The American Poetry Review

POETRY & DEMOCRACY

In his essay Democratic Vistas (1871) Walt Whitman writes, “Democracy… is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.” And he was right, of course. Whitman’s assessment came almost a century after the Declaration of Independence, where these memorable lines were written: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” As it turned out the men, or the main man who wrote this powerful declaration, Thomas Jefferson, did not quite mean it that way.

Broadly speaking, Jefferson meant white men, not women or people of color. He would later augment this view in Notes on the State of Virginia (1801), where, explaining to a French interlocutor the American system of constitutional governance—with its separation of powers, checks and balances, individual liberty, the separation of church and state—he defended slavery and wrote some of the most repugnant claims of white supremacy.

In its exclusivity to the males of the dominant racial group, our

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