Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Massachusetts native, was one of the founders of Transcendentalism, a philosophical, literary, and cultural movement that stressed spiritual oneness with nature, reliance on inner experience, and rejection of social conformity. Other prominent Transcendentalists included Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau.

Although Emerson began as a Unitarian minister, his increasing emphasis on feeling and conduct over creeds and external forms led him to resign the pulpit in 1832. Emerson insisted that a human life should be guided more by inner development than by traditions, institutions, or social expectations. This ethical individualism expressed itself in political liberalism, but grudgingly so. Emerson long opposed slavery, the mistreatment of American Indians, and the denial of the suffrage to women, yet he disliked political involvement and felt that social reform must begin with the reform of the individual. Despite an initial tendency to regard reformers as alienated busybodies, however, Emerson reluctantly became one himself, when passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 played a crucial role in radicalizing him. The eventual extent of his political engagement is, in fact, often underestimated by those who rely solely on his early works. Despite the philosophical complexities of his prose, Emerson also became a popular and influential lecturer. His popularity did not preclude his becoming a frequent target of attack as well, first for his heterodox religious views and later for his increasingly militant abolitionism.

For Emerson, the scope of political activism remained limited by his greater trust in individual self‐​transformation, rather than in collective action. Although he did not reject the latter, he insisted that to be effective or worthwhile it must be founded on, rather than substituted for, individual development. Stressing self‐​reliance in both the material and spiritual spheres, Emerson held that we should seek to direct our own lives and not those of others. Hence, he concluded that “the less government we have, the better,” and he came to regard all states of whatever form as corrupt. Although not himself an anarchist, he expressed friendliness toward anarchy, opining that, “with the appearance of the wise man, the State expires.” He pointed to various peacefully stateless episodes in American history (Massachusetts during the American Revolution, California during the gold rush) as evidence of the practicability of anarchism. For Emerson, social cooperation was not something that needed to be imposed on society by an alien force. On the contrary, he contended that each human being was “made of hooks and eyes, and links himself naturally to his brothers.”

For Emerson, slavery was not only a wrong in itself but also harmful in its results, not only for the enslaved but also for the enslaver. He attributed the South’s lower degree of economic development to its reliance on slave labor, rather than on free industry. Agreeing with the doctrine of such radical abolitionists as Lysander Spooner, Ainsworth Spofford, and his friend, Thoreau, that no statute contrary to human liberty can possess any binding legal obligation, Emerson expressed admiration for John Brown’s attempt to spark a slave insurrection at Harper’s Ferry. When the Civil War broke out, Emerson supported the Northern cause—but only on the premise that slave emancipation, not the mere preservation of the Union, would be the outcome of Union victory. Indeed, through his lectures and essays, Emerson has been credited with helping to make emancipation a Union aim in the war, as it had not obviously been at the start. Emerson also maintained that freed slaves should receive both suffrage and financial compensation.

In the area of economics, Emerson was critical of competitive capitalism for fostering materialism and plutocracy and worried that the division of labor made individuals less self‐​reliant. Nevertheless, he favored “free trade with all the world without toll or custom‐​houses” and was skeptical of the practicability of top‐​down, governmentally imposed solutions to social problems. Small wonder that individualist anarchists like William B. Greene and Bolton Hall, who sought to achieve socialist ends by free‐​market means, found Emerson a congenial spirit.

Further Readings

Emerson, Edward Waldo, ed. Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Vol. XI. Miscellanies. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904.

Ferguson, Alfred R., and Jean Ferguson Carr, eds. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Volume III. Essays: Second Series. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Gougeon, Len, and Myerson, Joel, eds. Emerson’s Antislavery Writings. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

Richardson, Robert D., Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Robinson, David M. The Political Emerson: Essential Writings on Politics and Social Reform. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.

Roderick T. Long
Originally published