#InContext: Ralph Waldo Emerson

by | Sep 15, 2017


As a young man coming of age during the time of the Civil War, Ralph Waldo Emerson saw firsthand the consequences and destruction of slavery. Emerson was a passionate opponent of slavery and his thoughts on the subject are scattered throughout his essays, speeches, and collected works.

Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts, where he would return later in life to share his abolitionist beliefs. His father was a minister, and, like many of his ancestors, Emerson also followed a path into ministry. He attended the Boston Latin School and then went on to Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1821. He became a licensed minister in 1826 through the Harvard Divinity School and was ordained to the Unitarian church in 1829. He married Ellen Tucker in 1829, but the marriage was cut short when Tucker died of tuberculosis in 1831. Stricken with grief and struggling with a crisis of faith, Emerson abandoned his post in ministry and traveled to Europe.

While abroad, he had the chance to meet with several well-known literary figures of the time, including Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth, all of whom inspired much of the style and thematic content of Emerson’s most popular writing. When he returned to the United States in 1833, he began to lecture on spiritual experience and ethical living. He moved to Concord, Massachusetts in 1834 and re-married in 1835.
Emerson became the central figure of a literary and philosophical group, now known as the American Transcendentalists. These writers shared a common belief that individuals could move beyond the physical world into a deeper spiritual experience through free will and intuition. Transcendentalists believed that God could be seen and known by looking into their own souls and connecting with nature.

Although his role as an abolitionist came later in life, Emerson’s passion on topic shines through his writing. He had visited slave-holding territories when he traveled to the South in 1826 and encountered first-hand the shocking treatment of countless human beings. In 1856, after hearing the violent account of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner being assaulted due to his anti-slavery efforts, Emerson and others gathered in Concord to discuss the situation. Emerson was uncompromising on the issue. In his speech, he stated:

“I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom.”

For nearly 40 years, Ralph Waldo Emerson struggled with the problem of slavery. His unqualified demand for emancipation inspired other literary and philosophical thinkers of the time period to join together in a call for complete freedom. Through word and action, Emerson served as an outspoken advocate for the marginalized, the weak, and the voice-less.

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