I asked you to think about Whitman as a poet of democracy and sexuality.
We toss around the word “democracy” all the time, so much that it has lost a lot of meaning for us. I think it basically means “we’re not communist” to many Americans.
When Whitman wrote “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in fact as he grew up and entered adulthood, “democracy” was a very important term and concept that held the careful attention of many people.
We need to remember that when the United States first came to be there were many questions that had to be answered: Who would rule this country? What would it take to be a citizen? Who would be able to vote? What about women? What about slaves? Who should have the most power? If there had to be a union of all the states, should a less populated state like South Carolina have as much power as a state with many more people, like New York?
Some of these questions were asked explicitly (about how slaves should be counted, which is where we got the “Three-Fifths Compromise”), while some were not (such as whether women should be allowed to vote—it wasn’t even a topic of discussion). Amid all this discussion was the issue of how much should be trusted to “common people.” People weren’t really sure if any could, or should, make decisions that could direct the course of a state or nation. Some people felt that people with wealth and property should govern the country; others felt that the voice of the common people should be more important. To the people who had wealth and property and felt they should be governing, those “common people” were just a scary, uneducated mass. To them, the “masses” were a mob. A mob, by definition is unruly, irrational, prone to violence, and generally terrifying.
The best visual representation of what “the masses” might have looked like in the mid-1800s is Martin Scorsese’s film, Gangs of New York. If have ever seen that movie, think of all the dirty and poor people, including immigrants, who live in the Five Points area of New York. That is your “democratic mob.”
People with money—and there are some of those people in Gangs of New York--look down on the masses and generally think of them as dangerous scum.
Now, think of how Whitman presents these people in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”
The narrator of the poem looks down on this ferry from above and records everything he sees there. He sees “crowds” of people, and while some people might have been afraid of those crowds or regarded them as the teeming, dirty, uneducated masses, Whitman embraces all that he sees.