Whitman, Walt [Personnel Folder from the Department of the Treasury]
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Walt Whitman, an influential American poet and hospital volunteer, applied for government employment during the Civil War. However, under the so-called “spoils system,” many government officials obtained their positions not because of special skills, but because of whom they knew. So, Whitman wrote to his friend, the American transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and asked him to write letters of recommendation on his behalf to the secretary of state and secretary of treasury, who were both acquaintances of Emerson. Ralph Waldo Emerson described Whitman as “a man of strong original genius, combining, with marked eccentricities, great powers & valuable traits of character & a self-relying large-hearted man, much beloved by his friends; entirely patriotic + benevolent in his theory, tastes, & practice.” The government did indeed have work that Whitman could do, and for the next eleven years, Whitman was a public servant in three different cabinet departments. During the war years, while employed by the federal government, Whitman continued his volunteer work in the Union hospitals; he estimated that he visited between eighty thousand and one hundred thousand sick and wounded soldiers.
Text adapted from “1863 Letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson about Walt Whitman” in the May/June 2004 National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) publication Social Education.
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