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  • “On Freedom”:Emerson, Douglass, and the Self-reliant Slave
  • Hugh Egan (bio)

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1853 poem, “On Freedom,” offers a unique angle of insight on Emerson’s relationship with the abolitionist movement generally and with Frederick Douglass specifically. The poem is a conflicted meditation on the power of verse to convey “freedom’s secret” to the captive slave, and exemplifies Emerson’s ongoing approach/avoidance stance toward the cause of abolition. Despite Emerson’s “conversion” following his 1844 speech on emancipation in the West Indies, and his further radicalization following the Compromise of 1850 along with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, “On Freedom” demonstrates his continuing difficulty in adapting the fluid, transcendental vocabulary of “sunset skies” and “starry fates” to the obdurate issue of slavery.1 Even in the midst of this rhetorical struggle, however, Emerson may well have had Douglass in mind as he wrote the poem, for Douglass was engaged in his own effort to wed the material to the metaphorical over the issue of slavery.

The poem first appeared as part of an anthology, Autographs for Freedom (1854), published by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society to raise funds for Frederick Douglass’ Newspaper. Arranged and edited by Douglass’s editorial assistant Julia Griffiths, the collection is comprised of a great variety of pieces—poetry, fiction, philosophical meditation, political [End Page 183]

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Frederick Douglass. African American abolitionist. Between 1865 and 1880.

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. LC-BH832-30219.

[End Page 184]

argument—by noted abolitionists such as George B. Vashon, Antoinette L. Brown, Theodore Parker, Williams Wells Brown, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Gerrit Smith, James McCune Smith, Horace Greeley, Harriet Beecher Stowe and others, each of whom provided a signature to accompany his or her contribution. Together with the first volume of Autographs for Freedom, published in 1853, which printed Douglass’s novella The Heroic Slave, this literary fund-raising effort gathered together an extraordinary collection of activist voices—black, white, male, and female—who condemn slavery with an overwhelming passion and urgency. “On Freedom,” however, retains a degree of hesitation that distinguishes it from other contributions to this volume. Indeed, the poem focuses upon the dilemma of the poet as much as the slave.

At the heart of Emerson’s poem is the speaker’s fantasy of engaging in a perfect speech-act, such that “the slave who caught the strain/Should throb until he snapt his chain.” If the poet can provide the perfect inspiration, the slave—and by extension the black race—is wakened into a state of self-reliance: man and race are now capable of gaining freedom by acting upon impulse and aligning with the forces of history and fate. As commentators have noted, Emerson, beginning with his 1844 speech, took an increasingly public role in condemning slavery, but less noted is the fact that Emerson continued to harbor a race-based theory of history that made him skeptical of the efforts of white abolitionists. The black race, Emerson explained in 1844, must free itself “and take a master’s part” in human history. How this act of racial self-reliance gets translated into individual human agency is the project of “On Freedom,” a project that ultimately founders on the speaker’s self-conscious equivocations. Yet beneath the airy images of archangels and mountain-top deities, the fantasy of the perfect speech-act survives. The poem thus serves as a fascinating, if tortured, attempt to marry transcendental principle to single-issue politics. And in mounting this effort, Emerson demonstrates a surprising intellectual congruence with Douglass, the self-reliant ex-slave who subdued his white overseer by force, and whose newspaper Emerson [End Page 185] was supporting by writing the poem in the first place. In fact Douglass’s two major pre-1854 publications—the 1845 Narrative and the 1853 Heroic Slave—share a vision and vocabulary notably consistent with Emerson’s poem.


“On Freedom”Once I wished I might rehearseFreedom’s paean in my verse,That the slave who caught the strainShould throb until he snapt his chain.But the Spirit said, “Not so;Speak...


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