What the Heck is a “Presidentiad,” Anyway?

Walt Whitman in the early 1860s

I have been encouraged to share my embarrassing triumph with readers of Emerging Civil War. If nothing else, it should encourage any of you who are frustrated by research. Research is interesting—it is one of those “best of times, worst of times” experiences writ large. A historian hopes for clearly identified sources, nicely copied images, and a straight line from idea to fulfillment. That scenario happens just often enough to be a perpetual carrot, reminding one that not all research is impossible. Unfortunately, I ran into a problem on the evening of February 13.

ECW hasn’t heard much from me except “book reports,” aka “reviews,” because I am in the last throes of writing my bio of poet Walt Whitman. Don’t worry; it is short, especially compared with Justin Kaplan or David Reynolds. Still, it needs to be done. Cancer interrupted it first, then a long thought process concerning Whitman himself. Both are under control now—thanks for asking.

One of the chapters concerns Whitman’s relationship with President Lincoln. They never even spoke, but Walt saw Lincoln as the man who would fulfill America’s promise, especially about disunion and slavery. I have read a ton of Walt Whitman’s work, and frankly, it all gets a little chaotic sometimes. I remembered that Walt had written a poem before the war (I thought!) about the failings of different presidents of the U.S. He used the term presidentiad in the piece. Lincoln was relatively unknown outside Illinois when Whitman wrote:

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.

Since Uncle Walt’s poetry sometimes sounds like prose, I still couldn’t remember exactly where that quote was. Nor could I remember much of the quote! I only knew that, almost prophetically, Whitman had predicted the coming of Abraham Lincoln down to the beard.

I dug! I read every political poem, I read “America,” “For You O Democracy,” and everything in the first two Leaves of Grass. I went through Drum Taps with a comb and even checked the choices made in the children’s books (which are lovely, by the way!) [1] I looked at what seemed like an endless number of indices in an equally endless number of biographies. I googled presidentiad, WaltWhitman+political poems, WaltWhitman+presidentiad, and any other combination of things you can put together or use singly.

Finally, in desperation, I played the “Chris Card.” Yes, I called Chris Mackowski. If anyone knew, it would be Chris, right? But it wasn’t. He sent some links to check, but I knew that without a complete quote, I would be nowhere. I had a cup of coffee and petted a cat…nothing. Could I do without the quote? Emphatically, no. I needed to show that Walt had a Lincoln in his sights long before anyone outside Illinois did. Argh!

Working backward is something researchers often do, so I checked to see if Walt had perhaps attended Lincoln’s speech at the Cooper Union. Nope—that was 1860. Too late for this quote; if Whitman had seen Lincoln, he would have mentioned it. He didn’t. I went back to the 1856 election involving James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore, and John Frémont.

I put in Whitman+1856election+presidentiad—Voila! OK—I was wrong about presidentiad—the prose piece/editorial’s name is “The Eighteenth Presidency! Voice of Walt Whitman to each young man in the Nation, North, South, East, and West.” Here’s a link: https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~cavitch/pdf-library/Whitman_Eighteenth.pdf. Read it. Brilliant!

Eureka! I found it! Yeah, but… explain to me why, if Lincoln was the SIXTEENTH president, just who is Whitman talking about? Grant was the eighteenth president. Maybe crowdsourcing will help? So, if anyone knows, please tell me. Meanwhile, I will consider this case closed for now, and move on to Walt Whitman’s definition of nationalism, because a demanding public wants to know. Right? Argh!


  [1] Poetry for Young People: Walt Whitman and Poetry for Kids: Walt Whitman.

3 Responses to What the Heck is a “Presidentiad,” Anyway?

  1. Yes, the ref is to the 18th election. I take it to be an appeal for Fremont on a free labor/populist theory as contrasted to Buchanan and Fillmore.

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