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When Liberty Goes by Walt Whitman

When liberty goes it is not the first to go nor the second or third to go. . . . it waits for all the rest to go. . . . it is the last. . . .

When the memories of the old martyrs are faded utterly away . . .

when the large names of patriots are laughed at in the public halls from the lips of the orators . . .

when the boys are no more christened after the same but christened after tyrants and traitors instead . . .

when the laws of the free are grudgingly permitted and laws for informers and bloodmoney are sweet to the taste of the people . . .

when I and you walk abroad upon the earth stung with compassion at the sight of numberless brothers answering our equal friendship and caffing no man master—and when we are elated with noble joy at the sight of slaves . . .

when the soul retires in the cool communion of the night and surveys its experience and has much extasy over the word and deed that put back a helpless innocent person into the gripe of the gripers or into any cruel inferiority . . .

when those in all parts of these states who could easier realize the true American character but do not yet —

when the swarms of cringers, suckers, doughfaces, lice of politics, planners of sly involutions for their own preferment to city offices or state legislatures or the judiciary or congress or the presidency, obtain a response of love and natural deference from the people whether they get the offices or no . . .

when it is better to be a bound booby and rogue in office at a high salary than the poorest free mechanic or farmer with his hat unmoved from his head and firm eyes and a candid and generous heart . . .

and when servility by town or state or the federal government or any oppression on a large scale or small scale can be tried on without its own punishment following duly after in exact proportion against the smallest chance of escape . . .

or rather when all life and all the souls of men and women are discharged from any part of the earth—

then only shall the instinct of liberty be discharged from that part of the earth.

— from Preface to Leaves of Grass, first edition by Walt Whitman 1855

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Skorpion August 23, 2018, 5:15 PM

    I see your Walt Whitman, and raise you Robinson Jeffers (“Shine, Republic”)

    The quality of these trees, green height; of the sky, shining, of
    water, a clear flow; of the rock, hardness
    And reticence: each is noble in its quality. The love of freedom
    has been the quality of Western man.

    There is a stubborn torch that flames from Marathon to Concord,
    its dangerous beauty binding three ages
    Into one time; the waves of barbarism and civilization have
    eclipsed but have never quenched it.

    For the Greeks the love of beauty, for Rome of ruling; for the
    present age the passionate love of discovery;
    But in one noble passion we are one; and Washington, Luther,
    Tacitus, Aeschylus, one kind of man.

    And you, America, that passion made you. You were not born
    to prosperity, you were born to love freedom.
    You did not say ‘en masse,’ you said ‘independence.’ But we
    cannot have all the luxuries and freedom also.

    Freedom is poor and laborious; that torch is not safe but hungry,
    and often requires blood for its fuel.
    You will tame it against it burn too clearly, you will hood it
    like a kept hawk, you will perch it on the wrist of Caesar.

    But keep the tradition, conserve the forms, the observances, keep
    the spot sore. Be great, carve deep your heel-marks.
    The states of the next age will no doubt remember you, and edge
    their love of freedom with contempt of luxury.

  • Terry August 23, 2018, 5:59 PM

    Skorpion – thank you for that great quotation. I will look Robinson Jeffers up.

  • Jaynie August 24, 2018, 5:01 AM

    Thank you both. The Jeffers was moving and uplifting. The Whitman moving, prophetic, and rather sad.

  • Marica August 24, 2018, 6:22 AM

    Wonderful. Thank you!

    “Years marked by wars, religious controversies and persecutions, political disputes, and royal despotism lay behind the decision to leave Europe and migrate to the English colonies. But there was something in the spirit of those who made the break– a force of character not simply determined by economic, political or religious conditions– that made them different from their neighbors who remained in the turmoil and poverty of the Old World.”

    “Something in the spirit” came to be the American Spirit.

    “A Basic History of the United States” (1944) by Charles and Mary Beard was not written as a text. It was a popular book, “directed to the general public,” written by a prominent, although controversial, historian and his wife. “The New Basic History of the United States” (1960) was an updated and revised edition by the Beard’s son, William. The quote was not included in The New version, and I think that’s too bad.

  • BillH August 24, 2018, 7:15 AM

    I fold.

  • JiminAlaska August 24, 2018, 9:51 AM

    Statues are toppled.
    Why yes,
    Bound boobies and rogues prevail.
    John Brennan is hailed a hero.
    Robert Mueller is Cotton Mather reincarnated.
    America is now Salem.
    Liberty is gone.