Version classiqueVersion mobile

Mr. Emerson's Revolution

Jean McClure Mudge

Emerson the Reformer

3. Pragmatic Idealist in Action, 1850-1865

Len Gougeon

Texte intégral

What great masses of men wish done, will be done.
Emerson, “Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies” (1844)

1When Emerson entered the national scene in 1850 as a full-fledged reformer, he knew that America faced a dire moral threat. In September, the U. S. Congress passed a series of five measures, known collectively as “The Compromise of 1850.” They were designed to ease growing sectional tension over slavery but only succeeded in increasing it, largely due to one measure, the Fugitive Slave Law. It allowed southern agents to enter Free States in order to seize escaped slaves who had sought refuge there. A long-dormant Constitutional provision that deliberately avoided mention of slavery would now be enforced: any “person held to Service or Labour in one State... escaping into another... shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”1 During the decades following ratification, popular resistance in the Free States had effectively nullified this provision. Many of these states, including Massachusetts, had passed “Personal Liberty Laws” specifically designed to protect runaway slaves. In 1850, this law strengthening slavery outraged Emerson, especially because his own Senator Daniel Webster, a man he had once admired, played such a decisive role in its passage. Webster argued that he was merely trying to save the Union, but Emerson wondered at what cost. In the following decade, he became increasingly incensed both by the law and Webster.

The North-South Conflict in Historic Perspective

  • 2 Ibid., Article 1, Section 2.

2The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law was made possible by the South’s preponderant power in the Congress. In part, Southerners came to hold this position through the effect of the Constitution’s “three-fifths” provision: “Representatives... shall be apportioned among the Several States... according to their respective Numbers which shall be determined by adding the whole Number of free Persons... and... three fifths of all other Persons.” The “other Persons,” of course, were slaves.2 Initially, Southerners wanted to count all slaves as citizens in order to increase their representation in the House and in the Electoral College. Northerners objected that since southerners generally insisted that slaves were property and not people, they should no more be counted as “citizens” than cows or horses.

  • 3 Papers on the Slave Power: First Published in the Boston Whig, 1846, pamphlet in the Birney Anti-Sl (...)

3A compromise was reached: five slaves would count as three citizens. Over the decades that followed, this “three-fifths compromise” allowed the South to predominate in Congress, promoting policies and laws that were actually dictated by relatively few men. In short, the government was run by an oligarchy, derogatorily referred to as the “slave power.” Indeed, the Freesoiler John Gorham Palfrey, for whom Emerson would campaign in 1851, made this very argument in 1846. Writing in the Boston Whig, Palfrey held that the free citizens of the country, “amounting to some eighteen millions in number, are subjects of an oligarchy of about one hundred thousand owners of men. There are perhaps three hundred thousand slaveholders in the country,” he noted. “Allowing for minors and women, probably not far from one-third the number are voters, and they administer our affairs.”3

4Eventually, another major compromise with slavery became necessary in order to maintain a political balance between Free States and Slave States. When Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a Slave State in 1819, it threatened to upset the balance that had prevailed up to that time. The famous Missouri Compromise of 1820 provided that Maine, previously a part of Massachusetts, would enter the Union as a Free State at the same time as Missouri, thus preserving a national balance. However, the measure also forbade the creation of any new slave states from the territories of the Louisiana Purchase (1803). In the 1850s, the slave power’s successful challenge to this provision exacerbated long-standing regional antagonisms, eventually leading to the Civil War.

5Opposition to slavery increased steadily in the three decades leading up to that war. In the early 1830s, Boston emerged as a center for the growing antislavery movement. On 1 January 1831, William Lloyd Garrison published the first issue of the Liberator, destined to become America’s most famous abolitionist newspaper.

3.1 William Lloyd Garrison at 28, 1833.

3.2 The Liberator, Friday, March 22, 1844.

  • 4 John L. Thomas, The Liberator: William Lloyd Garrison, A Biography (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown & (...)

6A year later, he and nine others formed the New England Anti-Slavery Society.4 Eventually this organization would attract a number of eloquent antislavery orators who would preach the cause of freedom and resistance to the slave power throughout the North. The most notable of these were Samuel Joseph May (Louisa May Alcott’s uncle), Frederick Douglass, and Wendell Phillips. Women largely supported the antislavery movement, especially in the early years. Through fairs, picnics, bazaars, and the sale of gift books like The Liberty Bell, they raised money to keep the organization afloat and to subsidize Garrison’s Liberator. Early on, talented women strengthened the movement by serving as editors, writers, and speakers. Among them were Maria Chapman, Sojourner Truth, and three Quaker women leaders: the Grimké sisters of South Carolina and Lucretia Mott of Philadelphia.

Emerson’s Path into the World of Reform

7At first, the skeptic in Emerson kept him apart from reforming “associations.” He believed that reform could best be accomplished through the individual practice of “self-culture,” his Transcendental term for moral self-improvement. Also, in the early years of the abolitionist movement, he found many of its proponents to be narrow, bitter, and self-righteous. After the abolitionist George Thompson visited his home in 1835, Emerson recorded the following in his journal.

  • 5 The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 16 vols., eds. William H. Gilman, (...)

Thompson the Abolitionist is inconvertible; what you say or what might be said would make no impression on him. He belongs I fear to that great class of the Vanity-stricken. An inordinate thirst for notice can not be gratified until it has found in its gropings what is called a Cause that men will bow to; tying himself fast to that, the small man is then at liberty to consider all objections made to him as proofs of folly & the devil in the objector, & under that screen, if he gets a rotten egg or two, yet his name sounds through the world and he is praised & praised.5

8But over the years, he came to admire and support many abolitionist leaders, including Mary Merrick Brooks, president of Concord’s own Female Anti-Slavery Society. In fact, all the women in Emerson’s household, beginning with Lidian in the 1830s, would become members of that Society.

  • 6 JMN 9: 134.
  • 7 JMN 9: 132, L 7: 523; JMN 9: 125.

9Eventually, he would entertain several of these leaders in his home, including the Grimké sisters, Garrison, and Wendell Phillips. Phillips, Emerson came to feel, was one of the best orators of the age. Against protests by conservatives, he would argue successfully for Phillip’s right to speak on slavery at the Concord Lyceum, a controversial topic even there. His admiration for Garrison, the most famous of the abolitionists, grew considerably over the years. In 1841, Emerson noted, “I cannot speak of that gentleman without respect.”6 He also considered Lucretia Mott a “noble woman,” and described Frederick Douglass as a compelling example of the heroic “anti-slave.”7 Emerson’s eventual alliance with these reformers came only after the slavery issue heated up and he began to appreciate their abolitionist efforts. Yet seeds for this shift lay in his earlier writings.

3.3 Lydian Jackson Emerson, about 55, c. 1850s.

  • 8 The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols, eds. Robert E. Spiller, et al. (Cambridge, Mas (...)

10When Emerson gave his “American Scholar” address in 1837, he assured his distinguished audience of Harvard alumni and students that “Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man.”8 Announcing a cultural revolution, his mission was change and reform. The question was, how might someone such as himself, attuned to “the strains of eloquence,” as he put it, actually act? Until the late 1830s and early 1840s, he felt that moral suasion and education were action enough. By “goodness calling to goodness,” his speeches sought to open listeners to the divine voice within. He hoped that his message would lead individuals to an intuitive perception of universal moral law, which would then transform society. In this early view, change in the single soul had to come first.

  • 9 CW 1: 62.
  • 10 “Ode: Inscribed to W. H. Channing,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emers (...)
  • 11 David Robinson, Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Works (...)

11By the mid-1840s, however, Emerson recognized that this strategy was simply not working. Far from improving, America was actually becoming more corrupt. Years before, he had warned about the dangers of materialism. Now the nation’s commercial success had fostered what he called a “vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism.”9 In an 1846 poem, Emerson lamented, “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”10 For him, the grossest example of this grasping after goods was the institution of slavery, long embodied by the South’s “ownership” of Washington, D. C. Throughout the late 1840s, the Southern slave power threatened to grow exponentially. Soon after the Mexican War ended in 1848, Texas entered the Union as a large, new Slave State. Simultaneously, vast new territories acquired as a result of the war — territories that extended west to California and north to Utah — promised an even further expansion of the slave power. These national developments accentuated Emerson’s moral and cultural distress. Consequently, beginning in the mid-1840s, his philosophy began to undergo a significant transition, as previously traced in Chapter 2. The “visionary ecstasy” of his earlier works gave way to a belief in “ethical engagement as a means of spiritual fulfillment.”11 As a result, Emerson became more and more involved in the major social issues of his day, especially slavery and, eventually, the women’s rights movement.

Emerson’s Landmark Steps as a Reformer

  • 12 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson’s Antislavery Writings, eds. Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson (New Haven, (...)
  • 13 EAW 31.

12In Concord on August 1, 1844, Emerson delivered his first major antislavery address, “Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies.” It was the tenth anniversary of that event, and the women in his family, along with their antislavery friends and cohorts, encouraged him to take this part. The recent aggressive growth of the slave power demanded a new tactic and Emerson’s tone in the speech is decidedly militant. He denounced the creeping and insidious influence of slavery’s “barbarities” on American civilization, and applauded the violent uprisings of the West Indian slaves who sought to win their freedom. “The arrival in the world of such men as Toussaint [L’Ouverture] and the Haytian heroes, of the leaders of their race in Barbadoes and Jamaica, outweighs in good omen all the English and American humanity.”12 In their quest for freedom, West Indian blacks demonstrated a moral superiority that set them above their “civilized” white oppressors. For Emerson, the rebellion of these long-suffering victims proved that the love of freedom was universal and irrepressible, a compelling moral principle that in itself guaranteed liberty’s eventual triumph over oppression. Even abolitionism’s considerable might paled before this dynamic and eternal moral force. “The anti-slavery of the whole world, is dust in the balance before this — is a poor squeamishness and nervousness; the might and the right are here: here is man: and if you have man, black or white is an insignificance.”13

  • 14 Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress; Len Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, a (...)
  • 15 Lawrence Buell, Emerson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), 256.

13Young Frederick Douglass shared the platform with Emerson on this special day in Concord. In his book, Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845), Douglass would soon provide eloquent testimony of his own heroic struggle for freedom. When Emerson next spoke on West Indian Emancipation in August 1845, Douglass copied portions of his address into a personal notebook. Undoubtedly, he also read the Liberator’s separate accounts of both this speech and Emerson’s public refusal to address the New Bedford Lyceum in November 1845 to protest their racist membership policy.14 Douglass’s and Emerson’s paths would cross many times as the abolitionists accelerated their antislavery efforts in the fifteen years before the Civil War. Douglass was especially taken with Emerson’s idea of self-reliance and applied it to the black slaves’ struggle to become free men. Beginning in the 1850s and into the 1890s, he repeatedly lectured on the topic “Self-Made Men.”15

3.4 Frederick Douglass at about 29, c. 1847.

  • 16 EAW 35, 36, 37.

14In the following year, Emerson accepted an invitation to deliver another address celebrating West Indian emancipation. In this second address, he attacked the bitter racism that was the primary justification for slavery. “What is the defense of Slavery,” he asks. “What is the irresistible argument by which every plea of humanity and reason has hitherto been borne down?” The argument is summed up in one word, “Niggers!— a word which... is reckoned stronger than heaven.” “They who say it and they who hear it,” says Emerson, “think it the voice of nature and fate” proclaiming an inescapable “inferiority of race” that renders all the arguments of the reformer moot. Such an obscene fatalism strikes at the very heart of Emerson’s Transcendentalist notion of cosmic justice, and he rejects it outright. “The only reply,” he says, “to this poor, sceptical ribaldry is the affirming heart. The sentiment of right, which is the principle of civilization and the reason of reason, fights against this damnable atheism.”16

15Emerson’s new militancy grew throughout the balance of the 1840s. He accepted invitations to speak on the increasingly controversial topic of slavery, despite conservative opposition to the antislavery movement throughout New England.

3.5 Emerson at about 47, c. 1850.

  • 17 Gary Collison, Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Universi (...)

16Wealthy Northern textile factory owners depended on cheap Southern cotton to keep their mills profitably producing. These “gentlemen of property and standing,” and others who indirectly gained from the institution of slavery, were determined to resist any movement that threatened a change in the economic status quo. As friction between the Slave and Free States grew following the Mexican War, the thirty-year-old Missouri Compromise became untenable. As a result, Congress attempted to defuse the situation with “The Compromise of 1850.” For the North, the most onerous element of this compromise was most certainly the Fugitive Slave Law. Before, fugitive slaves who managed to escape to the North could be reasonably confident of freedom and security. But after 1850, agents from the South were allowed to enter Free States to recover the slave owner’s human “property.” Also, Northern commissioners were appointed to preside over hearings to determine if the accused was actually a fugitive slave. If the finding was “yes,” the commissioner was paid a fee of $ 10 (or $ 288 today). If the finding was “no,” he was paid only $ 5 ($ 144). The law also made harboring or aiding a fugitive slave a crime punishable by fine and imprisonment.17

  • 18 JMN 11: 412.

17Emerson was incensed at this grossly immoral effort to re-activate an earlier Constitutional requirement that to him had become a “dead letter.” Such a backward development challenged his faith in moral progress. In his journal, he wondered how such a “filthy enactment” could have been “made in the19th century, by people who could read & write.” Like many other persons of conscience in the North, he vowed “I will not obey it, by God.” 18

3.6 Boston broadside cautioning blacks, 4 April 1851.

  • 19 EAW 51.
  • 20 Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, (...)
  • 21 Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 195.
  • 22 Margaret Fuller, The Portable Margaret Fuller, ed. Mary Kelley (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 453

18In an open letter to his abolitionist friends, published in the Liberator on April 18, 1851, the eve of the Revolution’s seventy-sixth anniversary, Emerson issued an unequivocal call for civil disobedience. He encouraged resistance to the law “in every manner, singly or socially, in private and in public, by voice and by pen — and, first of all, by substantial help and hospitality to the slave, and defending him against his hunters.”19 Despite the threat of fine and imprisonment, he and a small number of Concord neighbors agreed to provide aid and shelter to any runaway slave who should appear at their doors.20 Concord’s Underground Railroad, with Henry David Thoreau frequently serving as guide and conductor, eventually forwarded many runaway slaves to the safe haven of Canada.21 Margaret Fuller’s example undoubtedly encouraged Emerson’s new militancy. Fuller, author of the proto-feminist work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), had been in Italy since 1847. When its war for independence began in 1848, she covered the conflict as a foreign correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune. Soon she fell in love with an Italian rebel, Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, and joined the revolution herself. First among her Transcendental circle to test its philosophy of reform in a violent struggle for liberty, and true to her radical nature, Fuller’s dispatches from Rome glowingly reported on “these sad but glorious days” of conflict, and the bloody sacrifices of young Italian patriots.22 Her example as a writer and active revolutionary in a war against oppression undoubtedly inspired her friends at home.

  • 23 Albert J. Von Frank, The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston (Cambridg (...)
  • 24 EAW 56.
  • 25 Ibid., 57.

19In the spring of 1851, not long after Emerson had begun his fight against the Fugitive Slave Law, one of its first victims, a young runaway named Thomas Sims, was captured in Boston. This event drew national attention. Despite abolitionists’ vigorous protests against the rendition verdict of Judge Lemuel Shaw (Herman Melville’s father-in-law), Sims was returned to bondage in Georgia from which he had so heroically escaped.23 Emerson’s outrage now reached a near fever pitch. He prepared to attack the new law in the most acerbic and bitter speech of his career, “Address to the Citizens of Concord” on May 3, 1851. Sims’s return was accomplished with the assent and co-operation of some of Boston’s most prominent citizens. Emerson was shocked by this capitulation of the educated elite to gross barbarity. “I thought none that was not ready to go on all fours,” he jabbed, “would back this law.”24 Emerson here made concrete his earlier hopes that a higher moral law, one that ensured freedom to all humanity, would guide the public’s actions. For him, the moral laws of the universe demand liberty for all humanity. Returning escaped slaves to bondage was clearly an obscene violation of this universal moral code. “A man’s right to liberty,” Emerson insisted, “is as inalienable as his right to life.” He called upon his fellow citizens to defend this sacred principle, stating unconditionally, “If our resistance to this law is not right, there is no right.”25

20For Emerson, Daniel Webster, Massachusetts’s gifted but conservative senator, was the chief villain.

3.7 Daniel Webster at 69, 1851.

  • 26 Ibid., 65, 67.

21By throwing his considerable weight behind the Fugitive Slave Law, in an alliance with Southern Congressmen, he had made this miscarriage of justice possible. Like many other Northerners, including Emerson’s friend and fellow poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Webster had been willing to sell the region’s conscience in the name of national unity and to preserve a comfortable material status quo. Once a younger Emerson had idolized Webster as a political orator second to none. His brother Edward had studied in Webster’s law offices. Now, however, the senator’s betrayal of Massachusetts’s commitment to liberty turned his admiration to disgust. “The fairest American fame,” Emerson asserts, “ends in this filthy law. Mr. Webster cannot choose but regret his loss.... Those to whom his name was once dear and honored, as the manly statesman to whom the choicest gifts of nature had been accorded, disown him.” With uncommon ferocity, Emerson vividly depicts Webster as one who could not see the higher ideal because, as he puts it, “All the drops of his blood have eyes that look downward.”26

22On several occasions in the spring of 1851, Emerson repeated this speech, his first opposing the Fugitive Slave Law, in a stump campaign for his friend John Gorham Palfrey, who was running for a seat in Congress on the Free Soil ticket. Palfrey’s bid failed, but Emerson’s baptism in the fire of radical politics, something quite foreign to him as a scholar, illustrates his determination to respond to the moral emergency of the times. Throughout the speech, his militant insistence on civil disobedience as the only appropriate response to a grossly evil law did not go unnoticed in Boston’s conservative press. “All that was waged against the law by Mr. Emerson,” a writer for the Boston Advertiser (May 23, 1851) observed, “would have applied equally well to any law providing for the surrender of fugitive slaves.” Therefore, according to this logic Mr. Emerson was actually attacking the “provision of the Constitution” upon which such laws were founded, a radical and dangerous course, indeed. “If the doctrines of his lecture were sustained and enforced in the Free States,” the writer noted, “the Union would be infallibly severed.” The writer spoke truer than he knew.

  • 27 Ibid., 28.

23Emerson’s direct involvement in Palfrey’s campaign was, indeed, exceptional. By temperament and taste, he thought his best service was rendered from the lecture podium, not the political stump. That he made an exception for Palfrey demonstrates his commitment to the democratic process and the depth of his faith in the basic decency of “we the people.” Still committed to the Transcendentalist ideal that all people were inherently divine, Emerson felt that when properly informed, their collective voice might become, quite literally, the voice of the divinity that is present in all of humanity. The obligation of government, he believed, was to implement the people’s will. As early as his 1844 Emancipation address, he had observed that in a democracy, “What great masses of men wish done, will be done.”27 But that required an arduous and lengthy democratic process of free debate and discussion — reasoned discourse — to lift up, educate, and persuade the electorate toward their best interest.

24Not surprisingly, then, Emerson was most incensed by the slave power’s practice of stifling free speech. A case in point was the Congressional “gag rule.” This rule automatically tabled all antislavery petitions. Antislavery materials were deemed “incendiary” and an embargo was placed on their transmission through the Federal mails. Public discussion of the subject of abolition was forbidden for the same reason. For Emerson, these were the acts of a tyrannical oligarchy and were an unacceptable abridgment of the rights of a free people. Public dialogue and discussion, he felt, were essential in a democracy as the necessary antecedent to collective action.

  • 28 Ibid., 103.

25While Emerson always insisted on the importance of self-reliance and the validity of intuitively perceived values, he came to see that it was important for individuals to connect with society in order to improve it. This change of emphasis matched an increasingly pragmatic vein in his idealism. Emerson makes this point explicit in his “Lecture on Slavery” (1855). “But whilst I insist on the doctrine of the independence and the inspiration of the individual,” he notes, “I do not cripple but exalt the social action. Patriotism, public opinion, have a real meaning, though there is so much counterfeit rag money abroad under it, that the name is apt to disgust. A wise man delights in the powers of many people.... We shall need to call them all out.”28

Bloodshed in the Run-up to War

26Throughout the 1850s, tensions between Slave and Free States often erupted in violence. In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, effectively nullifying the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had specifically excluded slavery from the territories of the Louisiana Purchase. Vast new areas now lay open to settlement by pro-slavery advocates, potentially upsetting the balance between Free and Slave States.

27Inhabitants of each new state were to determine whether they should be Slave or Free, a position opposed by antislavery reformers. The stakes were high; the South’s Congressional hegemony was threatened and with it the future of slavery.

3.8 Fugitive slave, Anthony Burns, 24, returned to Virginia from Boston in 1854.

28In Kansas, a virtual guerrilla war soon broke out between free farmers, immigrants from Massachusetts and elsewhere, and proslavery “Border Ruffians” from Missouri. When the Missourians wrecked the free-farmers’ state capital at Lawrence, a fundamentalist abolitionist, John Brown of Connecticut, retaliated, leading a small band in murdering five proslavery settlers near Pottawatomie Creek. Northern newspapers reported in detail the growth of violence in what was now called “bleeding Kansas.”

29Meanwhile, conflict in the nation’s capital reflected the territory’s volatile events. In heated Congressional debates in May 1856, Massachusetts’ abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, elected to Webster’s seat after his death in 1852, delivered a rousing, two-day speech, “The Crime Against Kansas.” He strongly denounced the “slave oligarchy,” calling it the “harlotry” that supported the proslavery faction, naming in particular South Carolina Senator Andrew P. Butler. Just three days later, Butler’s irate nephew, Preston S. Brooks, a Congressman from South Carolina, brutally attacked Sumner as he sat at his Senate desk, repeatedly beating him with a cane until he was unconscious.

3.9 Senator Charles Sumner’s caning in the U.S. Senate, 1856.

  • 29 David Herbert Donald, Charles Sumner (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), 295-96.
  • 30 EAW 107.

30The attack so severely injured Sumner that it took him three-and-half years to recover.29 This blatant brutality in the very halls of government outraged Emerson. Only four days after Sumner’s beating, he addressed a Concord protest meeting, venting his anger: “I do not see how,” he observed, “a barbarous community and a civilized community can constitute one state. I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom.”30

  • 31 Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols., eds. Ralph L. Rusk and Eleanor M (...)

31Clearly, the corruption of Southern slavery, with strong support from the North’s commercial interests, was infecting the very fabric of the nation. For twelve years now, Emerson had spoken out against slavery, and had formed a virtual alliance with the abolitionists and their leaders, especially William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. Their combined efforts, however, had not only failed to diminish the power of the institution within the federal government, they had failed to deter the potential of its legal expansion. Privately, Emerson confided to a friend, “If the Free States do not obtain the government next fall, which our experience does not entitle us to hope, nothing seems left, but to form at once a Northern Union & break the old.”31 The forces that would ultimately precipitate such a rupture were already in play.

32All over Massachusetts, committees were being formed to raise money for relief and protection of the free farmers in Kansas. In June, a fund-raising event was held in Concord, and Emerson donated the substantial sum of fifty dollars (about $ 1,330 today). He also joined neighbors in signing a letter to the governor calling upon him to protect Massachusetts citizens in Kansas. In September, Emerson spoke at a Kansas relief meeting in Cambridge where he urged his listeners to “give largely, lavishly” to a fund that would be used to purchase Sharpe’s rifles and other equipment necessary to defend freedom’s cause in Kansas. For Emerson, as for many others, the time had come to meet force with force.

  • 32 Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 231.

33The nation was by now utterly polarized. The presidential campaign of 1856 pitted Democrat James Buchanan against Republican John Fremont. Buchanan won the election on a platform that supported both the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Republicans, meanwhile, continued to insist that Congress had the right to control slavery, not the inhabitants of the territories. The U. S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in March 1857 intensified the national debate. In this famous case, the court held that no person of slave descent or blood could be considered a citizen of the United States, and therefore had no standing in the courts. Furthermore, the decision declared that Negroes were generally regarded “as so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”32

  • 33 EAW 105.

34For Emerson, who had once declared that the role of government was to protect the “poor and the weaker party,” the ruling was perverse. The very essence of American democracy was its dedication to the preservation of the principle of liberty for all. As recently as January 1855, in his “Lecture on Slavery,” Emerson had insisted, “Every American will say, ‘in the collision of statutes, or in doubtful interpretation, liberty is the great order which all lesser orders are to promote.’” For Emerson, American law should always seek to obtain for “every man the largest liberty compatible with the liberty of every other man.” He advised, “No citizen will go wrong who on every question leans to the side of general liberty.”33

3.10 Emerson about 51-52, c. 1854-1855.

  • 34 JMN 14: 197.

35The Dred Scott decision, following just three years after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the proslavery victory in the presidential election the previous year, was apparently enough to convince Emerson that the federal government was now firmly in the control of forces opposed to freedom, equality, and justice. His militancy intensified, and he felt increasingly defensive. He confided in his journal a resolve to prevent this immoral plague from spreading: “We intend to set up & keep a cordon sanitaire all around the infected district, & by no means suffer the pestilence to spread.”34 This growing determination to forcefully resist the further expansion of slavery reinforced his support for the freedom fighters in Kansas.

36In February 1857, John Brown, vilified in the South because of the “Pottawatomie Massacre,” but considered a hero to many in the North, visited Concord to raise funds for his guerrilla partisans. He lunched with the Thoreau family, and in the afternoon was introduced to Emerson, who was immediately impressed by this forceful, imposing figure. Brown’s later address at Concord’s Town Hall reinforced Emerson’s positive response, leading him to affirm his own growing militancy. “One of [Brown’s] good points,” he notes, “was the folly of the peace party in Kansas, who believed that their strength lay in the greatness of their wrongs & so discountenanced resistance.” At the end of his stirring presentation, Brown vowed to carry on the struggle until the battle against slavery was won.

3.11 Heralds of Freedom, 1857.

  • 35 W 7: 427.

37Brown’s final battle was not long in coming. In May 1859, again in Concord, he spoke at the Town Hall appealing for funds. Emerson, with many others, contributed to his cause. In October, he was still collecting money for him when word came that Brown, with only twenty-odd supporters, had attacked the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Their hope of arming and leading an insurrection of slaves throughout the South shocked many Brown supporters. It seemed a desperate and foolhardy attack by a small, untrained band on a much superior federal force that had no chance of success. Initially Emerson was also shocked, thinking Brown had “lost his head,” but was soon praising his audacity, courage, and idealism. After two days of fighting, Brown and the other survivors were captured by troops led by Col. Robert E. Lee. They were charged with treason. While many condemned the violence and bloodshed suffered in the assault, Emerson continued to support his hero. In a lecture in November, titled simply “Courage,” he spoke of Brown as “that new saint... who if he shall suffer, will make the gallows like the cross.”35

38For some, this allusion to Christ was pure blasphemy. After a highly publicized trial, in which Brown eloquently defended his action in the name of liberty and justice, he was condemned and sentenced to hang on December 2, 1859. The nation’s torment over the cause for which he died only increased.

3.12 Emerson at 55, 1858.

3.13 John Brown at 59, 1859.

  • 36 EAW 118.
  • 37 Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 256.

39Conservatives in Massachusetts and throughout the country declaimed ― as did the Boston Post that December ― against the “anti-slavery fanatics” who supported Brown rather than the Constitution. Emerson had a different view. Before Brown’s death, in a “Speech... to Aid John Brown’s Family,” he praised him as a “pure idealist” who believed in “the Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence” as the proper guides to reform.36 Repercussions from the raid continued to be felt: Southerners, long suspicious that the North was fomenting slave uprisings, appointed a Congressional committee to investigate the activities of a small group of Brown’s supporters known as the “Secret Six.” Emerson was not one of them, but his Concord neighbor, Franklin Sanborn, was. When federal agents from the committee arrived in Concord to arrest Sanborn in April 1860, a crowd of angry townspeople drove them off. Soon thereafter, a vigilance group was formed to protect any other citizens from such abuses.37 At least at home, Emerson’s “cordon sanitaire” was apparently taking shape.

  • 38 JMN 15: 111.

40The debate over slavery continued to intensify, and violence became even more common. Abolitionists, seen by many as largely responsible for this growing discord, were warned not to attempt further public meetings. Emerson was well aware of the growing danger but refused to be intimidated. Privately, he exhorted himself: “Do the duty of the day. Just now the supreme duty of all thinking men is to assert freedom. Go where it is threatened, & say, ‘I am for it, & do not wish to live in the world a moment longer than it exists.’”38

41His resolution was soon to be tested.

3.14 Emerson at 56, 1859.

Lincoln’s Election, the End of Southern Hegemony and Civil War

  • 39 JMN 15: 91.

42In November 1860, the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States without a single Southern electoral vote. The national fault line now widened to a chasm. The South’s slave oligarchy, after dominating the federal government for decades, had been defeated. This sudden loss of power quickly prompted a reaction. In December, South Carolina issued a Declaration of Secession from the Union. In the months that followed, ten other Southern states did the same, soon forming the Confederate States of America. Emerson was elated. For some time, he had contemplated a Northern secession as necessary to resist slavery. The South’s abrupt departure might be a first step in its eventual eradication. Once isolated and contained like a contagious disease, he was sure that slavery would die a natural death. The events of the day, as Emerson saw them, were “hastening the downfall.”39

  • 40 Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 264-66.
  • 41 JMN 15: 111.

43Conservatives in the North were upset by the prospect of the dissolution of the Union. A number of compromise proposals were discussed in Washington in hopes of resolving the crisis. Meanwhile, mob violence against abolitionists grew dramatically. In response, Wendell Phillips had taken to carrying a revolver in public, accompanied by a bodyguard of young volunteers. Yet he and his fellow abolitionists would not be silenced. They scheduled a public meeting for Tremont Temple in Boston on January 24, 1861. Phillips asked Emerson to be one of the speakers, and despite the strong likelihood that anti-abolition rowdies would attempt to disrupt the gathering, he accepted. Three loud cheers greeted him, followed by three counter cheers for the Union, along with catcalls from the rowdies. In the disorder, the police stood idly by. Yet according to the Liberator (February 1, 1861), Emerson was not intimidated, and he was in no mood for compromise. “As to concessions,” he said, “we have none to make. The monstrous concession made at the formation of the Constitution is all that can ever be asked; it has blocked the civilization and humanity of the times up to this day.” Calls rained down on him: “put him out,” “dry up,” “unbutton your coat.” The situation became so chaotic that Emerson was forced to withdraw, and the meeting ended with the police clearing the galleries.40 Yet Emerson felt that an important point had been made. In fact, he felt so strongly about it that he later noted in his journal, “If I were dumb [a mute], yet I would have gone & mowed & muttered or made signs.”41

  • 42 JMN 15: 405.

44Attempts to forge a compromise with the Southerners ultimately failed. Lincoln, however, remained determined to preserve the Union at all costs. The die had been cast. The nation exploded into Civil War as rebel cannons fired upon Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina on April 12, 1861. Emerson, like many others, was surprised by this dramatic development, but welcomed it. He had always believed that moral progress was inevitable, despite the corruption and resistance of some. The war, coming unexpectedly, confirmed his faith. “This revolution,” he wrote in his journal, “is the work of no man, but the effervescence of nature... nothing that has occurred but has been a surprise, & as much to the leaders as to the hindmost. And not an abolitionist, not an idealist, can say without effrontery, I did it.”42

  • 43 Ibid., 15: 145.
  • 44 The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson: 1843-1871, 2 vols., eds. Ronald Bosco and Joel Myerson ( (...)

45While Lincoln had declared that the war was a struggle to restore the Union, Emerson had a much grander vision. For him, war was an opportunity to remove the cancer of slavery from the body politic once and for all, to heal the resulting wound, and to bring about a new birth of freedom and equality in America. With this, the original promise of the Founding Fathers could at last be fulfilled. At first, few shared this vision. Most expected a short conflict and a speedy restoration of the Union as it had been, under a firm federal authority. Emerson remained convinced, however, that an irrepressible “moral force” was at work. “If the war goes on,” he noted in his journal, “it will be impossible to keep the combatants from the extreme ground on either side. In spite of themselves, one army will stand for slavery pure; & the other for pure freedom.”43 Events soon proved him right. When the inexperienced Union army suffered a catastrophic defeat in the first major battle of the war at Bull Run (Manassas), on July 14, 1861, it became clear to most that the South was determined to fight and that the war would be long and costly. Just days before the battle, Emerson delivered an address to the students at Tufts College, observing “the brute noise of the cannon has... a most poetic echo these days when it is an instrument of freedom and the primal sentiment of humanity.”44

  • 45 LL 2: 242.
  • 46 W 11: 299.
  • 47 LL 2: 311.

46For Emerson, this “primal sentiment” was the moral force of the divine, the ultimate guide for those who would lead a just life. Following the Revolution, America had become nearly deaf to the dictates of this moral guide. The result was a corrupt, vulgar, and barbaric prosperity. America’s moral education, its broad knowledge of right and wrong, had faltered. This knowledge, Emerson argued, and “the divine oracle which it ought to have delivered, it has failed to deliver.” “National calamities,” like the present war, are the natural result.45 Nevertheless, Emerson believed that America was on track to produce a more perfect democracy, one characterized by universal freedom and equality, the “inalienable rights” affirmed in the Declaration of Independence. In Washington in January 1862, he told an audience, “Our whole history appears like a last effort of the Divine Providence in behalf of the human race.”46 In this time of crisis, he felt it imperative to maintain a clear vision to guide the process: “Where there is no vision the people perish,” he later affirmed to students at Dartmouth College.47 Emerson was not about to let that happen.

Emerson, Lincoln, and Emancipation

47For Emerson, the America promised by the Declaration was to be based on principles that today are considered the essence of liberal democracy: liberty, equality, and justice for all regardless of race, religion, or gender. And he saw the first giant step toward realizing these ideals to be universal emancipation. At the outset of his presidency, Lincoln had taken a decidedly different course. For personal and moral reasons, he may have wanted to free the slaves, yet political necessity led him to follow the more conservative Republican Party platform. It tolerated slavery where it already existed, but opposed its extension into the territories. At the war’s start, Lincoln needed to hold not only Republican conservatives but also to keep four slave-holding “Border States” (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware) loyal to the Union. Therefore, he resisted abolitionists’ efforts to declare emancipation as a specific goal.

  • 48 Oates, Stephen B., With Malice toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Harper Perennial, (...)
  • 49 David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 166-67, 221.
  • 50 James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), 49 (...)

48Complicating his position further, Lincoln believed that most emancipated blacks could never live free lives in this country because, as one historian describes it, “Wherever they went here, whites would oppress them, refuse them equal rights, want them to go. It was a fact of life they all had to face.”48 From early in his political career, this intolerance led Lincoln to support those who favored a colonization plan to remove freed blacks from America to Africa or the Caribbean.49 He also recognized that racism was a bitter fact of life both North and South. Consequently, an emancipation declaration might demoralize Union troops who believed that they were fighting to restore the Union and not to free blacks. Indeed, many of them would have undoubtedly agreed with a soldier from New York who insisted in a letter home, “We must first conquer & then its [sic] time enough to talk about the damn’d niggers.”50

  • 51 He would later repeat this presentation in Washington, D. C. in January.

49In the face of such bigotry, Emerson was determined to swiftly and repeatedly promote his vision of a free, racially diverse, and just American society. In a lecture appropriately titled “American Civilization,” delivered first in Boston on November 12, 1861 and then at the Smithsonian in January 1862, he made his position clear. “The war for the Union is broader than any state policy of sectional interest,” he insisted. The nation must be one, united on the basis of equal rights and justice for all. As it is, “The Union is not broad enough, because of slavery; and we must come to emancipation, with compensation to the loyal states. This is a principle. Everything else is an intrigue.”51 The address was later published in the Atlantic Monthly in April.

  • 52 Quoted in Gougeon, “‘Fortune of the Republic’: Emerson, Lincoln, and Transcendental Warfare,” ESQ: (...)

50Strong opposition to emancipation also came from the conservative Democratic Party, which continued to have substantial influence in the North. Their motto was “The Constitution as it is, and the Union as it was.” When Lincoln’s proposal to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia (with compensation to the owners) was approved by Congress in April 1862, the party reacted predictably. Boston’s Democratic newspaper, the Courier, referred to the measure as “a mortal blow to the Union... in spirit and effect.” The writer complained that, except for the chance that the U. S. Supreme Court might declare it unconstitutional, “we should at once relinquish hopes, cherished through every discouragement, for the return for the country to its normal state under the Constitution.”52

  • 53 Oates, 319.

51As the war dragged on, Lincoln was continually pressured by appeals from abolitionists and others in support of emancipation. But he was simultaneously worried about European intervention in the struggle, especially by the British whose strong commercial and social ties made them favor the South. (Even Emerson’s friend, Carlyle, for example, was bitterly racist, pro-slavery, and sympathetic towards the Confederacy.) Yet the support of British abolitionists and workingmen, as Lincoln was coming to see, might be won with a declaration of emancipation. Such a measure would give the Union cause the higher moral ground in the struggle. Soon after a technical Union victory at Antietam on September 17, 1862, Lincoln advised his Cabinet that when Congress convened in December, he intended to promote gradual and compensated emancipation in the loyal states, along with voluntary colonization. But in those states still in rebellion on January 1, 1863, “thenceforth and forever” all slaves would be declared free.53

  • 54 Donald, Lincoln, 377.

52Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, announced just five days after Antietam on September 22, brought on a sharp, swift, and negative reaction, proving just how risky it was. Its effects threatened Lincoln’s own carefully tended, tenuous coalition of Republicans, War Democrats, and border-state leaders. It also strengthened the peace element in the Democratic Party that was agitating for an end to the war through compromise with the slave power. Finally, it threatened to provoke a mutiny in the army. The situation was dire. As one distinguished scholar puts it, “During the hundred days after he issued the preliminary proclamation, Lincoln’s leadership was more seriously threatened than at any other time, and it was not clear that his administration could survive the repeated crises that it faced.”54

  • 55 Richardson, 551.
  • 56 Buell, 34.
  • 57 Ralph Rusk, The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949), 414; JMN 1 (...)

53In these grim times, Emerson was one of the most prominent and formidable of Lincoln’s supporters. With a distinguished career spanning three decades, he was now a cultural icon, an inescapable part of American public life.55 For many in the North, he seemed to embody the Union’s highest ideals.56 Emerson had met with Lincoln twice, and with Charles Sumner after speaking on “American Civilization” at the Smithsonian Institution in January 1862. Emerson liked Lincoln immediately, describing the president as “a frank, sincere, well-meaning man.”57 When the war began, Emerson had been disappointed with Lincoln’s priorities. He had put the cause of Union before emancipation, and seemed painfully slow in acting on this vital issue. However, when Lincoln finally issued his Preliminary Emancipation Declaration, Emerson was quick to applaud it.

  • 58 W 11: 319, 317.
  • 59 Herbert, 377.

54Only three weeks after the announcement, Emerson celebrated the event in Boston in his address, “The Emancipation Proclamation.” He heralded Lincoln’s statement not so much for its actual effect ― the vast majority of slaves in the South remained under the control of their rebel masters ― but for the principle of freedom that it affirmed. “It is by no means necessary,” Emerson asserted, “that this measure should be suddenly marked by any signal results on the negroes or on the rebel masters. The force of the act is that it commits the country to this justice,― that it compels the innumerable officers, civil, military, naval, of the Republic to range themselves on the side of this equity.” Through his Proclamation, despite any reluctance he may have felt, Lincoln had contributed significantly to the progress of civilization in America. “Great as the popularity of the President has been,” noted Emerson; “we are beginning to think that we have underestimated the capacity and virtue which the Divine Providence has made an instrument of benefit so vast. He has been permitted to do more for America than any other American man.”58 In time, Lincoln himself would come to see the Emancipation Proclamation as the crowning achievement of his administration.59 The hearts and minds of many Americans, however, remained obdurate. It was to be Emerson’s goal to win them over.

  • 60 LL 2: 300.

55Just one month later, in his lecture “Perpetual Forces,” Emerson not only endorsed Lincoln’s preliminary steps, but also insisted that the principle be followed to its logical fulfillment. With the assured voice of a prophet, he offered a vision of the new American Republic that would emerge from this war. First and foremost, he insisted, “Leave slavery out,” and “since nothing satisfies but justice, let us have that, and let us stifle our prejudices against common sense and humanity, and agree that every man shall have what he honestly earns, and, if he is a sane and innocent man, have an equal vote in the state, and a fair chance in society.”60 All of this ― emancipation, equal opportunity, and suffrage ― Emerson saw as the dictates of the “moral sentiment,” an infallible guide to both personal and social life. Others were not so sure.

  • 61 Oates, 424-25.
  • 62 Quoted in LL 2: 288.

56Lincoln himself had not yet articulated the notion of total emancipation. And Negro suffrage would never receive more than a limited and highly qualified endorsement from him.61 Most Northerners, including the majority of Emerson’s audience, shared these reservations. Following his impassioned address, a Democratic paper in Albany, the Argus, described Emerson’s lecture as “a re-hash of his Abolition sophistry” and pointed out, “When he argued in favor of forcible emancipation, a few old ladies and gentlemen applauded; but when he insisted that the Negro should have ‘an equal chance with the white man,’ even they were indignantly silent.”62

57On the day when emancipation officially went into effect, January 1, 1863, Emerson was the first of several celebrities to speak to a huge gathering in Boston’s Music Hall.

3.15 Boston Music Hall, 1852.

  • 63 CW 9: 382, 383.

58Before the enthusiastic audience, he intoned the words of a poem he had just finished for the occasion, the stirring “Boston Hymn.” He imagines the voice of God proclaiming freedom to all Americans, regardless of race. To all those living in oppression, this Spirit ― Emerson’s embodiment of Moral Law — declares: “I break your bonds and masterships,/And I unchain the slave:/Free be his heart and hand henceforth/As wind and wandering wave.” While ignoring the moral question, many Northern conservatives maintained that Lincoln’s measure was unconstitutional and deprived honest citizens of their rightful “property.” They insisted that at the very least compensation was due to the hapless slave-owner. Emerson had a different view: “Pay ransom to the owner,/And fill the bag to the brim. /Who is the owner? The slave is owner,/And ever was. Pay him.”63

  • 64 Quoted in Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 292.

59One observer that evening described Emerson’s poem as “a hymn of Liberty and Justice, wide and strong, and musical,” adding that his passionate lines “spell-bound the great assembly.”64 Eventually, the tides of war changed more favorably for the Union. Two great victories came in July 1863 with the costly triumph at Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg. Dedicating a Union cemetery at Gettysburg in bleak mid-November 1863, near the fields where so many had fallen only four months before, Lincoln’s now-famous address took the nation another major step towards total emancipation. He defined the war as a struggle to establish equality, along with liberty, as the two most essential and defining American values. In effect, he was displacing the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence as the Republic’s primary foundational document. He articulated this change succinctly in the twenty-nine-word prologue to his already brief speech: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

  • 65 Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992 (...)
  • 66 Wills, Lincoln, 38. See also Donald, Lincoln, 462.

60As intellectual historian Garry Wills has observed, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address set up a “dialectic of the ideal with the real,” where a “nation conceived in liberty by its dedication to the Declaration’s critical proposition (human equality) must test that proposition’s survivability in the real world of struggle.” For him, the president’s interplay of ideals with reality registered how deeply he was influenced by “the primary intellectual fashion of the period, Transcendentalism.”65 The crowd departed from Gettysburg that day, according to Wills, “with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they brought there with them... Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely.”66 Emerson’s direct and indirect influence undoubtedly had helped bring Lincoln to this momentous point.

  • 67 Wills, Lincoln, 38.
  • 68 CW 4: 154-55.
  • 69 JMN 15: 301.

61Not everyone was pleased with the president’s dramatic change. As earlier, when slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia, conservatives fretted that Lincoln was trampling on the Constitution, and they feared that a reconstructed America would differ greatly from what they had known. Of course, they were right. An article in the Chicago Times shortly after the address “quoted the letter of the Constitution to Lincoln — noting its lack of reference to equality, its tolerance of slavery ― and said that Lincoln was betraying the instrument he was on oath to defend, traducing the men who died for the letter of that fundamental law.”67 Emerson, however, was delighted with Lincoln’s bold action. He had earlier observed in Representative Men (1850), “... great action must draw on the spiritual nature. The measure of an action is, the sentiment from which it proceeds.”68 If Lincoln’s declaration of equality did not comport with the letter of the Constitution, it was because the Constitution was out of sync with moral law. In a reconstructed America, this deficiency would be corrected. In his journal Emerson noted, “I speak the speech of an idealist. I say let the rule be right. If the theory is right it is not so much matter about the facts... The question stands thus, reconstruction is no longer a matter of doubt. All our action now is new & unconstitutional, & necessarily so.”69

Emerson, Douglass, and Blacks in the Union Army

  • 70 JMN 15: 210-11.

62One of the most important steps in validating the concept of universal equality was to address Americans’ pervasive, merely putative belief that Negroes were racially inferior. Many whites also presumed that blacks were docile and would not fight for their freedom. To disprove this notion, abolitionists prodded a reluctant federal government to allow them to take action on a final provision in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation allowing blacks to serve in the regular Union army. Emerson, Frederick Douglass, and many others joined forces in promoting enlistment in what would be the Union’s first, regular black regiment, the Massachusetts 54th. Emerson not only donated money to the cause; he also gave enlistment speeches aimed directly at young Negro men. In 1863, one such address elaborates the importance of the self-reliant “rise of the anti-slave,” an idea articulated in his first emancipation speech almost twenty years before. “If war means liberty to you,” he tells these young men, “you should enlist... If you will not fight for your liberty, who will? If you will not... the universe of men will say you are not worth fighting for. Go & be slaves forever & you shall have our aid to make you such. You had rather be slaves than freemen.”70

  • 71 William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1991), 223-24. The second reg (...)

63The recruitment campaign was successful. So many young black men rushed to enlist, including Frederick Douglass’s two sons, that a second regiment had to be formed.71 The Massachusetts 54th would soon prove itself in a heroic though failed assault against the Confederates at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863.

3.16 Storming Ft. Wagner, 1863.

  • 72 LL 2: 316.
  • 73 CW 9: 392.

64The regiment actually breached the defenses of the fort, but was thrown back, suffering 42% casualties. A short time later, in an address at Waterville College, Emerson observed that “War always exalts an age, speaks to slumbering virtue, makes of quiet, plain men unexpected heroes.”72 All questions about Negro courage were now answered. Emerson would formally memorialize the heroism of the 54th, and their gallant, young leader who was killed in the attack, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, in one of his best-known poems. “Voluntaries” was published in the Atlantic Monthly in October 1863. The poem focused on the war’s high stakes, universal human dignity and freedom, and celebrated the youth who died for this cause. Their sacrifice testified to the power of divinity in the heart of man: “So nigh is grandeur to our dust,/So near is God to man,/When Duty whispers low, Thou Must,/The youth replies, I can.”73

3.17 Saint-Gauden’s Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, 1884-1897, plaster cast of original.

  • 74 David Herbert Donald observes, “From time to time during the previous year, there had been talk of (...)

65Following the dramatic victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July, many people hoped for a quick end to the war, but it was not to be. The Union armies soon became bogged down in a seemingly endless war of attrition. As casualties continued to mount, with the death toll reaching hundreds of thousands, many Northerners began to lose heart. A coalition of antiwar Democrats, sometimes called “Peace Democrats” or “Copperheads,” began to emerge. They sought a negotiated end to hostilities and a restoration of the Union as it was, with slavery intact. Some war-weary citizens found this appealing. Meanwhile, Lincoln’s popularity, always tenuous, began to sink. His policies on emancipation and his decision to allow the recruitment of Negroes offended many. There was also dissent in the Republican Party itself.74 Emerson recognized how critical the times were. The nation had made great strides under Lincoln in reforming itself into the model democratic Republic that he had envisioned. A unique opportunity was at hand to fulfill the country’s destiny. To lose that opportunity now, after so many sacrifices and so much bloodshed, would be a supreme tragedy that Emerson would do his utmost to prevent.

Emerson’s “Fortune of the Republic” Speech (1863-1864)

  • 75 L 5: 340.
  • 76 The speech was delivered between 1 December 1863 and 9 February 1864.

66In late November 1863, Emerson received a request to lecture in Brooklyn, New York, with the suggestion that he might speak on the topic of “American Politics.”75 But inevitably, he directed his words toward a much higher purpose. He titled his address, “The Fortune of the Republic.” Asking for strong support of both the war and the president, Emerson’s oration was a virtual stump speech for Lincoln’s re-election. In a span of only two months, he delivered this stirring address no fewer than fourteen times.76 In Emerson’s view, during his nearly four years in office the president had evolved into the premier representative of America’s democratic genius who, if re-elected, would lead America to fulfill the Declaration’s promise of universal freedom and equality.

  • 77 EAW 140, 146-47, 153; Guy Gugliotta, “New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll,” Science Times Sect (...)

67In “Fortune of the Republic,” Emerson touched on themes that echoed, if they did not predate, Lincoln’s. He specifically appealed to the nation’s youth to commit itself to renew the country’s founding ideals. “It is the young men of the land, who must save it: it is they to whom this wonderful hour, after so many weary ages, dawns, the Second Declaration of Independence, the proclaiming of liberty, land, justice, and a career for all men; and honest dealings with other nations.” For Emerson, the United States was going through “a great revolution.” It was “passing out of old reminders of barbarism into pure Christianity and humanity,― into freedom of thought, of religion, of speech, of the press, of trade, of suffrage, or political right.” This new America was the ideal Republic promised from the start. Such a great achievement could not be accomplished without great sacrifices, and Emerson urged his audiences, as had Lincoln at Gettysburg, to endure the pain and continue the struggle. “For such a gain,” he states, “one generation might well be sacrificed,― perhaps it will be,― that this continent be purged, and a new era of equal rights dawn on the universe. Who would not, if it could be made certain, that the new morning of universal rights should rise on our race, by the perishing of one generation,― who would not consent to die?” Eventually, according to the latest estimates, as many as 750,000 Union and Confederate soldiers would make the ultimate sacrifice, more than the combined fatalities of all the other wars fought by the United States to this day, in the painful struggle that resulted in a re-birth of the nation.77

  • 78 L 5: 387.

68Coincident with Emerson’s repeated delivery of this speech, the situation on the battlefield significantly improved. On February 22, 1864, thirteen days after his final delivery of “Fortune of the Republic,” the Republican Party re-nominated Abraham Lincoln, and on Election Day, November 8, a large majority voted for Lincoln’s second term. Shortly afterward, Emerson, who had always believed that the people in a crisis would make the right choice, wrote to a friend expressing “joy of the Election.” “Seldom in history,” he observed, “was so much staked on a popular vote.― I suppose never in history.”78

69In Lincoln’s re-election, the North expressed its resolve to prosecute the war to a successful conclusion. But he did not live to see it. With final victory in sight, Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865 made Andrew Johnson president. As the Reconstruction Era began, Johnson’s administration would be both difficult and controversial. But liberal historical forces put in play by Lincoln and urged on by Emerson, Charles Sumner, and the Radical Republicans eventually led to the enactment of laws that would change forever the complexion of American democracy. The most important of these are the Thirteenth (1865), Fourteenth (1866) and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments to the Constitution. These amendments destroyed slavery forever, established the principle of equal protection under the law, and guaranteed universal manhood suffrage, regardless of race. Such dramatic changes laid the groundwork for the South’s renewal in the Reconstruction Acts of 1867. However, regional racist groups, epitomized by the Ku Klux Klan, virulently resisted these changes throughout the period of Reconstruction and later. Their efforts were countered only by the social revolution of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, quickly followed by a renewed Women’s Movement. The voices of blacks and women in the twentieth century once again built upon the ideas that Emerson had championed a hundred years before.

Emerson on Women’s Rights

70The Women’s Movement did not evoke Emerson’s passions to the pitch and participation of abolition; nevertheless, he early, even inevitably, gave it his support. His advocacy for women’s causes, beginning later than his antislavery efforts, followed a similar trajectory. With both, he began with a troubled concern, moved to a forceful but limited commitment, and ended in robust support of legal guarantees.

  • 79 CW 2: 161.

71In many ways, the feminine element was a key aspect of Emerson’s Transcendentalist philosophy, and the primary stimulus in his career as a reformer. In fact, as seen in Chapter 2, like Goethe and other gifted thinkers, he sensed within himself the presence of both genders, even recognizing that in his deepest soul, he harbored “a woman’s heart.” Not surprisingly, then, he felt that the feminine qualities of “sentiment,” as well as “feeling” and “intuition,” were central and vulnerable. They provided the connecting link to “that Over-Soul within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart,... to which all right action is submission.”79

  • 80 For a comprehensive discussion of the importance of the affective, feminine element in Emerson’s th (...)
  • 81 LL 2: 23.

72Reflecting certain social assumptions of his day, Emerson believed that women are by nature closer to their affective side, while men incline toward the rational.80 Male or female, a person’s feminine side would principally guide them toward right living. Emerson notes in his address “Woman,” first delivered at the Second Annual Women’s Rights Convention in 1855, “But the starry crown of woman is in the power of her affection and sentiment, and the infinite enlargements to which they lead.”81 Such “infinite enlargements” are the “divine laws” that guide our lives and absolutely condemn slavery. Slavery, like any injustice, was incompatible with the “moral sentiment.”

  • 82 For details on this important gathering, see The Birth of American Feminism: The Seneca Falls Women (...)
  • 83 Quoted in Gougeon, “Emerson and the Woman Question: The Evolution of His Thought,” The New England (...)

73As noted earlier, since the early 1830s, women had thrown themselves into the antislavery movement, often spearheading the activities of local units such as Concord’s Female Anti-Slavery Society, active since 1835. By the late 1840s, successful participation in this liberating cause led them to organize for their own rights, culminating in a landmark convention at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848.82 After this historic national gathering, they formed activist groups throughout the nation. As the virtual center of the abolitionist movement, Massachusetts had more than its share. In August 1850, Paulina Wright Davis sent Emerson a copy of a call for a women’s rights convention to be held in Worcester, Massachusetts, and attached to it a handwritten note requesting “the sanction of your name and your personal attendance.”83 Davis no doubt sought out Emerson because of his increasingly active role in the antislavery movement and hoped for a similarly sympathetic response to the women’s rights cause.

  • 84 Phyllis Cole, “Pain and Protest in the Emerson Family,” in The Emerson Dilemma: Essays on Emerson a (...)

74Emerson was well aware of women’s special contributions to the antislavery movement, admiring, as we have seen, both the Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott and the British social reformer and antislavery advocate Harriet Martineau. His wife Lidian, mother Ruth, and aunt Mary Moody Emerson were all early activists in Concord’s Female Anti-Slavery Society.84 These relatives, Thoreau’s mother and sisters (also members of the society) and others, had urged Emerson to give his “Emancipation in the British West Indies Address” in August 1844. Emerson’s response to Davis’s request at this time shows a commitment to women’s rights but one tempered by concerns about both women and society. His letter states in part:

  • 85 L 4: 229-30.

The fact of the political & civil wrongs of woman I deny not. If women feel wronged, then they are wronged. But the mode of obtaining a redress, namely, a public convention called by women is not very agreeable to me, and the things to be agitated for do not seem to me the best. Perhaps I am superstitious & traditional, but whilst I should vote for every franchise for women, — vote that they should hold property, and vote, yes & be eligible to all offices as men — whilst I should vote thus, if women asked, or if men denied... these things, I should not wish women to wish political functions, nor, if granted assume them. I imagine that a woman whom all men would feel to be the best, would decline such privileges if offered, & feel them to be obstacles to her legitimate influence.85

75Emerson’s reservations here have nothing to do with the right of women to vote, hold property or public office, or generally enjoy the full benefits of citizenship. Rather, he fears that a public role might debase, or even erase, femininity’s high virtues.

  • 86 Rusk, Life of Emerson, 370; Richardson, 533.
  • 87 L 4: 230.

76As one biographer notes, Emerson “hoped that women would not after all wish an equal share with men in public affairs,” for “his imagination balked when he pictured women with masculine aggressiveness wrangling in public.” Another suggests that in this matter Emerson’s views were very similar to Margaret Fuller’s. He notes that Fuller had written in “The Great Lawsuit,” the forerunner of Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), “Were they [women] free, were they wise fully to develop the strength and beauty of woman, they would never wish to be men, or man-like.”86 Despite these concerns, however, Emerson did support the convention’s principles, telling Davis, “At all events,... you are at liberty if you wish it to use my name as one of the inviters of the convention.”87

  • 88 JMN 11: 444.

77The following year, 1851, when Lucy Stone asked him to participate in another women’s convention, Emerson again declined, saying he was at work on a biography of Margaret Fuller, who had tragically died in May 1850. In his journal he continued to express support for the principles of the women’s movement: “I think that, as long as they have not equal rights of property & right of voting, they are not on a right footing.” He also noted, “For the rest, I do not think a woman’s convention, called in the spirit of this at Worcester, can much avail. It is an attempt to manufacture public opinion, & of course repels all persons who love the simple & direct method.”88

  • 89 Quoted in Gougeon, “Woman,” 579.

78Yet as Emerson’s antislavery advocacy strengthened in the 1850s, women’s rights advocates naturally continued to appeal to him on behalf of their cause. In June 1855, Paulina Davis again invited Emerson to participate in the Second Annual New England Women’s Rights Convention to be held in late September, stating that its planners unanimously looked to Emerson as a natural ally in their fight. “From your well known antecedents we have taken it for granted that your heart is with us, and that you have a message which will aid, cheer, and strengthen us in progress toward perfect freedom and the highest right.”89 This time Emerson accepted, encouraged no doubt by the convention’s roster of major speakers: Wendell Phillips, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Lucy Stone, Caroline Dall, Antoinette L. Brown, and Susan B. Anthony. Phillips and Higginson had become prominent figures in the antislavery movement, and Dall was a protégée of Margaret Fuller’s.

  • 90 Cole, “Pain and Protest,” 84.
  • 91 Ibid.
  • 92 Armida Gilbert, “‘Pierced by the Thorns of Reform’: Emerson on Womanhood,” in The Emerson Dilemma, (...)

79For feminist scholars, Emerson’s “Woman” address has always been somewhat problematic. One points out that Emerson “voiced no pain and no protest.”90 And at least one activist of the time, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, negatively compared Emerson’s treatment of the topic with that of more outspoken advocates. “Emerson,” she said, “was one that did not seek contest, did not snuff the battle with the heat of the war-horse, like Wendell Phillips.”91 Another feminist critic, however, notes that “In the second half of the essay, if contemporary readers can bear through, they will find Emerson stating an agenda of women’s rights radical even for the late nineteenth century, much less for its midpoint.”92 A brief overview of the speech suggests that this interpretation is correct.

  • 93 LL 2: 19.
  • 94 LL 2: 18.

80At the outset, Emerson reiterates his belief in the importance of female “sentiment.” “Plato said, ‘Women are the same as men in faculty, only less in degree.’ But the general voice of mankind has agreed that they have their own strength; that women are strong by sentiment; that the same mental height which their husbands attain by toil, they attain by sympathy with their husbands. Man is the will, and Woman the sentiment.”93 Once again, Emerson stresses the absolutely essential power of sentiment to express humanity’s intuitive strength and divinity. With this power, women fundamentally help shape society. Simply put, he believes that “Woman is the power of civilization.”94 In more public roles, Emerson fears, women might lose this sensitivity.

  • 95 LL 2: 25.

81However, Emerson acknowledges the generating role played by women’s participation in the antislavery movement, a sympathetic involvement leading naturally to demands for a greater share of rights for themselves. He notes, “One truth leads in another by the hand; one right is an accession of strength to take more. And the times are marked by the new attitude of woman urging, by argument and by association, her rights of all kinds, in short, to one half of the world: the right to education; to avenues of employment; to equal rights of property; to equal rights in marriage; to the exercise of the professions; to suffrage.”95 On all of these controversial issues, Emerson is in complete agreement with the radicals. Women, he insists, “have an unquestionable right to their own property. And, if a woman demands votes, offices, and political equality with men... it must not be refused.”

82While acknowledging the justice of their cause, Emerson continues to hesitate over endorsing the public exercise of these rights by women. His fear is both for them and for society. In support of his position, he references the expressed desires of the “best women,” presumably the most sensitive and moral. “They,” he argues, “do not wish these things. These are asked for by people who intellectually seek them, but who have not the support or sympathy of the truest women: and that, if the laws and customs were modified in the manner proposed, it would embarrass and pain gentle and lovely persons, with duties which they would find irksome and distasteful.”

  • 96 LL 2: 26, 28.

83Emerson also maintains that most women now do not really “wish this equal share in public affairs. But it is they, and not we, that are to determine it. Let the laws be purged of every barbarous remainder, every barbarous impediment to women. Let the public donations for education be equally shared by them. Let them enter a school, as freely as a church. Let them have, and hold, and give their property, as men do theirs. And, in a few years, it will easily appear whether they wish a voice in making the laws that are to govern them.”96 Ultimately, Emerson is advocating a form of gradualism in the growth of women’s rights. First there must be equal education and property rights, and then equal voting rights, if women so wish. Overall, however, Emerson clearly defers to women themselves: they alone must dictate the process and final outcome.

  • 97 Quoted in Gougeon, “Woman,” 584.
  • 98 Quoted in Helen Deese, “‘A Liberal Education’: Caroline Healey Dall and Emerson,” in Emersonian Cir (...)

84Contemporary reactions to Emerson’s speech, like critical reactions today, were mixed. Paulina Davis, however, was delighted. Writing after the address, she thanked him “for the good service done to our Cause.”97 Feminist Caroline Dall concurred: “It did not trouble me that some of the papers thought it doubtful, whether you were for us or against us. That was only because they were too heavy to breathe that upper air. Neither was I inclined to quarrel with your estimate of woman per se, though it differs somewhat from my own. In the lowest sense — it has been true of the best women of the past. In one far higher, it may be true of the best that are to come. That they are fully capable of becoming ‘innocent citizens’ was all we needed you should admit. ”98

  • 99 Deese, “A Liberal Education,” 249.

85On December 2, 1860, Emerson repeated his “Woman” address before the Parker Fraternity, an informal Boston social club for young men, but otherwise offered no further formal public statement on the woman question for fourteen years. However, he maintained an interest in the movement, and his support would become stronger as women continued to express what they wanted. After Caroline Dall’s address on women’s rights to a joint committee of the Massachusetts legislature on February 12, 1858, Emerson sent her his compliments.99

  • 100 EAW 152.
  • 101 Richardson, 534.

86Emerson had never questioned the justice of rights for women, but had worried that public life might have a negative effect on women. Their actions as well as their words eventually changed his mind. Women’s contributions to the campaign against slavery and their unselfish labor throughout the Civil War impressed him. He also now saw that such activism only increased women’s sympathetic capacities. Emerson was well aware of the invaluable service rendered by women through the Sanitary Commission, as nurses, administrators, and inspectors; through the Freedman’s Bureau, as teachers of emancipated slaves; and through various home-front organizations that provided the Union army with supplies ranging from clothing to bandages. Not surprisingly, one of the most active of such sewing groups was Concord’s, in which all the Emerson women took part. In his 1863 address, “Fortune of the Republic,” Emerson observed that “... the women have shown a tender patriotism, and an inexhaustible charity.”100 Unquestionably, the women in his own household helped to shape Emerson’s sense of the contemporary female’s will to participate in the larger society. His wife Lidian was an eager advocate of women’s rights, and his daughter Edith was in favor of the movement, too. Only Ellen, possibly the voice of the “best women” that had earlier fed his ear, was opposed.101

  • 102 Quoted by Joan D. Hedrick, in Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 199 (...)
  • 103 W 8: 208.

87Post-Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum. With slavery now abolished, reformers focused attention on a campaign to liberate American women. The similarities between the two causes seemed obvious to many. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s article in Hearth and Home on “The Woman Question” noted, “The position of a married woman, under English common law, is, in ‘many respects, precisely similar to that of the Negro slave.’”102 Women’s rights activists resumed their appeal for Emerson’s support. He now responded without reservation. His 1867 Phi Beta Kappa lecture at Harvard, “Progress of Culture,” praised the women’s movement as a sign of America’s continuing advancement. “The new claim of woman to a political status,” he said, “is itself an honorable testimony to the civilization which has given her a civil status new in history.” The progressive development of women’s rights, envisioned in his 1855 address, had matured. “Now that by the increased humanity of law she controls her property, she inevitably takes the next step to her share in power.”103

  • 104 This speech was later reported in detail in the Boston Post, 27 May 1869.
  • 105 Gilbert, 103.
  • 106 From the Women’s Journal (6 May 1882), quoted in Gougeon, “Woman,” 592.

88In a speech before the New England Woman’s Suffrage Association in Boston in May 1869, Emerson offered no qualifications on women’s rights. “The claim now pressed by woman,” he declares, “is a claim for nothing less than all, than her share in all. She asks for her property; she asks for her rights, for her vote; she asks for her share in education, for her share in all the institutions of society, for her half of the whole world; and to this she is entitled.”104 At the same meeting, the Association named Emerson their vice-president. For the rest of his life, Emerson remained committed to the women’s cause. One scholar notes that in the 1860s and 1870s, he became “an icon of the suffragist leaders.”105 In a memorial address following his death in 1882, Julia Ward Howe remembered his steadfast support over the years. She concluded, “He was for us, knowing well enough our limitations and short-comings, and his golden words have done much both to fit us for the larger freedom, and to know that it belongs to us.”106

Emerson and Racism

  • 107 Robert Knox, Races of Men: A Fragment (Philadelphia, PA: Lea & Blanchard, 1850), 7.

89Despite Emerson’s long career as an outspoken advocate for universal human rights, some critics have accused him of racism. One of the earliest works to make this claim is Philip Nicoloff’s Emerson on Race and History (1961). This study is based almost exclusively on the author’s reading of Emerson’s English Traits (1856). In the nineteenth century the term “race” was used to describe what were considered to be the defining characteristics of various groups of people. The distinctions were not limited to color. Thus, even among Caucasians, various “races” were identified, such as Saxon, Celt, Norman, etc. Today, we would consider such distinctions as cultural or ethnic, but in Emerson’s time they were seen as genetic and deterministic. Thus, Robert Chambers in Vestiges of Creation (1844), a work that Emerson knew well, holds that Caucasians had reached a higher level of evolution than non-Caucasians, whose development was “arrested” at an earlier evolutionary stage. Other scientists, such as Robert Knox in Races of Men (1850), insist that “human character, individual and national, is traceable solely to the nature of that race to which the individual or nation belongs.” For Knox, “race is everything.”107 Some of Emerson’s statements in English Traits appear to reflect this view. In that work, he comments on the progenitors of the English “race,” the Celts and the Saxons by asking:

  • 108 CW 4: 26.

It is race, is it not? that puts the hundred millions of India under the dominion of a remote island in the north of Europe: Race avails much, if that be true, which is alleged, that all Celts are Catholics, and all Saxons are Protestants; that Celts love unity of power, and Saxons the representative principle. Race is a controlling influence in the Jew, who, for two millenniums, under every climate, has preserved the same character and employments. Race in the negro is of appalling importance.108

  • 109 Phillip Nicoloff, Emerson on Race and History: An Examination of English Traits (New York: Columbia (...)
  • 110 Lewis P Simpson, Mind and the American Civil War: A Meditation on Lost Causes (Baton Rouge, LA: Lou (...)
  • 111 Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), 151.

90Statements such as this, coupled with an examination of the various racial theories of the time, many of which Emerson examines in his journals, leads Nicoloff to conclude that Emerson believed that race was a determining factor in human life. He suggests that Emerson believed that “races which lacked primitive energies, whose blood was pale and diluted, or whose capacity for ‘refinement’ was otherwise ‘arrested,’ did not achieve a true national status, and were exterminated rather than civilized.” And he adds, “Such apparently would be the fate of the Negro.” While this conclusion may appear stark, Nicoloff insists that when “his intellectual environment [is] considered, Emerson never became more that a relatively mild ‘ racist.’”109 Later critics have been much more severe. Louis Simpson, for example, asserts that Emerson “was fundamentally a white supremacist and never free from a degree of Negrophobia.”110 Even harsher is Nell Irvin Painter who, in her recent The History of White People (2010), castigates Emerson as “the philosopher king of white race theory.”111

  • 112 Ibid., 185, 154-64, 185.

91All of this appears rather anomalous, indeed, in light of the record of Emerson’s crusade against slavery, and the racism that supported it, that is outlined in this chapter. That record, however, did not come to light until the 1990s and, hence, was not available to either Nicoloff or Simpson. Painter’s work, however, was published in 2010, after a more complete and balanced record of Emerson’s position on race had become well established. One is left to conclude that she simply chose to ignore it. The result is a study that, as far as her two chapters on Emerson are concerned at least, is riddled with significant factual errors and striking omissions. For example, Painter contends that “Emerson had little to say about black people” despite his numerous antislavery addresses in which he celebrated, defended, and encouraged them. She also implies that Emerson’s racial views were similar to those of his racist friend Thomas Carlyle, but the private and public record shows them to be diametrically opposed. She also claims that Emerson never advocated suffrage “for either white women or black people of any sex,” while the public record, as indicated above, clearly shows that he did both.112

  • 113 CW 2: 179, 188.
  • 114 EAW 86-87.
  • 115 LL 2: 140.

92Better-informed scholars who have written on Emerson and race have concluded that he was actually staunchly opposed to the racist theories of his day, on both moral and scientific grounds. The notion of a fixed and determinate reality that denied the possibilities of human development and growth ran against his most fundamental beliefs. As indicated in his early essay “Circles” (1841), Emerson always insisted, “There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile.” Recognizing this, his fundamental goal was always to challenge conventional beliefs that sought to stifle this progressive flow. His ultimate desire was to “unsettle all things.”113 The universe, he believed, is moral at its core. Thus, any theory of law or science that attempts to visit upon any group of people a damning determinism is clearly out of sync with that moral law. Like slavery itself, theories of deterministic racial inferiority are simply inconsistent “with the principles on which the world is built.”114 Those principles constitute a divine and “Higher Law,” hence his declaration, noted earlier, that the deterministic racism expressed in the word “Niggers” is a “damnable atheism.” Later, he condemned the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision, which held that “The black man has no rights which the white man is required to respect,” as a “blasphemy [that]... does not honor the moral perceptions of the people.”115

  • 116 In 1853, for example, he records the following from another author: “The brute instinct rallies & c (...)
  • 117 Ian Finseth, “Evolution, Cosmopolitanism, and Emerson’s Antislavery Politics.” American Literature (...)
  • 118 JMN 9: 365.
  • 119 David M. Robinson, “’For Largest Liberty:’ Emerson, Natural Religion, and the Antislavery Crisis,” (...)
  • 120 CW 8: 108.

93On the scientific side, his journals show that Emerson was very much aware of the pernicious race theories of his day. His weighing of them there has led some critics to accuse him of racism. However, as more discerning critics have shown, though he studied these theories, ultimately he rejected them.116 He came to see the classifications of races as “mutable” rather than fixed. All “races,” he believed, were actually changing and evolving in a process of amelioration that depended on what one scholar calls “racial assimilation and amalgamation.”117 Thus, he observed as early as 1846 that “Nature loves to cross her stocks. A pure blood, Bramin on Bramin, marrying in & in, soon becomes puny & wears out. Some strong Cain son, some black blood must renew & refresh the paler veins of Seth.”118 This belief, as David Robinson has pointed out, reinforced Emerson’s commitment to antislavery, a commitment that was “grounded in a larger conception of the evolution of human society through an expanding egalitarianism and inclusiveness.”119 This commitment persisted throughout his long career. In the post-Civil War period, Emerson celebrated the “fusion of races and religions” in America in his 1867 “Progress of Culture” address. It was here, as noted above, that he also applauded “the new claim of woman to a political status.”120 Clearly, for Emerson, equality was not bounded by race or gender.

  • 121 W 11: 541.

94Emerson’s attitude on race is probably best summed up in his 1878 address re-visiting “The Fortune of the Republic.” Here, once again, Emerson insisted that the principle of equality, above all others, should be the defining characteristic of American society. In this presentation, which was one of his last public lectures, he summarized his vision of the new America that he hoped would arise from the ashes of the Civil War. “The genius of the country has marked out our true policy,” he notes, “opportunity. Opportunity of civil rights, of education, of personal power, and not less of wealth; doors wide open. If I could have it, ― free trade with all the world without toll or custom-houses, invitation as we now make every nation, to every race and skin, white men, red men, yellow men, black men; hospitality of fair field and equal laws to all.”121

The Centrality of Reform to Emerson’s Message Then and Now

  • 122 Ibid., 11: 352.

95Throughout his long career as a visionary reformer, Emerson identified with the lowly, the oppressed, and the despised. Such empathy lay in his loyalty to the “moral sentiment,” and no doubt to his childhood memories of extreme poverty and its painful social consequences. He firmly believed that “only that state can live, in which injury to the least member is recognized as damage to the whole.”122 For a lifetime, he insisted on the divine oneness of humanity and the infinitude of the private man. This vision included everyone, an unchanging perspective even as his strategy for reform shifted. Emerson’s early role of moral advisor, coaxing his audiences to heed their inner moral voice and reform first themselves, then society, did not meet the country’s needs, North or South, as the century reached a mid-point. From 1850 until the early post-Civil War period, Emerson entered the political fray to revolutionize America.

96Even before the 1850s, his tactics were changing. From personal transcendent ecstasy, his focus widened and spoke to tangible, pressing problems. With his eyes still on the horizon and focusing on large human concerns, his lectures and essays yet revealed the influence of the mounting crises immediately facing him. In contrast to his earlier, more purely philosophical lectures and essays, Emerson’s political speeches against slavery and for women’s rights directly confronted the issue of racial and gender equality. In the process, Emerson transformed himself from a local ethical advocate and preacher to a national prophet. He became the heroic man of action he himself had called for in his 1837 “American Scholar” address. In a period of increasing turbulence, violence, and conflict, the nation needed a calm and assured voice to guide it through its greatest crisis since the Revolution. Emerson provided that voice. His ideal republic drew from the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution for its principles of universal freedom, equality, and justice.

97Emerson’s vision proved to be revolutionary both for him and for the country. As a union of states and as a culture, the America that emerged from the Civil War was radically different from what it had been only a few years before. In keeping with Emerson’s belief that “one truth leads in another by the hand; one right is an accession of strength to take more,” the freedoms that were introduced then led to yet other social revolutions in the twentieth century, finally bringing African Americans the right to be treated like all other citizens and also enfranchising women. Of course, the struggle still continues. As Emerson well knew, the perfect society is always just beyond the horizon.


1 Constitution of the United States, Article 4, Section 2,

2 Ibid., Article 1, Section 2.

3 Papers on the Slave Power: First Published in the Boston Whig, 1846, pamphlet in the Birney Anti-Slavery Collection, Eisenhower Library, Johns Hopkins University. For more on the effects of the three-fifths clause, see Garry Wills, “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 2003).

4 John L. Thomas, The Liberator: William Lloyd Garrison, A Biography (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown & Co., 1963), 127, 141.

5 The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 16 vols., eds. William H. Gilman, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960-1982), 5: 90-91. Hereafter JMN.

6 JMN 9: 134.

7 JMN 9: 132, L 7: 523; JMN 9: 125.

8 The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols, eds. Robert E. Spiller, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971-2013), 1: 59. Hereafter CW.

9 CW 1: 62.

10 “Ode: Inscribed to W. H. Channing,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 12 vols., ed. Edward Waldo Emerson (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-1904), 9: 76. Hereafter W.

11 David Robinson, Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Works (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 3.

12 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson’s Antislavery Writings, eds. Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 19. Hereafter EAW.

13 EAW 31.

14 Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress; Len Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, and Reform (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990), 102-06.

15 Lawrence Buell, Emerson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), 256.

16 EAW 35, 36, 37.

17 Gary Collison, Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), 75;

18 JMN 11: 412.

19 EAW 51.

20 Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995), 496.

21 Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 195.

22 Margaret Fuller, The Portable Margaret Fuller, ed. Mary Kelley (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 453.

23 Albert J. Von Frank, The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), 26-27.

24 EAW 56.

25 Ibid., 57.

26 Ibid., 65, 67.

27 Ibid., 28.

28 Ibid., 103.

29 David Herbert Donald, Charles Sumner (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), 295-96.

30 EAW 107.

31 Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols., eds. Ralph L. Rusk and Eleanor M. Tilton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939, 1990-1995), 5: 23. Hereafter L.

32 Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 231.

33 EAW 105.

34 JMN 14: 197.

35 W 7: 427.

36 EAW 118.

37 Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 256.

38 JMN 15: 111.

39 JMN 15: 91.

40 Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 264-66.

41 JMN 15: 111.

42 JMN 15: 405.

43 Ibid., 15: 145.

44 The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson: 1843-1871, 2 vols., eds. Ronald Bosco and Joel Myerson (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 2: 241. Hereafter, LL.

45 LL 2: 242.

46 W 11: 299.

47 LL 2: 311.

48 Oates, Stephen B., With Malice toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Harper Perennial, 1977), 312.

49 David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 166-67, 221.

50 James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), 497.

51 He would later repeat this presentation in Washington, D. C. in January.

52 Quoted in Gougeon, “‘Fortune of the Republic’: Emerson, Lincoln, and Transcendental Warfare,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 45: 3-4 (1999): 289.

53 Oates, 319.

54 Donald, Lincoln, 377.

55 Richardson, 551.

56 Buell, 34.

57 Ralph Rusk, The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949), 414; JMN 15: 187.

58 W 11: 319, 317.

59 Herbert, 377.

60 LL 2: 300.

61 Oates, 424-25.

62 Quoted in LL 2: 288.

63 CW 9: 382, 383.

64 Quoted in Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 292.

65 Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 103, 174, 105.

66 Wills, Lincoln, 38. See also Donald, Lincoln, 462.

67 Wills, Lincoln, 38.

68 CW 4: 154-55.

69 JMN 15: 301.

70 JMN 15: 210-11.

71 William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1991), 223-24. The second regiment was designated the Massachusetts 55th.

72 LL 2: 316.

73 CW 9: 392.

74 David Herbert Donald observes, “From time to time during the previous year, there had been talk of reelecting Lincoln in 1864, but for the most part it was desultory and not particularly fervent” (Lincoln, 474).

75 L 5: 340.

76 The speech was delivered between 1 December 1863 and 9 February 1864.

77 EAW 140, 146-47, 153; Guy Gugliotta, “New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll,” Science Times Section, New York Times, April 3, 2012, D1.

78 L 5: 387.

79 CW 2: 161.

80 For a comprehensive discussion of the importance of the affective, feminine element in Emerson’s thought and life, see Len Gougeon, Emerson & Eros: The Making of a Cultural Hero (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007).

81 LL 2: 23.

82 For details on this important gathering, see The Birth of American Feminism: The Seneca Falls Women’s Convention, eds. Virginia Bernhard and Elizabeth Fox-Genevese (St. James, NY: Brandywine Press, 1995).

83 Quoted in Gougeon, “Emerson and the Woman Question: The Evolution of His Thought,” The New England Quarterly 71 (Dec. 1998), 573.

84 Phyllis Cole, “Pain and Protest in the Emerson Family,” in The Emerson Dilemma: Essays on Emerson and Social Reform, ed. T. Gregory Garvey (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 80.

85 L 4: 229-30.

86 Rusk, Life of Emerson, 370; Richardson, 533.

87 L 4: 230.

88 JMN 11: 444.

89 Quoted in Gougeon, “Woman,” 579.

90 Cole, “Pain and Protest,” 84.

91 Ibid.

92 Armida Gilbert, “‘Pierced by the Thorns of Reform’: Emerson on Womanhood,” in The Emerson Dilemma, 98.

93 LL 2: 19.

94 LL 2: 18.

95 LL 2: 25.

96 LL 2: 26, 28.

97 Quoted in Gougeon, “Woman,” 584.

98 Quoted in Helen Deese, “‘A Liberal Education’: Caroline Healey Dall and Emerson,” in Emersonian Circles: Essays in Honor of Joel Myerson, eds. Wesley T. Mott and Robert E. Burkeholder (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997), 248.

99 Deese, “A Liberal Education,” 249.

100 EAW 152.

101 Richardson, 534.

102 Quoted by Joan D. Hedrick, in Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 360.

103 W 8: 208.

104 This speech was later reported in detail in the Boston Post, 27 May 1869.

105 Gilbert, 103.

106 From the Women’s Journal (6 May 1882), quoted in Gougeon, “Woman,” 592.

107 Robert Knox, Races of Men: A Fragment (Philadelphia, PA: Lea & Blanchard, 1850), 7.

108 CW 4: 26.

109 Phillip Nicoloff, Emerson on Race and History: An Examination of English Traits (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 127, 128, 124.

110 Lewis P Simpson, Mind and the American Civil War: A Meditation on Lost Causes (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 53.

111 Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), 151.

112 Ibid., 185, 154-64, 185.

113 CW 2: 179, 188.

114 EAW 86-87.

115 LL 2: 140.

116 In 1853, for example, he records the following from another author: “The brute instinct rallies & centers in the black man. He is created on a lower plane than the white, & eats & kidnaps & tortures, if he can. The Negro is imitative, secondary, in short, reactionary merely in his successes, & there is no origination with him in mental & moral sphere” (JMN 13: 198). For a detailed and informed discussion of these racial theories and Emerson’s rejection of them, see Laura Dassow Walls, Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 166-87.

117 Ian Finseth, “Evolution, Cosmopolitanism, and Emerson’s Antislavery Politics.” American Literature 77: 4 (2005), 731.

118 JMN 9: 365.

119 David M. Robinson, “’For Largest Liberty:’ Emerson, Natural Religion, and the Antislavery Crisis,” Religion & Literature 41: 1 (March 2009), 5.

120 CW 8: 108.

121 W 11: 541.

122 Ibid., 11: 352.

Table des illustrations

Légende 3.1 William Lloyd Garrison at 28, 1833.
Fichier image/jpeg, 8,0k
Légende 3.2 The Liberator, Friday, March 22, 1844.
Fichier image/jpeg, 24k
Légende 3.3 Lydian Jackson Emerson, about 55, c. 1850s.
Fichier image/jpeg, 24k
Légende 3.4 Frederick Douglass at about 29, c. 1847.
Fichier image/jpeg, 20k
Légende 3.5 Emerson at about 47, c. 1850.
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Légende 3.6 Boston broadside cautioning blacks, 4 April 1851.
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Légende 3.7 Daniel Webster at 69, 1851.
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Légende 3.8 Fugitive slave, Anthony Burns, 24, returned to Virginia from Boston in 1854.
Fichier image/jpeg, 44k
Légende 3.9 Senator Charles Sumner’s caning in the U.S. Senate, 1856.
Fichier image/jpeg, 20k
Légende 3.10 Emerson about 51-52, c. 1854-1855.
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Légende 3.11 Heralds of Freedom, 1857.
Fichier image/jpeg, 8,0k
Légende 3.12 Emerson at 55, 1858.
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Légende 3.13 John Brown at 59, 1859.
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Légende 3.14 Emerson at 56, 1859.
Fichier image/jpeg, 16k
Légende 3.15 Boston Music Hall, 1852.
Fichier image/jpeg, 36k
Légende 3.16 Storming Ft. Wagner, 1863.
Fichier image/jpeg, 36k
Légende 3.17 Saint-Gauden’s Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, 1884-1897, plaster cast of original.
Fichier image/jpeg, 39k



Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search