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  • Peculiar Faculty and Peculiar Institution: Ralph Waldo Emerson on Labor and Slavery
  • Sophia Forster (bio)

In 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson stepped decisively onto the abolitionist stage with the delivery of his first antislavery speech, “Address on the Anniversary of Emancipation in the British West Indies,” presented in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. While abolitionists applauded the speech, their approbation was tinged with a sense of the belatedness of Emerson’s participation. As the abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier noted in his response to the publication of Emerson’s remarks, “we had previously, we confess, felt half indignant that, while we were struggling against the popular current, mobbed, hunted, denounced, from the legislative forum, cursed from the pulpit, such a man as Ralph Waldo Emerson should be brooding over his pleasant philosophies, writing his quaint and beautiful essays, in his retirement on the banks of the Concord, unconcerned and ‘calm as a summer’s morning.’”1

Contemporary commentary on Emerson’s abolitionism presents a curious inversion of Whittier’s concerns. Until recently, the Emersonian tradition of transcendentalism comprised precisely those texts that Whittier deems “quaint and beautiful essays,” an oeuvre described by one contemporary scholar as the “small canon.”2 Its interpretation over the past century and a half has often yielded the conclusion that the [End Page 35] attitude Whittier derides as “unconcern” in fact represents a sophisticated philosophical stance on Emerson’s part. Indeed, critics have often judged Emerson’s apparent disengagement from immediate political concerns to be more radical than the sectarian politics of many of his contemporaries. In the wake of the scholarly recovery of Emerson’s abolitionist texts, then, commentators have been less sanguine than Whittier in their assessments of Emerson’s participation in the antislavery cause. Emerson’s embrace of the abolitionist acceptance of the Northern economic status quo has posed a particular challenge, as it appears to contradict the small canon’s opposition to the values and practices of the burgeoning capitalist economy, an opposition much lauded by critics.3 In the “Emancipation Address,” Emerson describes Northern capitalism as providing a “safer and cheaper”4 alternative to slavery, initiating a pro-capitalist strain of rhetoric that was rarely absent from his antislavery works over the next two decades, and that seems to stand in stark contrast to one of the small canon’s most famous statements on capitalism, the assertion in “Self-Reliance” that “The reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance.”5

This essay seeks to resolve the apparent contradiction between the small canon’s criticism of capitalism and the abolitionist texts’ support for it by considering Emerson’s attitudes towards labor, a topic as important to Emerson’s transcendental philosophy as it is was to the antebellum abolitionist movement. In two largely ignored 1837 speeches that provide the most detailed exposition of Emerson’s view of labor, “Trades and Professions” and “Doctrine of the Hands,” he stakes out a position on labor that contains key elements of the critique of slavery he offers in 1844 and after. I argue that a defining context for the view of labor offered in these speeches—and, indeed, in the more polished texts of the small canon that have been so influential in defining Emerson’s transcendentalism—lies in the historical development of the rhetoric of “free labor,” which extolled the opportunities for laborers in Northern capitalist society. Antebellum free labor abolitionists celebrated the capitalist economic system [End Page 36] for conferring on the laborer intrinsic moral and extrinsic economic improvement. Emerson shares this fundamentally liberal embrace of the capitalist marketplace, but he values it for a somewhat different reason. Rather than simply extolling capitalism’s moral lessons in self-discipline or its instrumental value in producing wealth, Emerson praises its capacity to best accommodate the experience of labor as a crucial means of self-development—of expansion of the self’s innate faculties and capacities. Capitalism, in Emerson’s view, creates the conditions of possibility for the labor that produces this distinctive form of self-development, and thus is superior not only to slavery, but also to the various utopian economic experiments that abounded in...


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