American poet Walt Whitman celebrates the act of voting in “Election Day, November, 1884.” He emphasizes that the “heart of it” is not the actual election of a president, but instead “the act itself … the quadrennial choosing” that honors American democracy.
Election Day, November 1884
If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
‘Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon’s white cones—nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes—nor Mississippi’s stream:
—This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name—the still small voice vibrating—America’s choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland—Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling—(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.
English Language Arts
Consult Common Core ELA Literacy Standard 5.5A: Interpret figurative language, including similes and metaphors, in context.
- Discuss the water metaphors Whitman uses in “Election Day, November 1884.”
- Discussion questions about how Whitman might have interpreted “stormy gusts” and “precious ships” of state are presented in Questions 1-2 in the Questions tab.
Consult National Geography Standard 17.2: Describe and analyze the change in the number of states in the United States and their boundaries.
- Analyze how the geography of the United States has changed since Whitman wrote “Election Day, November 1884.”
- How has the physical geography of the United States changed since 1884? Discussion questions about states and territories are presented in Questions 3-4 in the Questions tab.
- How has the cultural geography of the United States changed since 1884? Discussion questions about voting rights and representation are presented in Questions 5-6 in the Questions tab.
- Read through these poems on election season in the U.S.: “On Election Day” by Charles Bernstein or “Election Year” by Donald Revell. How does their language and outlook differ from Whitman’s robust, optimistic verse?
- “Election Day, November 1884” is not the only Walt Whitman poem that uses a nautical theme to evoke presidential leadership. Whitman’s breathtaking “O Captain! My Captain” uses nautical metaphors to mourn the death of Abraham Lincoln.
- The actual presidential election of 1884 pitted New York Governor Grover Cleveland (D) against Speaker of the House James G. Blaine (R-Maine). (The incumbent president, Chester A. Arthur, was not nominated for a second term.) The race was very close and very ugly. Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, while his opponent earned the nickname “James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine.” Blaine’s camp also made notoriously anti-Catholic statements. Cleveland eventually won the election, and is the only U.S. president to have served two non-consecutive terms. (He was defeated for re-election by William McKinley in 1888, but voted into office again in 1892.)
- Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is among the most influential poets in American history. His monumental work, Leaves of Grass, was self-published in 1855 and Whitman continued to update it for the rest of his life. “Election Day, November 1884” is from the final edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1892.
deep, narrow valley with steep sides.
system of organization or government where the people decide policies or elect representatives to do so.
material of little or no value.
selection of people to public office by vote.
to undergo the natural or artificial process of fermentation, or changing a food's sugars into alcohols.
natural hot spring that sometimes erupts with water or steam.
sudden, strong wind.
word or phrase used to represent something else, or an understanding of one concept in terms of another concept.
having to do with oceans and sailing or navigation.
contradiction, or a statement that seems contradictory.
large grassland; usually associated with the Mississippi River Valley in the United States.
to cleanse thoroughly.
happening every four years.
to carry or convey lightly and smoothly, usually through air.