Solitude Before Society: Emerson on Self-Reliance, Abolitionism, and Moral Suasion
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Scholars have not reconciled Ralph Waldo Emerson’s anti-political individualism with his newly rediscovered abolitionism. This article attempts to unite the apolitical and political Emerson by showing that they are only temporally separated. Solitude prefaces politics. I first explain Emerson’s solitary contemplation as imagination that reveals interpersonal obligations. Second, I show how these obligations draw the thinker back to politics, and in Emerson’s case, to abolitionism, where he advocated small conversations to incite others to contemplation and then action. Conversation did not convert hostile slaveholders. But, third, I note that Emerson admired the abolitionists who attempted moral suasion in the South at great personal risk. Their political activism exemplified self-reliance within society.