Solitude Before Society: Emerson on Self-Reliance, Abolitionism, and Moral Suasion


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.

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  1. 1.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Brooks Atkinson (New York: Random House, 1950), 145–69 at 169; Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Society and Solitude,” in The Selected Writings, 739–46 at 745.

  2. 2.

    See T. Gregory Garvey, ed., The Emerson Dilemma: Essays on Emerson and Social Reform (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001); and Alan M. Levine and Daniel S. Malachuk, eds., A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2011).

  3. 3.

    Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Ralph Waldo Emerson (Cambridge, Mass.: The Riverside Press, 1884); Harold Bloom, Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); Alan M. Levine and Daniel S. Malachuk, “Introduction: The New History of Emerson’s Politics and His Philosophy of Self-Reliance,” in A Political Companion, ed. Levine and Malachuk, 1–39, at 12 (see the previous note).

  4. 4.

    Wilson Carey McWilliams, “Emerson and Thoreau: The All and the One,” in The Idea of Fraternity in America, ed. McWilliams (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), 280–89; Judith Shklar, “Emerson and the Inhibitions of Democracy,” Political Theory 18 (1990): 601–14; George Kateb, Emerson and Self-Reliance (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1995).

  5. 5.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 5, ed. Merton Sealts (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), 475–79.

  6. 6.

    For Kateb’s Emerson, democracy is “second best and should only be put into practice if nonrule is impossible.” See Kateb, Emerson and Self-Reliance, 190 (see note 4 above); George Kateb, “Self-Reliance, Politics, and Society,” in A Political Companion, ed. Levine and Malachuk, 69–90, at 72–73 (see note 2 above).

  7. 7.

    Cavell asserts that this distinguishes him from Kateb. See Stanley Cavell, “What Is the Emersonian Event? A Comment on Kateb’s Emerson,” New Literary History 25 (1994): 951–58; see also Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism: The Carus Lectures, 1988 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 18, 56–59.

  8. 8.

    Jack Turner, Awakening to Race: Individualism and Social Consciousness in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); Len Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, and Reform (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010).

  9. 9.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “New England Reformers,” in Selected Writings, ed. Atkinson, 449–68, at 456–57 (see note 1 above).

  10. 10.

    Len Gougeon, “Emerson, Self-Reliance, and the Politics of Democracy,” in A Political Companion, ed. Levine and Malachuk, 185–220 at 192–94 (see note 2 above).

  11. 11.

    In Awakening to Race, Turner asserts: “In calling for massive resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law, Emerson takes a step toward mobilization. He gives no indication he thinks this inconsistent with self-reliance. He believes, in fact, that aggregate civil disobedience will enhance the character of citizens”; 41–42 (see note 8 above). To Turner, citizens practice self-reliance by deliberately and collectively resisting unjust pro-slavery law. But individuals joining mass actions usually follow their companions or a leader. Hence, these individuals do not act deliberately or self-reliantly. So the tension between self-reliance and political action remains.

  12. 12.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “New England Reformers,” in Selected Writings, ed. Atkinson 455 (see note 1 above). Kateb and Gougeon mention this point, but never expand on it. See Kateb, Emerson and Self-Reliance, 176 (see note 4 above); Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 55 (see note 8 above).

  13. 13.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. vol. 4, ed. Alfred R. Ferguson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960), 333; Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. vol. 7, ed. A.W. Plumstead and Harrison Hayford (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969), 145, 403.

  14. 14.

    Much of Emerson’s Essays: First Series, including “Self-Reliance,” began in his journals. For a chronology of Emerson’s Whig convention visits, subsequent journal entries, and corresponding essays, see his Journals, vol. 7, xv–xvi, xx (see the previous note).

  15. 15.

    Turner, Awakening to Race, 27 (see note 8 above).

  16. 16.

    Emerson, Journals, vol. 5, 29 (see note 5 above); Journals, vol. 7, 292 (see note 13 above); Journals, vol. 4, 369 (see note 13 above).

  17. 17.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” in Selected Writings, ed. Atkinson, 455, 289 (see note 1 above).

  18. 18.

    Rousseau calls this aimless pondering the least political method of thought. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, trans. Charles Butterworth (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1992), 68.

  19. 19.

    Henry David Thoreau, “Walden” and “Walking,” in Walden and Other Writings of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Brooks Atkinson (New York: Random House, 1950), 151–53.

  20. 20.

    Jane Bennett, Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1995), xxi.

  21. 21.

    Shannon Mariotti, Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010), 120–26, 143–47.

  22. 22.

    Emerson, Journals, vol. 7, 313 (see note 13 above). See similar records of their many excursions, for example, on 143, 238, 454, and 538.

  23. 23.

    On Thoreau and particularity, see Mariotti, Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal, 128–35 (see note 21 above), and Bennett, Thoreau’s Nature, xix–xxv, 26–29 (see note 20 above).

  24. 24.

    Jason Frank, “Standing for Others,” in Levine and Malachuk, Political Companion, 390 (see note 2 above); Neal Dolan, Emerson’s Liberalism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), 216; Turner, Awakening to Race, 31–32 (see note 8 above).

  25. 25.

    Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” 148–49 (see note 1 above). In the same passage, Emerson regrets some of his charitable donations as a “wicked dollar, which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.” This is often read to reject charity. But the full, original passage, drafted across three July 1839 journal entries, is more ambivalent. In his 1830s journals, Emerson was uncertain about which “class of persons” he owed. By his 1844 “New England Reformers” and “Manners,” Emerson had fewer reservations with charity. See Emerson, Journals, vol. 7, 128–29, 224–25, 405–6 (see note 13 above).

  26. 26.

    Thoreau, confronted by the crass particulars of Concord shops and peddlers, recalls that “I escaped wonderfully from these dangers… by keeping my thoughts on high things.” Here it is Thoreau, not Emerson, who practices what Mariotti calls high-minded “focal distancing.” Thoreau, “Walden,” 151–53 (see note 19 above).

  27. 27.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” in Emerson: Political Writings, ed. Kenneth Sacks (Cambrdge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 104; Emerson, “New England Reformers,” 452–56, emphasis added (see note 9 above).

  28. 28.

    “Emerson, Self-Reliance, and the Politics of Democracy,” 194 (see note 10 above); Len Gougeon, “Historical Background,” in Emerson’s Antislavery Writings, ed. Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002), xxx; Dolan, Emerson’s Liberalism, 216–17 (see note 24 above).

  29. 29.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Lecture on Slavery” in Emerson’s Antislavery Writings, 97 (see note 28 above); Shannon Mariotti, “Emerson’s Transcendental Gaze and the ‘Disagreeable Particulars’ of Slavery,” in Political Companion, ed. Levine and Malachuk, 329–30 (see note 2 above); Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” 103 (see note 27 above).

  30. 30.

    Quoted in Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 194 (see note 8 above). On the Seamen Acts, see Michael Schoeppner, “Peculiar Quarantines: The Seamen Acts and Regulatory Authority in the Antebellum South,” Law and History Review 31 (2013): 559–86.

  31. 31.

    Emerson learned of these imprisonments secondhand, from neighbors. See Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Emancipation in the West Indies,” in Selected Writings, 847–50 (see note 1 above).

  32. 32.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Memory,” in Emerson’s Complete Works, vol. 12, ed. James Elliot Cabot (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1893), 66–69.

  33. 33.

    Emerson, “Emancipation,” 843–47 (see note 31 above).

  34. 34.

    Mariotti, “Emerson’s Transcendental Gaze,” 315–16 (see note 29 above).

  35. 35.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Poetry and Imagination,” in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Letters and Social Aims, vol. 8, ed. Ronald A. Bosco, Glen M. Johnson, and Joel Myerson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), 6, 15.

  36. 36.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” in Selected Writings, ed. Atkinson, 331–32 (see note 29 above).

  37. 37.

    Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” 162 (see note 1 above); Emerson, “Emancipation,” 839–40, 853–55 (see note 31 above). Notice, however, that earlier in the address, Emerson also lauds Antigua’s peaceful abolition, and grants former slaves both “pity and respect.” On this inconsistency, see James Read, “The Limits of Self-Reliance: Emerson, Slavery, and Abolition,” in A Political Companion, ed. Levine and Malachuk, 152–84, at 166–71 (see note 2 above).Like Emerson, Frederick Douglass feels that whites’ pity for slaves often rested on scorn for helpless, abject slaves, refuted only with violent, self-reliant resistance. For a contrast between Emerson and Douglass on pity and slave revolt, see Robert Gooding-Williams, In the Shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 177. Similarly, in his 1829 Appeal, David Walker argued that violent revolt would convince whites of slaves’ humanity. See David Walker, Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995).

  38. 38.

    Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking, 1963), 80.

  39. 39.

    Frank in “Standing for Others” shows that abolitionists like John Brown represented humans’ universal, if latent, anti-slavery intuitions (see note 24 above).

  40. 40.

    Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 12–13; Emerson, “Emancipation,” 834 (see note 31 above).

  41. 41.

    Mariotti, “Emerson’s Transcendental Gaze,” 305 (see note 29 above).

  42. 42.

    Emerson’s mentors, Professors Levi Hedge and Levi Frisbie, led this national trend, adding Locke’s Essay to the curriculum Emerson’s first year (1818), Dugald Stewart’s Elements and Thomas Reid his third year, and Francis Hutcheson and the Earl of Shaftesbury around this time. See John Edward Schamberger, Emerson’s Concept of the Moral Sense, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1969, 36–59; Edgeley W. Todd, “Philosophical Ideas at Harvard College, 1817–1837,” New England Quarterly 15 (1943): 60–90.

  43. 43.

    Schamberger, Emerson’s Concept, 60–88 (see note 42 above); Merrell R. Davis, “Emerson’s ‘Reason’ and the Scottish Philosophers,” The New England Quarterly 17 (1944): 209–28. Emerson, following Scottish moral sense theorists, used the word “sympathy,” although his meaning is closest to the modern word “empathy,” which this essay uses.

  44. 44.

    Smith argues that luxuries like the theater train audiences to imagine themselves as and to empathize with the play’s characters, while “savage” peoples competing and killing to survive have duller moral senses. See Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 63, 240 (see note 40 above). Citing Smith’s Theory, Emerson agrees that “the savage & the child” cannot imagine the “experience of other men.” Emerson also quietly adopted inegalitarian race theories from moral sense writers and antebellum Americans like his friend and colleague Louis Agassiz. See The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 2, ed. William H. Gillman, Alfred R. Ferguson, and Merrell R. Davis (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961), 262.

  45. 45.

    On Emerson’s primary school teaching and journal entries, see Schamberger, Emerson’s Concept of the Moral Sense, 104–105 (see note 42 above); Emerson took his reading list from contemporary Scottish moral philosopher James Mackintosh, whom he lauded throughout his journals.

  46. 46.

    David Bromwich, “Moral Imagination.” Raritan 27 (2008), 15–16; Turner, Awakening to Race, 39 (see note 8 above). Turner rightly notes that rejecting commerce also spurs action.

  47. 47.

    Emerson was familiar with Kant, particularly through the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which he read as early as 1834. See Gougeon, “Emerson, Self-Reliance, and the Politics of Democracy,” 187 (see note 10 above).

  48. 48.

    Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” 148; Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,” in Selected Writings, ed. Atkinson, 57 (see note 1 above for both sources).

  49. 49.

    Emerson claims that the antislavery moral law obligates and “pervades all intelligent beings,” so an unreflective abolitionist could unwittingly act in conformity with the moral law but not for the sake of the law. Also note that Kant, like Emerson, stresses the universality of moral law, acting for the sake of the law, and the importance of autonomy. See Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. James W. Ellington (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993); see also Cavell, “Aversive Thinking,” 104 (see note 7 above); and Emerson, Journals, vol. 2, 49 (see note 44 above). Emerson’s adoption of Kantian rationalism and Scottish moral sense theory may seem like an unabashed or unwitting inconsistency. But both Kant and the Scots felt that autonomous contemplation revealed universal moral law, guiding human action. Emerson’s idea of freedom fits in this overlap. For Kant on independent contemplation, see Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” in Kant: Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 54–60 (see note 24 above).On this essay’s similarity to “Self-Reliance,” and for Emerson’s adoption of both Kant and the Scots, see Dolan, Emerson’s Liberalism, 53, 64–65.

  50. 50.

    Nancy Hirschmann, “Toward a Feminist Theory of Freedom,” Political Theory 24 (1996): 46–67, at 59.

  51. 51.

    Isiah Belin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Four Essays on Liberty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 135.

  52. 52.

    Mariotti, Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal, 58–81 (see note 21 above), and “Emerson’s Transcendental Gaze,” 309–13 (see note 29 above).

  53. 53.

    Mariotti, “Emerson’s Transcedental Gaze,” 307 (see note 29 above). Although Emerson’s idealism sometimes distances him from particular slaves, Mariotti grants that it also connects him to them. Even were these connection rare, they are still important demonstrations of his suasionism.

  54. 54.

    Emerson, “Emancipation,” 853 (see note 33 above).

  55. 55.

    Previous accounts of Emerson’s epiphanies considered them apolitical insights into nature. See Gene Bluestein, “Emerson’s Epiphanies,” The New England Quarterly 39 (1966): 449–54. Emerson’s alternation complicates the traditional reading of Emerson as a classical apolitical liberal. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Address to the Citizens of Concord,” in Gougeon and Myerson, Emerson’s Antislavery Writings, 58 (see note 28 above). Emerson, “Emancipation,” 848 (see note 33 above). Note that Mariotti’s Thoreau also briefly returned to society after solitude; see Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal, 120 (see note 21 above).

  56. 56.

    Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” 103 (see note 27 above); Dolan, Emerson’s Liberalism, 216 (see note 24 above); Emerson, “Emancipation,” 843–44 (see note 33 above).

  57. 57.

    Turner, Awakening to Race, 43 (see note 8 above).

  58. 58.

    Gougeon, “Emerson, Self-Reliance, and the Politics of Democracy,” 201–202 (see note 10 above).

  59. 59.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 13, ed. Ralph H. Orth and Alfred R. Ferguson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977), 281–82.

  60. 60.

    Kateb, Emerson and Self-Reliance, 184–88 (see note 4 above); Emerson, “New England Reformers,” 457 (see note 9 above).

  61. 61.

    Emerson, ibid., 455–65.

  62. 62.

    Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” 148 (see note 1 above); Emerson, “Emancipation,” 853 (see note 33 above); on Clarkson and suasion, see Michael E. Woods, “A Theory of Moral Outrage: Indignation and Eighteenth-Century British Abolitionism,” Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Post-Slave Studies 62 (2014): 622–83, at 665–58.

  63. 63.

    Similarly, Arendt asserts that a truly compassionate listener is so struck with another’s suffering that he is reduced to “gestures and expressions of countenance.” She adds that appeals to compassion can circumvent and “shun the drawn-out wearisome process of persuasion” and argument. See Arendt, On Revolution, 80–85 (see note 38 above).

  64. 64.

    Kateb, Emerson and Self-Reliance, 35 (see note 4 above); Richard S. Newman, The Transformation of American Abolitionism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 152–59.

  65. 65.

    Emerson, “The American Scholar,” 21 (see note 48 above); Emerson, “Emancipation,” 834 (see note 33 above).

  66. 66.

    Emerson, “Emancipation,” 834–37 (see note 33 above). Emerson so admired Wilberforce that he attended the abolitionist’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1833. See Emerson, Journals, vol. 4, 414 (see note 13 above).

  67. 67.

    J.R. Oldfield, Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion against the Slave Trade 1787–1807 (New York: Routledge, 1995), 1–3.

  68. 68.

    Gougeon, “Historical Background,” xxviii (see note 28 above); Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 51–52, 74–76 (see note 8 above); Emerson, “Emancipation,” 834–37, 856 (see note 33 above).

  69. 69.

    Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” 110 (see note 27 above); Turner, Awakening to Race, 34–39 (see note 8 above).

  70. 70.

    Emerson, “Man the Reformer,” 102, (see note 27 above); Emerson, “New England Reformers,” 458 (see note 9 above).

  71. 71.

    James H. Read. “The Limits of Self-Reliance,” in A Political Companion, ed. Levine and Malachuk, 155 (see note 2 above).

  72. 72.

    Emerson, Journals, vol. 5, 437 (see note 5 above); Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Kansas Relief Meeting,” “Attempted Speech,” and “The President’s Proclamation,” in Gougeon and Myerson, Emerson’s Antislavery Writings, 114, 126, 131 (see note 28 above); Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Fugitive Slave Law,” in Selected Writings, 872 (see note 1 above).

  73. 73.

    Emerson, “Address to the Citizens of Concord,” 53 (see note 55 above).

  74. 74.

    Accused of massacring five pro-slavery Kansans at Pottawatomie Creek, Brown fled Kansas for New England. He stayed in Emerson’s house in the spring of 1857 and again in May 1859. Emerson continued fundraising for Brown until his capture at Harper’s Ferry; see Gougeon, “Historical Background,” xlvi–xlvii (see note 28 above).

  75. 75.

    On Emerson’s unsuccessful speeches, see Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 169, 264–56 (see note 8 above); Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Speech at a Meeting to Aid John Brown’s Family,” in Gougeon and Myerson, Emerson’s Antislavery Writings, 119 (see note 28 above); on Emerson’s material and moral support of Brown’s violence, see Read, “The Limits of Self-Reliance,” 165 (see note 37 above); Gougeon, “Emerson, Self-Reliance, and the Politics of Democracy,” 205 (see note 10 above); Frank, “Standing for Others,” 408 (see note 24 above).

  76. 76.

    George Kateb, “Self-Reliance, Politics, and Society,” 73 (see note 6 above).

  77. 77.

    This harmony between self-reliant thought and action undermines Kateb’s division between the two.

  78. 78.

    Read, “The Limits of Self-Reliance,” 160–66, 178–79 (see note 37 above).

  79. 79.

    Kateb, Emerson and Self-Reliance, 34–35 (see note 4 above); Larry John Reynolds, Righteous Violence: Revolution, Slavery, and the American Renaissance (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 76–84.

  80. 80.

    Mariotti, Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal, xvii, 106–7 (see note 21 above); Ruth Lane, “Standing Aloof from the State: Thoreau on Self-Government,” in Review of Politics 67 (2005) 285–86.

  81. 81.

    Emerson, “The American Scholar,” 57 (see note 48 above).

  82. 82.

    Quoted in Mariotti, Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal, 14, 130–31 (see note 21 above).

  83. 83.

    Thoreau accepted conventional political action more than many, including Emerson, realize. See Lane, “Thoreau on Self-Government,” 299 (see note 80 above).

  84. 84.

    Mariotti, “Emerson’s Transcendental Gaze,” 330 (see note 29 above); Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Lecture on Slavery” and “Address to the Citizens of Concord,” in Gougeon and Myerson, Emerson’s Antislavery Writings 67, 94–97, and 101 (see note 28 above).

  85. 85.

    Mariotti, Ibid., 326; Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Fugitive Slave Law," 89 (see note 72 above); quoted in Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 156 (see note 8 above).

  86. 86.

    Quoted in Woods, “A Theory of Moral Outrage,” 14, emphasis added (see note 62 above). For the full second quote, see G.C.P., Reflections on the Slave Trade, with Remarks on the Policy of Its Abolition. In a Letter to a Clergyman in the County of Suffolk (Sudbury, England: J.H. Riley, 1791), 31.

  87. 87.

    Mariotti, “Emerson’s Transcendental Gaze,” 321–26 (see note 29 above).

  88. 88.

    Emerson, “The Fugitive Slave Law,” 83 (see note 72 above); Emerson’s quote implies that initial independence later makes one “qualified for society.” Gougeon interprets this and a related quote as an exhortation for politicians and “individuals to look within themselves for truth and then act upon that truth… These beliefs, once shared, would lead to a natural coalition. The leader of such a group simply articulates – not dictates – the collective desires of the people. As noted earlier, this coalition would emerge through a democratic process of public discourse”; see Gougeon, “Emerson, Self-Reliance, and the Politics of Democracy,” 202–3 (see note 10 above). Emerson’s passage never refers to suasionists, but it is tellingly compatible with their methods and tenets.

  89. 89.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “John Brown,” in Emerson’s Antislavery Writings, eds. Gougeon and Myerson, 123 (see note 28 above).

  90. 90.

    Joseph Cammet Lovejoy and Owen Lovejoy, Memoir of the Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy (New York: J.S. Taylor, 1838), 278–78; Emerson, Journals, vol. 5, 437 (see note 5 above).

  91. 91.

    T. Gregory Garvey, “Anarchy and Public Discourse: Emerson, Lincoln, and the ‘Mobocratic Spirit’ of the 1830s,” American Nineteenth Century History 14 (June 2013): 178 n1.

  92. 92.

    In a November 24, 1837 journal entry, Emerson drafted parts of “Heroism” to laud Lovejoy, who was killed seventeen days earlier. See Emerson, Journals, vol. 5, 437 (see note 5 above). For Lovejoy’s significant influence on “Heroism,” see Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 37–38, 48, 52, 339, 356–57 n26 (see note 8 above); Reynolds, Righteous Violence, 58–59 (see note 79 above); Tiffany K. Wayne, “Heroism,” in Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism (New York: Infobase, 2006): 144–45.

  93. 93.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Heroism,” in Selected, ed. Atkinson, 252–53, 256, 259 (see note 1 above); Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Remarks at Worcester,” in Gougeon and Myerson, Emerson’s Antislavery Writings, 50 (see note 28 above).

  94. 94.

    Emerson, “The Fugitive Slave Law,” 81; Lovejoy and Lovejoy, Memoir of the Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy, 278–79 (see note 90 above), emphasis added; Emerson on “our great duty” quoted in Robert D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 269, emphasis added.

  95. 95.

    Emerson, “Speech at a Meeting to Aid John Brown’s Family,” 119 (see note 75 above); Frank, “Standing for Others,” 408 (see note 24 above); Read, “The Limits of Self-Reliance,” 164 (see note 37 above); Emerson, “The Poet,” 331–32 (see note 36 above).

  96. 96.

    Reynolds. Righteous Violence, 58–59 (see note 79 above); Emerson, “Heroism,” 252, emphasis added (see note 92 above); Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 339 (see note 8 above).

  97. 97.

    Emerson, “Society and Solitude,” 745 (see note 1 above).

  98. 98.


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The author would like to thank Jeff Green, Nancy Hirschmann, Anne Norton, Rogers Smith, readers at the University of Pennsylvania Political Theory Workshop, and Polity’s editors and anonymous reviewers for comments on this article.

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Woodward-Burns, R. Solitude Before Society: Emerson on Self-Reliance, Abolitionism, and Moral Suasion. Polity 48, 29–54 (2016).

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  • Emerson
  • self-reliance
  • abolitionism
  • moral suasion
  • democracy
  • deliberation