The Limits of Self-Reliance: Emerson, Slavery, and Abolition

50 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 26 Aug 2009

See all articles by James H. Read

James H. Read

College of Saint Benedict (CSB) and Saint John's University (SJU)

Date Written: 2009


In the 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” Ralph Waldo Emerson presupposed a democratic society of free and equal individuals – an idealized America with a veil drawn over racial slavery. As his own commitment to the antislavery cause deepened over time Emerson sought to reconcile his ideal of self-reliance with organized political action necessary to fight slavery.

Recent scholarship has corrected the previously dominant image of Emerson as detached from politics and indifferent to abolitionism. But even as he participated in it, Emerson saw antislavery activism as a distraction from his own proper work of freeing “imprisoned spirits, imprisoned thoughts, far back in the brain of man.” Abolitionists, with their single-minded pursuit of a cause, seemed to Emerson to have only a “platform existence, and no personality.” Emerson’s philosophy of Self-Reliance privileged individual over collective action, and personal experience over concern for distant evils. Emerson was most successful in synthesizing self-reliance with abolitionism when he urged resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law: individuals who resisted the law displayed self-reliance of the kind Emerson celebrated. He also admired the self-reliance of individual fugitive slaves, despite his doubts about the capacities of the black race in general and his ranking Anglo-Saxons over other races and peoples.

Beyond resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law, Emerson’s philosophy of Self-Reliance provided less clear guidance for fighting slavery, and Emerson himself vibrated among several contradictory strategies. His support for peaceful, compensated emancipation within an intact Union was irreconcilable with his support for the violent measures of John Brown, whom he celebrated as the model of American self-reliance.

In the 1860 essay “Fate” Emerson reformulates the ideal of self-reliance in a way that reflects the escalating sectional crisis: only through cold-eyed recognition of necessity, he argues, can one preserve a measure of self-reliance in a world that frustrates our will. This reformulation of self-reliance is more suited to human beings living through an inescapable political crisis, and in that respect an advance over the 1841 version. But it depends for its success on clearer comprehension of political causality than Emerson ever achieved.

Keywords: Emerson Slavery Abolition Self-Reliance

Suggested Citation

Read, James H., The Limits of Self-Reliance: Emerson, Slavery, and Abolition (2009). APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

James H. Read (Contact Author)

College of Saint Benedict (CSB) and Saint John's University (SJU) ( email )

P.O. Box 2000
St. Joseph and Collegeville, MN 56321
United States

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