THE FAILURE OF BORROWED RHETORIC
The years 1846-50 mark a pivotal passage in the nation's fateful course toward civil war. Beginning with the Wilmot Proviso in 1846 and ending with the 1850 Compromise, these four years witnessed the first serious rupture in North-South relations as members of Congress engaged in rancorous, even violent, debate over the future of slavery in new territories gained from American victory in the war with Mexico. Regional divisions intensified and the general tone of public discourse changed from amicable, if guarded, respect to outright hostility between North and South. For the first time the nation's political divisions were drawn along sectional rather than party lines. One major party, the Whigs, would soon die and another be born as the nascent "Free Soil" movement captured the aspirations--or fed the fears--of many Northerners. By 1850 North and South reached an uneasy truce with a compromise bill that made concessions to each side but satisfied neither.
These same years mark a pivotal turning point in the development of Walt Whitman as a poet. Throughout this time Whitman actively participated in the public debate over slavery through his editorials in New York-area newspapers and his political activism on behalf of the Free Soil cause. Like his earlier temperance tract Franklin Evans, Whitman's slavery editorials reveal a writer who is deeply imbedded in the rhetoric of his age, one whose compositions are largely a matter of