The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

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Hardly a club in the conventional sense, the organization referred to in the title of this superb literary hybrid-part history, part biography, part philosophy- consisted of four members and probably existed for less than nine months. Yet its impact upon American intellectual life remains incalculable. Louis Menand masterfully weaves pivotal late 19th-and early 20th-century events, colorful biographical anecdotes, and abstract ideas into a narrative whole that both enthralls and enlightens.The Metaphysical Club is a compellingly vital account of how the cluster of ideas that came to be called pragmatism was forged from the searing experiences of its progenitors' lives. Here are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, all of them giants of American thought made colloquially accessible both as human beings and as intellects.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781565115422
Publisher: HighBridge Company
Publication date: 09/24/2001
Edition description: Abridged, 6 CDs
Pages: 1
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 5.30(h) x 1.10(d)

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The Metaphysical Club



The Politics Of Slavery


OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, JR., was an officer in the Union Army. He stood six feet three inches tall and had a soldierly bearing. In later life, he loved to use military metaphors in his speeches and his conversation; he didn't mind being referred to good-naturedly as Captain Holmes; and he wore his enormous military mustaches until his death, in 1935, at the age of ninety-three. The war was the central experience of his life, and he kept its memory alive. Every year he drank a glass of wine in observance of the anniversary of the battle of Antietam, where he had been shot in the neck and left, briefly behind enemy lines, for dead.

But Holmes hated the war. He was twenty years old and weighed just 136 pounds at the time of his first battle, at Ball's Bluff, where he was shot through the chest. He fought bravely and he was resilient, but he was not strong in a brute sense, and as the war went on the physical ordeal was punishing. He was wounded three times in all, the third time in an engagement leading up to the battle of Chancellorsville, when he was shot in the foot. He hoped the foot wouldhave to be amputated so he could be discharged, but it was spared, and he served out his commission. Many of his friends were killed in battle, some of them in front of his eyes. Those glasses of wine were toasts to pain.

Holmes recovered from the wounds. The effects of the mental ordeal were permanent. He had gone off to fight because of his moral beliefs, which he held with singular fervor. The war did more than make him lose those beliefs. It made him lose his belief in beliefs. It impressed on his mind, in the most graphic and indelible way, a certain idea about the limits of ideas. This idea he stuck to, with a grimness and, at times, a cynicism that have occasionally repelled people who have studied his life and thought. But it is the idea that underlies many of the opinions he wrote, long after the war ended, as an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court. To understand the road Holmes had to travel in order to write those opinions, we have to go back to one of the worlds the Civil War made obsolete, the world of prewar Boston.


We think of the Civil War as a war to save the union and to abolish slavery, but before the fighting began most people regarded these as incompatible ideals. Northerners who wanted to preserve the union did not wish to see slavery extended into the territories; some of them hoped it would wither away in the states where it persisted. But many Northern businessmen believed that losing the South would mean economic catastrophe, and many of their employees believed that freeing the slaves would mean lower wages. They feared secession far more than they disliked slavery, and they were unwilling to risk the former by trying to pressure the South into giving up the latter.

The abolitionists were careless of the future of the union. "If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off" was the text they preached. They despised the unionists as people who put self-interest ahead of righteousness, and they considered any measure short of abolition or partition to be a bargain with evil. They baited the unionists with charges of hypocrisy and greed; the unionists responded by accusing the abolitionists of goading the South into secession, and by trying to run them out of town and sometimes to kill them. Before there was a war against the South, there was a war within the North.

Holmes's father, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., was a unionist. The Holmeses were related to families that had prospered in New England since the time of the Puritans—the Olivers, the Wendells, the Quincys, the Bradstreets, the Cabots, the Jacksons, and the Lees—but they were not exceptionally wealthy. Dr. Holmes was a professor; his father, Abiel, had been a minister. He regarded himself as a New England Brahmin (a term he coined),1 by which he meant not merely a person of good family, but a scholar, or what we would call an intellectual. His own mind was a mixture of enlightenment and conformity: he combined largeness of intellect with narrowness of culture.

Dr. Holmes had become famous in 1830, the year after he graduated from Harvard, when he wrote a popular poem protesting the breakup of the U.S.S. Constitution, "Old Ironsides." After college he tried the law but quickly switched to medicine. He studied in Paris, and in 1843, when he was thirty-four, published a paper on the causes of puerperal (or childbed) fever that turned out to be a landmark work in the germ theory of disease. (He showed that the disease was carried from childbirth to childbirth by the attending physician; it was a controversial paper among the medical establishment.) He joined the faculty of the Harvard Medical School, where he eventually served as dean. But his celebrity came from his activities as a belletrist. He was one of the first members of the Saturday Club, a literary dining and conversation society whose participants included Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., James Russell Lowell, and Charles Eliot Norton. He was a founder of the Atlantic Monthly, whose name he invented and in whose pages he published his popular column of aperçus, "The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table" (followed by "The Professor at the Breakfast-Table" and "The Poet at the Breakfast-Table"). He wrote hundreds of verses and three novels. Many people, and not only Bostonians, believed him to be the greatest talker they had ever heard.

Yet he was unabashedly provincial. His chief ambition was to represent the Boston point of view in all things. (He also suffered from asthma, which made travel uncomfortable.) On the other hand, he regarded the Boston point of view as pretty much the only point of view worth representing. He considered Boston "the thinking centre of the continent, and therefore of the planet."2 Or as he also put it, in a phrase that became the city's nickname for itself: "Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system."3 He was an enemy of Calvinism (which had been his father's religion) and a rationalist, but his faith in good breeding was nearly atavistic, and he saw no reason to challenge the premises of a social dispensation that had, over the course of two centuries, contrived to produce a man as genial and accomplished as himself.

Dr. Holmes's views on political issues therefore tended to be reflexive: he took his cues from his own instincts and the prevailing tendencies, and where these conflicted, he went with the tendencies. In 1850, for example, while he was serving as dean of the Medical School, he was approached by a black man named Martin Delany who requested admission. Delany was an exceptional character. He had, with Frederick Douglass, helped to found the leading black newspaper in the United States, the North Star; he later wrote a novel in answer to Uncle Tom's Cabin, called Blake; Or, the Huts of America, and served as a major in the Union Army, the highest rank achieved by an African-American during the Civil War. He was already thirty-eight years old in 1850, and his credentials for admission to medical school were unimpeachable, although he had been turned down by four schools, including the University of Pennsylvania, before he tried Harvard.

As it happened, two other black candidates, Daniel Laing, Jr., and Isaac H. Snowden, both from Massachusetts, had applied for admission in the same year. Laing and Snowden were sponsored by the American Colonization Society, a group that advocated resettling African-Americans in Liberia as a solution to the problem of slavery. They promised to emigrate as soon as they received their degrees; Delany made it clear that he intended to practice in the United States. Holmes could see no reason not to admit all three. He alsoarranged to admit (on the understanding that she would not sit in the regular anatomy class) the first woman to attend Harvard Medical School, Harriet Hunt, another Bostonian—though it was his view that for the most part the education of women was a wasteful practice. (There were a few women who had the capacity to profit from education, he once conceded—Madame de Staël, for example—but "[a] natural law is not disproved by a pickled monster.")4

The medical students revolted. They notified the faculty of their objection to the presence of a woman at the lectures, and Delany, Laing, and Snowden were ostracized. In December sixty students, a majority of the student body, met and approved a petition resolving that "we cannot consent to be identified as fellow students with blacks, whose company we would not keep in the streets, and whose Society as associates we would not tolerate in our houses," and that "we feel our grievances to be but the beginning of an evil, which, if not checked will increase, and that the number of respectable white students will, in future, be in an inverse ratio to that of blacks." A slightly smaller group, of forty-eight students, submitted a dissenting petition, noting that as unpleasant as the situation was, "they would feel it a far greater evil, if, in the present state of public feeling, a medical college in Boston could refuse to this unfortunate class any privileges of education, which it is in the power of the profession to bestow."

The faculty met for two evenings at Holmes's house. At first it held firm, but after it received notice from some of the white students of their intention to transfer, it capitulated, and directed Holmes to inform the American Colonization Society that "the result of this experiment has satisfied [the Medical School faculty] that the intermixing of races is distasteful to a large portion of the class, & injurious to the interests of the school," and that no applications from black candidates would be accepted in the future. Delany, Laing, and Snowden were not permitted to register for the following term. Harriet Hunt had already withdrawn her application on the advice of the faculty.5 Holmes had seen nothing wrong with admitting these new students, but when the consensus of his colleagues moved inthe other direction, he seems to have seen nothing wrong with changing his course.

Laing ended up at Dartmouth, where he received his degree; Snowden returned to study privately with a surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. (In 1853, he reapplied to Harvard and was rejected.) 6 Delany stuck around. He expected his cause to be taken up by the Boston abolitionists, who were then embattled in a series of highly publicized efforts on behalf of escaped slaves being hunted down under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. In October, a few weeks before Delany arrived in Cambridge, a Boston vigilance committee, led by the minister Theodore Parker, had run out of town two agents who were trying to hunt down William and Ellen Craft, a black couple who had escaped from Georgia disguised as a white gentleman and his manservant. In February 1851, after a black waiter and former slave known as Shadrach was seized by slave catchers in a Boston coffeehouse, an antislavery posse stormed the federal courthouse where he was being held, overwhelmed the marshals, and got him safely onto the underground railroad to Canada (where he eventually opened his own restaurant). In April, 300 soldiers and armed deputies, marching in the dead of night, succeeded in escorting a third fugitive, seventeen-year-old Thomas Sims of Georgia, to the ship in Boston Harbor waiting to return him to slavery.7

But no abolitionist protested the expulsion of Laing, Snowden, and Delany from the Harvard Medical School. (No one seems to have complained about the fate of Harriet Hunt, either. Harvard Medical School did not admit a woman until 1945.) Part of the reason was that the abolitionists disapproved of the meliorist policies of the American Colonization Society, and were not disposed to enter into a grievance on their behalf. But Delany concluded that the antislavery activists were more offended by the notion of Southerners presuming to send their agents into Northern cities to retrieve their "property" than they were by discrimination against any particular black man already in their midst. And he was not wrong. For the politics of slavery in antebellum Boston was a complicated business.


The mill towns that sprang up in the Merrimack Valley north of Boston around 1820—Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell—were heavily dependent on Southern cotton, which they made into finished goods and then sold, along with footwear, machine parts, rubber goods, and other manufactured products, back to the South. The dependency ran in both directions, for the South had no real industrial base of its own: there were more cotton spindles in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1860 than in all eleven of the states that eventually made up the Confederacy combined.8 The city of Boston, by the middle of the nineteenth century, had become a financial service center with a large stake in this peculiar domestic economy. The state's business leaders and most of its political leaders had no interest in antagonizing the South; and for antislavery campaigners, State Street, which was the main address of the Boston banking industry, became a synonym for appeasement.

The hero of State Street was Daniel Webster, whose "Seventh of March Speech" in the United States Senate, invoking the principle of union above section, had cleared the way for the Compromise of 1850. That act—really a series of acts—dealt with the status of slavery in the new territories and in California in a manner satisfactory to the South. It also responded to Southern demands for reinforcement of the fugitive slave laws. Laws affirming the property rights of slaveholders in former slaves who had escaped across state lines had been on the books since 1793; under the terms of the Compromise, their enforcement became for the first time a federal responsibility, which meant that Southern slaveholders could enlist federal marshals and magistrates in their efforts to hunt down and retrieve refugees in the North—thereby trumping the authority of local officials and state "liberty laws."

The new Fugitive Slave Law was the least-debated item in the Compromise of 1850, but it radicalized the North. It pushed many previously passive unionists into active animosity toward the South —not because they considered the law an encroachment on theliberties of black Americans, but because they considered it an encroachment on the liberties of Northern whites. It was "a degradation which the North would not permit," wrote Ulysses S. Grant near the end of his life, and he regarded it as the prime instigator of the war: "[T]he great majority of the people of the North had no particular quarrel with slavery, so long as they were not forced to have it themselves. But they were not willing to play the rôle of police for the South in the protection of this particular institution."9

A Northerner might therefore resent and resist the mandates of the Fugitive Slave Law without being an advocate of abolition. Richard Henry Dana, for example, considered himself a political conservative; but he risked his life representing fugitives and their protectors in federal court in Boston. He was not only attacked in the streets for his efforts; he was snubbed socially, as was his friend Charles Sumner, who had denounced the Compromise, in a speech at Faneuil Hall, as belonging to "the immortal catalogue of national crimes" dating back to ancient Rome.10 George Ticknor, the cynosure of Boston high society, sent Dana a note after he appeared as counsel in the Sims case informing him that they would never meet again. The year before, he had rented Dana his summer home.11

Ticknor is a representative figure of the prewar Boston establishment. He occupies the place where its business, legal, and academic interests intersected. He was the son of a fairly successful merchant; he married a daughter of Samuel Eliot, an extremely successful merchant. His mother's grandson by her first marriage was George Ticknor Curtis, a lawyer who became the United States commissioner charged with overseeing the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law; he facilitated the return to slavery of Thomas Sims. George Curtis's brother, Benjamin, was the judge at the trial at which the rescuers of Shadrach were convicted; he soon after became, on Webster's recommendation, an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. All three were close friends of Daniel Webster. But Ticknor was not a businessman or a lawyer himself. He was a former Harvard professor who had been educated at Dartmouth and then in Europe. He was an academic reformer, a scholar of Spanish literature, and a philanthropist, one of the founders of the Boston Public Library. Hisviews on slavery were dictated in part by family connections and by the social circles in which he moved, but they were also the views of a Harvard Unitarian.

Unitarianism, to which Harvard College essentially converted following the appointment of Henry Ware as Hollis Professor of Divinity in 1805, was a creed founded on a belief in the innate moral goodness of the individual (in reaction to Calvinism, which was a creed founded on a belief in the innate moral depravity of the individual). It was in many ways a religion that led its followers naturally to oppose slavery. The leaders of the antislavery posses that stormed the federal courthouse to rescue captured fugitives—Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson—were graduates of the Unitarian Harvard Divinity School. But many Harvard professors were Unitarians of a different stripe. They were social conservatives. They believed in law and order and the sanctity of property.

The ministerial spokesman for Boston Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing, was connected by birth and marriage to the New England mercantile elite. His parents had owned slaves; his father-in-law, George Gibbs (who was also his uncle), had made part of his fortune operating a distillery that sold rum to the slave traders.12 In 1835, the year a Boston mob attempted to drag the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison through the streets at the end of a rope, Channing published a pamphlet called Slavery, in which he condemned both the slaveowners and the abolitionists, and in which he advocated a policy of moral suasion, rather than political coercion, as the proper means for inducing the South to give up slavery.

And this was, for many years, the liberal Unitarian position, not only at places like Harvard, but in Channing's own ministry, on Federal Street in Boston, as well. Channing's close friend Charles Follen, a German scholar, was dismissed from the Harvard faculty in part because of his antislavery activities (he was also an irritant to the administration on the issue of faculty free speech). After Follen's death in a steamboat fire in 1840, the laymen refused to permit Channing to hold a memorial service for his friend in his own church.13 Cornelius Conway Felton, a professor of Greek at Harvard (and member of the Saturday Club) who later became president ofHarvard College, was proslavery and an opponent of antislavery agitation. He broke with Sumner, who had been a close friend, over Sumner's views on the Compromise of 1850.14 Only one member of the Harvard faculty enlisted to fight in the Civil War. He was a German émigré.15

Though they were shunned on State Street, Dana and Sumner did have political allies in Boston, notably the Adamses. John Quincy Adams, in his postpresidential career as a Congressman, had been a stalwart and often lonely opponent of the slave interests. He spoke out so long and so fervently against the so-called petition gag rule, which, beginning in 1834, tabled without debate all antislavery petitions sent to Congress, that an attempt was made to censure him by his House colleagues. (It failed.) Both he and his father, John Adams, had been defeated in their presidential campaigns for second terms by the Southern vote, and his son Charles Francis Adams had run for vice-president on the Free Soil ticket in 1848.

Dana, Sumner, and Charles Francis Adams were antislavery, but they were not abolitionists. They were Conscience Whigs. They believed in using the political system to resist the spread of slavery to the new states and the territories and to oppose what they regarded as the South's political blackmail. The abolitionists, by contrast, did not believe in using the political system to resist slavery, because they did not believe in systems. It can sometimes seem as though they didn't believe in politics, either, but that is not quite true, for abolitionism was, in the end, and with a few adjustments to its platform, politically triumphant. The abolitionists were not apolitical. The renunciation of politics was the secret of their politics.

Abolitionism arose out of the Second Great Awakening, the evangelical revival that swept through New England and then upstate New York between 1800 and 1840, and that also spawned temperance, women's rights, and other social reform movements, along with a number of utopian and religious sects, most famously the Mormons. The foundations of the abolitionist movement were therefore spiritual and anti-institutional. Abolitionism was a party for people who did not believe in parties—a paradoxical law of attraction that turned out to be ideally suited to a Unitarian, Transcendentalist, andgenerally post-Calvinist culture like New England, a culture that was increasingly obsessed with the moral authority of the individual conscience. The American Anti-Slavery Society, the movement's organizational arm, had relatively few members, membership in an organization being the sort of thing that tends to compromise the inner vision. But it had many fellow travelers.

Holding that any system that countenanced slavery was evil, the most extreme abolitionists refused to help circulate the antislavery petitions that poured into Congress from the North in response to the petition gag rule.16 Their nominal leader, William Lloyd Garrison, was a pacifist who believed that no abolitionist should hold political office. He printed the motto "The United States Constitution is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell" on the front page of his newspaper, the Liberator, and he made a practice of burning copies of the Constitution at his public appearances. His political text was the Declaration of Independence, since it asserts that people have a natural right to resist the state for reasons of conscience. (The Declaration of Independence was also, of course, on a somewhat different reading, the political text of the Southern secessionists.) And he preached an otherworldly indifference to the consequences of his platform. "If the State cannot survive the anti-slavery agitation, then let the State perish," he announced in an address called "No Compromise with Slavery." "If the American Union cannot be maintained, except by immolating human freedom on the altar of tyranny, then let the American Union be consumed by a living thunderbolt, and no tear be shed over its ashes."17

The abolitionists were not interested in reform. They were interested in conversion. Any "political reformation," Garrison wrote in a stern reply to a fellow abolitionist (and former slaveholder) who had ventured to suggest that people hoping to end slavery might have an obligation to vote for antislavery candidates, "is to be effected solely by a change in the moral vision of the people;—not by attempting to prove, that it is the duty of every abolitionist to be a voter, but that it is the duty of every voter to be an abolitionist."18 "Genuine abolitionism," he said elsewhere, " ... is of heaven, not of men ... . [I]t is a life, not an impulse."19

This contempt for ordinary politics made the abolitionists the enemies even of their antislavery allies. They had no more patience with the Conscience Whigs and the American Colonization Society, groups that advocated tactical or gradualist approaches to the eradication of slavery, than they had with slaveholders and their apologists—since, said Garrison, as "the experience of two centuries [has] shown, ... gradualism in theory, is perpetuity in practice."20 Garrison's associate Wendell Phillips was disgusted when, in 1852, Conscience Whigs who had opposed Daniel Webster when he was alive showed up for his funeral. No abolitionist would have made such a concession to decorum. "We do not play politics," Phillips said.21

Garrison was originally a poor boy from Newburyport whose father had abandoned the family. Phillips's father was mayor of Boston, a wealthy lawyer who did business with the mercantile interests. Phillips started out in the law as well, but he gave it up in 1837, after an abolitionist printer named Elijah Lovejoy was shot and killed by a unionist mob in Illinois. At a meeting in Faneuil Hall in Boston following the murder, the attorney general of Massachusetts, James T. Austin, spoke in defense of Lovejoy's killers, comparing them to the patriots who had participated in the Boston Tea Party. Phillips rose from the audience and delivered an extemporaneous denunciation of Austin. The speech was probably not as unpremeditated as it was made to appear, but it was enthusiastically received, and it launched Phillips on his career as the "Golden Trumpet of Abolition." His family thought he had gone insane, and considered putting him in an asylum.22

As the Martin Delany case suggests, there were antislavery activists—Theodore Parker himself, for example23—whose belief that slavery was wicked did not entail a belief that the races were equal, or that African-Americans should be admitted to the Harvard Medical School. Wendell Phillips was not one of these. He preached a doctrine of pluralism, a vision of an America in which "all races, all customs, all religions, all languages, all literature, and all ideas" enjoyed the protection of "noble, just, and equal laws."24 He was as outspoken on the social equality of women as he was on the social equality of black people; when conservative newspapers got tired ofridiculing his racial egalitarianism, they ridiculed his sexual egalitarianism. But although Phillips talked like a utopian, he had an astute understanding of the political uses of an absolutist refusal to "play politics." "Republics exist," he believed, "only on the tenure of being constantly agitated ... . There is no republican road to safety but in constant distrust."25 He was willing to say the unspeakable on any occasion (and at any length); and he made the degree of outrage he was able to rouse in his opponents the measure of his success.

Wendell Phillips was a cousin of Dr. Holmes's. As a unionist, Holmes was a staunch supporter of Webster. More than that, he had (as he confessed many years later) picked up a racial prejudice from his father, Abiel, who had lived briefly in Georgia and had known several "enlightened" slaveholders. Abiel had owned a copy of a pamphlet, written to alarm whites, about a slave insurrection in New York City in 1741,26 which had made an impression on Holmes when he was young. Holmes was one of the signatories on a public letter of congratulations to Webster, orchestrated by Benjamin Curtis, after the Seventh of March speech in 1850; and five years later, in a lecture in New York City, he attacked the abolitionists—or as he called them, in one of the unhappier inspirations of his genius for phrase-making, the "ultra melanophiles"—and dilated on the natural superiority of the white race. "The Creator has hung out the colors that form the two rallying points, so that they shall be unmistakable, eternal," he explained. "The white man must be the master in effect, whatever he is in name."27 His remarks got picked up in the press. He was criticized in Horace Greeley's New York Tribune; the Boston Advertiser, a unionist paper, wrote that Holmes had called the abolitionists "traitors to the union."28 These reports upset a number of Holmes's literary acquaintances, particularly Ralph Waldo Emerson.


Emerson's name, after his death, became linked with Holmes's, in part because Holmes wrote a popular book on Emerson in 1884. They had cordial relations; but they were cordial men, and theywere often thrown together by common interests. Holmes was in the audience (along with Wendell Phillips) when Emerson gave his celebrated Phi Beta Kappa address on "The American Scholar" at Harvard in 1837; Emerson worked with Holmes on the founding of the Atlantic Monthly and in organizing the business of the Saturday Club, where they dined together regularly. Holmes was often invited to recite his poems in venues where Emerson was invited to deliver his lectures, and Emerson acquired from these occasions a kind of backhanded admiration for Holmes's facility. "He could always write or speak to order," he noted in his journal, "partly from the abundance of the stream, which can fill indifferently any provided channel."29

But the notion that Holmes was the person to write the life of Emerson struck most of the people who knew them as absurd. When Holmes's friend Henry Bowditch heard the news, he laughed out loud. He could not conceive, he said, "of two men more diametrically opposed in their natural traits."30 Their common ground was professional, not personal. Emerson believed in communing with the like-minded, but solitude, a kind of selfless self-absorption, was the essence of his thought and his personality. Dr. Holmes radiated gregariousness. He was not afraid, in conversation, to flirt with taboos, but it was the flirtation he cared about, not the suggestion that there was anything wrong with propriety. He had all the equipment for debunking convention and, for the most part, no impulse to use it.

Emerson's impulses were completely different. Emerson's standing in the culture of midcentury New England tells us something about the culture of midcentury New England and something about Emerson. Emerson worked out most of his ideas in the form of public lectures. Unsympathetic listeners sometimes thought them dreamy and diffuse; sympathetic ones frequently found them galvanizing. "An event without any former parallel in our literary annals, a scene to be always treasured in the memory for its picturesqueness and inspiration," remembered James Russell Lowell about listening to Emerson's lecture on "The American Scholar." "What crowded and breathless aisles, what windows clustering with eager heads, what enthusiasm ofapproval."31 "An apparently incoherent and unintelligible address," was the reaction of the aged Reverend John Pierce to the same speech. "He professed to have a method; but I could not trace it."32

It was a generational difference, but it was not only a generational difference. For there is a division within Emerson's thought itself. Nothing sounds more uplifting, for example, than Emerson's key term "self-reliance," and so it was understood by many of his contemporaries. But the term describes a paradox—a matchstick propped up by leaning against ... itself. What is the "I" that is being urged to rely on this "self"? Emerson's thought plays continually with the limits of thought, and his greatest essays are efforts to get at the way life is held up, in the end, by nothing. Except in the mingled intensity and detachment of their unfolding, those essays are deeply unconsoling. But many of his readers and listeners received them as affirmations.

Another way to put it is to say that Emerson was a genuine moralist whose mistrust of moralism led him continually to complicate and deflect his own formulations. He was a preacher whose message was: Don't listen to preachers. "I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching,"33 as he put it in the essay on "Self-Reliance." We are still going to church, in other words, but we're no longer there to hear someone else tell us what to do. Emerson represented the tradition of the New England churchman, which is one reason he became an honored and respected figure despite his anti-institutionalism; and, at the same time, he represented that tradition's final displacement. Unitarianism had rescued the integrity of the individual conscience from Calvinism. Emerson rescued it from Unitarianism—which is why after his famous address to the Harvard Divinity School in 1838, in which he scandalized the Unitarians by renouncing organized Christianity in favor of personal revelation, he was not invited to speak at Harvard again for thirty years.34 By the time he returned, religion was no longer an issue most people in Cambridge cared to fight about; the last of the anti-Darwinists were just going under. "I regard it as the irresistible effect of the Copernican astronomy to have made the theological scheme of Redemption absolutely incredible," Emerson announced in 1832, in a sermon inwhich he also announced his disbelief in a supernatural Jesus.35 He had, as usual, gotten there about a generation ahead of schedule.

When Dr. Holmes learned of Emerson's distress over the reports of his attack on the abolitionists, he wrote to explain that he had been misrepresented by the press. It was only technically so: he had not called the abolitionists traitors, but he had come close enough. "I am relieved to know that they misreported you," Emerson wrote back, "and the more they misreported or the wider you are from their notion of you, the better I shall be pleased." Still, he went on,

the cant of Union ... is too transparent [for] its most impudent repeater to hope to deceive you[.] And for the Union with Slavery no manly person will suffer a day to go by without discrediting disintegrating & finally exploding it. The "union" they talk of, is dead & rotten, the real union, that is, the will to keep & renew union, is like the will to keep & renew life, & this alone gives any tension to the dead letter & if when we have broken every several inch of the old wooden hoop will still hold us staunch.36

This was abolitionist talk. Emerson had been slow to warm to the abolitionist cause. He distrusted anything so collective and so focused on conditions remote from his own experience. From the beginning of his career he had made a point of distancing himself from the controversy over slavery. "Is it not the chief disgrace of the world," he asked in the lecture on "The American Scholar," " ... to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong; and our opinion predicted geographically, as the north, or the south?"37 "North" and "south" were obvious codes for positions in the quarrel over the spread of slavery. Emerson was not discounting the moral significance of the issue of slavery in "The American Scholar"; but he was not making it simple, either.

Emerson was, after all, fundamentally a lapsed Unitarian. He admired Channing and had been impressed by Channing's pamphlet on Slavery; and he subscribed to Channing's general view that "[o]ur danger is, that we shall substitute the consciences of others for our own, that we shall paralyze our faculties through dependence onforeign guides, that we shall be moulded from abroad instead of determining ourselves."38 Like Channing, he rated the work of "selfculture" far above the work of social improvement—or what he called, referring to one of his own rare early interventions in a political controversy, the forcible resettlement of the Cherokees to the west bank of the Mississippi in 1838, "this stirring in the philanthropic mud." "I will let the republic alone," he vowed then, "until the republic comes to me."39

But unlike Channing and the Harvard Unitarians, Emerson's suspicion of social activism had nothing to do with a respect for the status quo. On the contrary: it was precisely his distrust of established institutions that led him to avoid reform movements, and to regard them as crampers and perverters of individual integrity. He saw, in the beginning, no difference between abolitionism and the institutionalized religion he had rejected in the Divinity School address. They were both ways of discouraging people from thinking for themselves. "Each 'Cause,' as it is called," he wrote in 1842, explaining why the Transcendentalists were not a "party," "—say Abolition, Temperance, say Calvinism, or Unitarianism,—becomes speedily a little shop, where the article, let it have been at first never so subtle and ethereal, is now made up into portable and convenient cakes, and retailed in small quantities to suit purchasers."40 Even Phillips struck him as less a radical than a puppet. "He had only a platform-existence, & no personality," he noted in his journal. "Mere mouthpieces of a party, take away the party & they shrivel & vanish."41

This was, of course, exactly the sort of person the antipolitics of abolitionism was designed to attract. Like many New Englanders, Emerson was radicalized by events. And as his consciousness of Southern perfidy rose, his identification with the abolitionists grew stronger. He had been disturbed by the murder of Lovejoy in 1837, but in a talk on the incident he treated the issue as one of free speech (Lovejoy had been a printer) rather than of slavery—much to the exasperation of his abolitionist friends. His reaction to the Compromise of 1850 was far more pointed. He thought Webster, whom he had once admired, had sold his soul to get the Compromisepassed—"The word liberty in the mouth of Mr Webster sounds like the word love in the mouth of a courtezan,"42 he wrote—and he pronounced the Fugitive Slave Law a "filthy law."43 That law's local consequences, culminating in the return to slavery of Thomas Sims in April 1851, inspired Emerson to announce, in a speech in Concord a month later, that "[t]he last year has forced us all into politics, and made it a paramount duty to seek what it is often a duty to shun."44

This struck the properly ultra abolitionist note: it expressed the imperative of social obligation in the language of personal conscience. Many years later, in his book on Emerson, Dr. Holmes would claim that Emerson was never "hand in hand with the Abolitionists ... . He seems to have formed a party by himself."45 But this was plainly untrue, and Holmes probably knew it.46 In any case, forming "a party of oneself" was perfectly consistent with joining the abolitionists. By the time of Holmes's New York speech, in 1855, Emerson had come to see the abolitionists not (as he had in his earlier writings) as ideologues and party men, but as versions of himself—versions, he tried to suggest, of Holmes, too, if Holmes would only be true to his identity as a scholar.

"A scholar need not be cynical," Emerson explained in his letter to Holmes,

to feel that the vast multitude are almost on all fours; that the rich always vote after their fears that cities churches colleges all go for the quadruped interest, and it is against this coalition that the pathetically small minority of disengaged or thinking men stand for the ideal right, for man as he should be, & (what is essential to any sane maintenance of his own right) for the right of every other as for his own.47

In writing about the abolitionists as loners and nonconformists ("the pathetically small minority of disengaged or thinking men"), Emerson was assigning them a role in the quarrel over slavery and, at the same time, he was elevating them above the fray. "The world of any moment is the merest appearance," he had explained eighteen years earlier in "The American Scholar."

Some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other half, as if all depended on this particular up or down. The odds are that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought which the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy. Let him not quit his belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom.48

It was not a matter of choosing sides. It was a matter of rising above the whole concept of sidedness.

Dr. Holmes was unpersuaded. The abolitionists, he wrote back to Emerson, "have used every form of language calculated to inflame the evil passions and the consequence is that growing sectional hostility, the nature of which is the disruption of the government which Mr. Parker thinks is near at hand."49 It was a point. For despite the way Emerson preferred to imagine them, the abolitionists were distinctly a "side": they had an agenda, and the agenda had political consequences. To Theodore Parker himself, Holmes wrote that he stood by his statement that, come what may, the white race must always have the upper hand.50 (It was, of course, a view that Parker shared.)

Despite their disagreement about the abolitionists, though, Dr. Holmes's relations with Emerson continued to be friendly enough, and he seems to have maintained his regard for Emerson's work; for in 1858, he and his wife gave five volumes of Emerson's writings as a birthday present to their son Wendell.

Copyright © 2001 by Louis Menand

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