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Emerson the Northern Secessionist

Wanting to depart Boston should New England ever “surrender to the slave trade,” the idealistic abolitionist Ralph Waldo Emerson must have forgotten that Massachusetts was the linchpin in the transatlantic slave trade and that Lowell Mills was amassing a fortune processing slave-produced raw cotton. Emerson was ready for the secession of New England from the Union if Buchanan won election in 1856 instead of Fremont.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

Emerson the Northern Secessionist              

“The events of the fifties confirmed Emerson’s fears of Southern political power. It was “the ascendancy of Southern manners” that drew public men into the support of the South. At the same time, his attitude toward the North grew more sentimental and less critical. He drew more sharply the line between the slave states and the free states. Expressions such as “party of darkness” versus “party of light,” “aristocracy” versus “plebian strength” began to appear in his journals and addresses. Like his fellow-abolitionists, he assumed that the goodness of the individual was simply lost in the badness of the slavery system.

Emerson maintained that no slaveholder could be free. He fell into the abolitionist assumption that nobility and sincerity were inevitable concomitants to the Negro’s ignorance and simplicity. Those who ran away were fleeing from plantation whips and hiding from hounds.

Those who cooperated with the South were stigmatized. Any judge who obeyed the Fugitive Slave Law by returning a runaway slave to the South made of his bench an extension of the planter’s whipping post. Emerson’s anger over [Preston] Brooks assault on [Charles] Sumner led him to exaggerate uncritically his account of both Northern and Southern values:

“Life has not parity of value in the free state and in the slave state. In one, it is adorned with education, with skillful labor, with arts, with long prospective interests, with sacred family ties, with honor and justice. In the other, life is a fever; man is an animal, given to pleasure, frivolous, irritable, spending his days in hunting and practicing with deadly weapons to defend himself against his slaves and against his companions brought up in the same idle and dangerous way. Such people live for the moment, they have properly no future, and readily risk on every passion a life which is of small value to themselves or others.”

Emerson’s letter to his brother William in June of 1856 revealed the extent of his pessimism. He stated that he was looking at the map to find a place to go with his children when Boston and Massachusetts should surrender to the slave trade. “If the Free States do not obtain the government next fall, which our experience does not entitle us to hope, nothing seems left, but to form a Northern Union, & break the old.”

(The South in Northern Eyes, 1831-1861, Howard R. Floan, McGraw-Hill, 1958, pp. 57-59)