Ralph Waldo Emerson ardent abolitionist
until later | 12th Grade
Get rid of
slavery or get rid of freedom
Ralph Waldo Emerson (died 1882) did not become an ardent
abolitionist until later in his life, though his
journals show he was concerned with slavery beginning in his
youth. When he was young, he even dreamed about helping to free slaves.
In 1856, shortly after Charles Sumner, a United States Senator, was defeated in
an election because of his staunch abolitionist views, Emerson lamented that he himself was not as
committed as Sumner to the abolitionist cause.
After Sumner's defeat, Emerson began to speak out about slavery. "I think we must get
rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom," he said. Later in his life,
Emerson used slavery as an example of a human injustice.
In early 1838, provoked by the murder of an Illinois abolitionist publisher
named Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Emerson gave his first public antislavery address. As
he said, "It is but the other day that the brave Lovejoy gave his breast to the bullets of a mob,
for the rights of free speech and opinion, and died when it was better not to live."
John Quincy Adams said the mob-murder of Lovejoy "sent a shock as of any
earthquake throughout this continent."
However, Emerson maintained that reform would be achieved through moral agreement rather than by
militant action. By 1844, at a lecture in Concord, he stated more clearly his support for the
abolitionist movement. He stated, "We are indebted mainly to this movement, and to the continuers
of it, for the popular discussion of every point of practical