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Transcendentalists Against Slavery

February 9th, 2022 | 7 min read

By David Moore

Peter Wirzbicki is Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University. The following interview revolves around his book, Fighting for the Higher Law: Black and White Transcendentalists Against Slavery. Fighting for the Higher Law: Black and White Transcendentalists Against Slavery (America in the Nineteenth Century): Wirzbicki, Peter: 9780812252910

Moore: What were the factors that motivated you to write this book?

Wirzbicki: You’ll laugh, because this sounds like a cliché, but after I completed my comprehensive exams in graduate school, I knew I wanted to write about social movements in the 19th century. But over the summer I biked across America to reset myself after a stressful semester and brought with me a copy of Emerson’s essays. I was in some suitably sublime landscape—I think in Idaho—reading an essay when I decided I wanted to try to combine these things. So, I guess some factors were personal—at some level I’ve always admired the vision of the Transcendentalists. And I think I was drawn to their attempts to unite personal, existential, and spiritual concerns—things often seen as private—with very public concerns about politics and justice.

At a more historiographical level, it seemed to me that the incredible importance of Transcendentalism for American culture and political philosophy had been ignored. When I was in graduate school, it felt like everyone was talking about Pragmatism or Common Sense philosophy and Transcendentalism had been left out. This was despite the fact that abolitionism was receiving more attention.

Moore: You write that “Accepted wisdom has too often seen political concerns over slavery as marginal as to what came to be known as the American Renaissance…” Why has this been such a blind spot even for some top-shelf scholars?

Wirzbicki: To be honest, the fault partly lies with Emerson and Thoreau themselves. They loved to pretend that they hated politics. So Emerson would start anti-slavery speeches with long disclaimers about how he didn’t like to talk about politics—and then launch into an impassioned speech on anti-slavery politics! And there is no doubt that Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau all shared a concern about the spiritual inauthenticity of certain reformers. Which is partly why they didn’t fully commit until the 1840s. But I think another part of the issue has been that some of the first people to make the link between Transcendentalism and abolition have been critics of abolition. There is a whole tradition in the 19th century itself of racist Democrats accusing abolitionists or Republicans of being Transcendentalists—presumably as a way to attack their religious bona fides. And in the early and mid-20th century, it was common to link the abolitionists with Transcendentalists as a way to paint the abolitionists as irresponsible and unrealistic. So I think a lot of historians have thus shied away from looking at this link because they don’t want to lend credence to those old narratives.

Moore: Stereotypes of people can be superficial assessments that fail to consider all of the relevant data. The stereotype of Transcendentalists being “so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good” does not do justice to them. Why has the stereotype persisted of their penchant to check out from “practical” matters?

Wirzbicki: Well, the Transcendentalists made some brilliant literary enemies that helped shape that stereotype. You can think of Hawthorne’s short-story “The Celestial Railroad” or the chapter in Moby Dick about the day-dreaming whale-watcher. In these allegories for the movement, the Transcendentalists are portrayed as dreamy, self-absorbed, unconnected to reality. Now, Melville and Hawthorne were brilliant writers (neither were Transcendentalists), but both had pretty terrible politics. In other words, for them, it was exactly the Transcendentalists’ radical abolitionism which helped prove that they were unrealistic utopians, rather than, as we might think today, an example of how they were actually morally committed to solving a real-world problem.

In addition, I think there are some reasons having to do with the ways that American historiography developed in the 1960s and 70s that historians shied away from connecting Transcendentalism to politics. They really wanted to emphasize the practical and realistic nature of abolitionism, to counter the narratives that had portrayed them as irresponsible or unpragmatic. Finally, I think people have missed some of the connection between black thinkers and Transcendentalists, allowing for a more depoliticized vision of Transcendentalism to flourish.

Moore: This question may be the toughest…Transcendentalists were hardly monolithic in their views. In her Pulitzer-winning biography of Henry Ward Beecher, Debby Applegate wrote that “Transcendentalists did not share a single philosophical or religious system…” Several like Emerson prided themselves on an ever-changing or evolving understanding. The following quote by Whitman seems apropos of many Transcendentalists: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” To employ the well-known saying it seems like figuring out what the core beliefs that united all Transcendentalists is akin to nailing Jell-o to a tree. Are there are a set of core beliefs that all Transcendentalists held?

Wirzbicki: They certainly disagreed about a lot! One member called them the Transcendental Club, the club of the like-minded—because no two though alike! And Emerson and Whitman were both proud of their own inconsistencies. But there are a couple of unifying themes.

First, they were inspired by European, particularly German, philosophy, to question the tradition of empirical epistemology that most American intellectuals had inherited from John Locke and the Scottish Common Sense School. They tended to prefer the mind to the body, the spirit to the senses.

Second, they disliked narrow, overly logical forms of thinking. They called this Understanding, as opposed to intuitive and moral Reason. In other words, they were Romantics, who saw truth as gained in moments of inspiration, rather than with labored syllogistic rationality.

Finally, they were idealists, both in the philosophical sense, but also in the political sense of the world. They tended to judge political arrangements by what they called the “Higher Law.” Now, it is true, that some of these things operated at a fairly abstract level—as much an ethos or an attitude, as a concrete ideology. But added up, they did tend to encourage people to oppose slavery. It is notable that by the mid-1840s, basically every significant Transcendentalist had come out strongly against slavery.

Moore: In a very real sense the Transcendentalists trumpeted the autonomy of the individual. In fact, that is bit redundant as individual means “undivided one” so therefore not beholden to anyone else or anything bigger (tradition, ethnic background, family, etc.) than the self. Yet, in another sense, as you well explain, the Transcendentalists held to the “Oversoul” idea that meant the dissolution of the individual. Would you explain this contradiction a bit for us?

Wirzbicki: Right! You see this seeming contradiction most in Emerson. In his famous passage in “Nature” he described a moment of spiritual awakening in nature as being an “invisible eyeball,” feeling the swirl of the divine presence in him. But at the same time this was a very individual experience. I think the best way out of the contradiction is to appreciate that for Emerson one of the problems with society—with its rules, its conformity, its rituals—is that it serves to mediate between you and ultimate reality.

So if you only listen to established churches, popular newspapers, etc…, you are always living at second-hand, taking someone else’s encounter with the Oversoul. You had to go out and experience it for yourself. Trying to ignore all that social pressure actually makes it possible for you to experience these moments of communion with the Oversoul. You dissolve some of your individualism exactly through a process of ignoring society. It’s a bit paradoxical but bears some comparison to other mystical traditions. Thoreau thought his ideas were similar to certain Hindu beliefs, for instance, and had a very high regard for the Bhagavata Gita.

Moore: Abolitionists also had their differences amongst themselves. Emerson et al. did not participate in violence themselves, but they were mighty impressed even with the likes of John Brown. Would you unpack some of why that was?

Wirzbicki: There was a tradition of abolitionist pacifism most associated with William Lloyd Garrison, on one hand, and with the Quaker tradition on the other. Garrison became a sort of Christian anarchist, who thought that the command to not resist evil meant that Christians should not participate in any form of violence, including violently punishing criminals and waging war. So he advocated “moral suasion,” trying to convince slaveowners to voluntarily emancipate their slaves. This… did not work, though it would prove very influential on some later Christian pacifists, especially Leo Tolstoy. Such “non-resistance” seemed particularly ill-equipped to protect fugitive slaves and especially after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, black abolitionists were clear that they would use any method necessary to protect members of their community from slave catchers. Many white abolitionists followed, and by the 1850s, relatively few people remained committed to non-violence. It was common to hear abolitionists—especially people like Theodore Parker—predict that open violence would be needed to confront slavery. The “Secret Six,” the group of men who provided financial and logistical support for John Brown were mostly based in New England, though notably there were more Transcendentalists, such as Parker, and no orthodox Garrisonians.

Moore: Did the teachings of the Transcendentalists cause many black abolitionists to reconsider their Christian faith?

Wirzbicki: There were a number of black abolitionists—William C. Nell, Frederick Douglass, Jeremiah Sanderson—who I think were broadly speaking liberal Christians, influenced by Theodore Parker and other Transcendentalists to question the literalness of the Bible and resist Church authority. Many of these figures wanted religion to serve a social and political purpose. I don’t necessarily want to go too far with this—they didn’t necessarily see themselves as fully rejecting Christianity either. And of course, this was true of many (though not all!) white Transcendentalists as well. Transcendentalism sometimes inspired people to entirely leave churches—as it did with Emerson and Thoreau—but for some it simply inspired more liberal theology. Both James Freeman Clarke and Theodore Parker, for instance, continued to operate as ministers to congregations in the Boston area. I spend some time looking at the black minister Alexander Crummell—who remained committed to the Episcopalian Church—but who I think absorbed some of the same broad spirit of Romanticism as the Transcendentalists.

Moore: Why were several of the Transcendentalists critical of many Boston residents when it came to the fight against slavery?

Wirzbicki: Many New Englanders were complicit in slavery in one way or another. The textile mills popping up across the Massachusetts countryside were reliant, of course on purchasing slave-grown cotton. Hence the dominant wing of the Whig Party for much of the 1840s was called the “Cotton Whigs.” In addition, both the Democratic Party and the Whig Party were reliant on creating political coalitions with Southerners. This was why Emerson said that cotton thread holds the Union together. Finally, of course, even many anti-slavery Bostonians were fiercely committed to racism and white supremacy. Abolitionists had to struggle to desegregate the Boston Public Schools, eliminate Jim Crow rules in railroads, hotels, and theaters, allow black students at Harvard, allow the creation of black militias, etc… So abolitionists had a lot to fight against close to home! By the way, Transcendentalists, interestingly enough, were often more motivated by these “local” issues. Emerson and Thoreau were particularly outraged about the ways that slavery seemed to “come home,” to make their community complicit.

Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers gain from reading your book?

Wirzbicki: Well, obviously I hope that readers leave with a deeper understanding of the intellectual and moral roots of the anti-slavery struggle. The abolition of slavery is perhaps the greatest moral and intellectual drama in our history. Second, I hope readers gain a better appreciation for some of the politics of the Transcendentalists. It has become very common for historians to locate the source of the democratic or progressive impulse in American thought in philosophical movements such as the Scottish Common Sense School or Pragmatism. I hope to challenge that narrative a bit, demonstrating the incredible importance of Transcendentalism to the radical democratic tradition. Third, it is relatively well known that many later black thinkers—from W.E.B. Du Bois to Martin Luther King, Jr., drew on Transcendentalist ideas. But it is less well known that black thinkers during the antebellum period were themselves helping to shape Transcendentalism.

David Moore

David George Moore is the author of several books. Most recently, he wrote Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians to offer a resource for more comprehensive spiritual formation and discipleship. Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians: Dave’s new YouTube channel features his interviews and commentary.