-Irish. Simmons’ new Klan aimed to rescue America from “degenerative” forces, specifically, “1) the foreign alien or the immigrant, 2) the Jew and Catholic, and 3) the racial alien or non Anglo-Saxon.” An early Klan leader, Hiram Evans, expressed its members’ anti-elite attitudes, “Increasing economic inequalities threaten the very stability of society.” It was a movement less like the Classic Klan than like the European Fascism it would later inspire. Its rhetoric, perhaps minus the obsession with Catholics, could be copied word for word into a MAGA Facebook post.
Just a decade after its rebirth, the Klan could muster 50,000 people for a march on Washington DC. Its members, somewhere between 2 and 5 million, were stretched nationwide. Its members would get a referendum passed in Oregon in 1922 to outlaw Catholic schools. Almost half of its membership came from Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
As Congress debated a sweeping new ban on most immigration, the leader of the Indiana Klan laid out his organization’s position in a 1923 speech to coal miners.
There is no assimilation to American standards and ideals, in the case of the great majority of the newer immigrants. Masses of human beings of inferior races, ignorant of all the ideals which Americans hold dear, are poured into our factories as so much raw material – and they are not ‘digested.’ The new immigrant comes here as a foreigner and he remains a foreigner – a citizen of a lower class, who, just as the negro, is a constant menace to the standards of civilization which Americans hold dear.
Does any of this sound familiar? Don’t miss the fact that his speech was delivered to coal miners. New Klan was a populist mass movement aiming to divert working class frustrations away from capital owners, into largely useless displays of racial hatred. As a movement of the lower castes, its language is plainer than would be tolerated in elite settings, but that single paragraph captures a century of white nationalist politics. Just add the phrase “build the wall” and that statement would swell the hearts of Republican voters this afternoon. White supremacy had found its voice and its speakers.
Klan activism would influence the adoption in 1924 of a highly restrictive immigration law, a law which would eventually contribute to the deaths of thousands of German Jews in the Holocaust by blocking their escape. They would launch the most deadly wave of racial violence in our history, spreading terror in Black communities all over the country from the end of WW1 through the 20’s. And the Klan would popularize a slogan which would become a political movement, “America First.”
Walt Whitman, our “national poet,” spread his vision of a white nation, set against the menace of blackness. That mythological brotherhood would form an “us” out of otherwise bitter rivals for resources, power and dignity by transforming the freedmen from the embodiment of our original values into an archetype of menace. Researchers would abandon scientific values to hastily manufacture a “race,” lending false credibility to this mythological construct. The wealthy would reward any emerging mythology offering to divert the frustrations of struggling workers toward any target but themselves. These threads would be woven into a noose, sealing these elements into cultural artifacts powerful enough to move men to horrors.
When Congress slammed closed the “Golden Door” in 1924, a mythology of white supremacy had spawned a full-grown white nationalism. Art had become law. Our model of herrenvolk democracy would inspire a brutal post-democratic Fascism elsewhere in the world.