In a recent Scene on Radio podcast, “Seeing White,” historian Nell Irvin Painter, author of The History of White People, among other books, asserts that Ralph Waldo Emerson was a racist.* This assertion rests largely on Emerson’s book, English Traits, which, in her view, extols the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. In her book, she calls him “the philosopher-king of American white race theory,” and she points out that, in addition to English Traits, he makes a number of derogatory comments on black people in his journals.
I’ll leave it to readers of Emerson to form their own opinion as to whether or not Emerson is a racist, but before they take someone else’s word for it, I would encourage them to read Emerson for themselves. Bear in mind that Emerson’s major works are published in eleven volumes. In addition, there are three volumes of early lectures, two volumes of later lectures, sixteen volumes of his journals, four volumes of his sermons and ten volumes of his letters.
In all of these one can find perhaps a dozen openly disparaging comments about black people. At the same time, there are numerous essays, lectures and journal entries condemning slavery, in which Emerson calls for emancipation and equal rights for black people. He also believes they should receive reparations, education, citizenship and the right to vote.
In 1826, shortly after he was approbated to preach, he went to the South for six months because he had taken ill and hoped for a cure in warmer weather. While there he witnessed and was repulsed by the cruelty of chattel slavery. While still a minister at Boston’s Second Church, he exhorted his parishioners, “Let every man say then to himself—the cause of the Indian, it is mine; the cause of the slave, it is mine.” As the Negro Question increasingly came to the fore in the North during the 1840s and 50s, Emerson became more and more outspoken in opposition to slavery.
His first major anti-slavery address was given on the anniversary of emancipation in the British West Indies. That emancipation and its aftermath, in Emerson’s view, demonstrated conclusively that the widespread belief in the inferiority of black people was false. The defenders of slavery, he says, “think it the voice of nature and fate” that black people are inferior. “The only reply,” he concludes, “to this poor, sceptical ribaldry is the affirming heart. The sentiment of right…fights against this damnable atheism.”
In coming to grips with the issue of race he read what was then the scientific literature on the subject, including Chambers’ Vestiges of Creation (1844), Knox’s Races of Men (1850), and Types of Mankind, by Nott and Glidden (1854), which included an essay by Louis Agassiz, who was then the premier scientist in America. It is accurate to say that all of these authors favored Anglo-Saxon white people as the most advanced race and black people as hopelessly inferior.
In some of his journal entries during this time he wonders if this is true, turning the matter over and over in his mind. In an 1853 journal entry he wrote, the black man “is created on a lower plane than the white, & eats men & kidnaps & tortures, if he can.” Yet in a later entry he noted, “You complain that the negroes are a base class. Who makes and keeps them so, but you who exclude them from the rights which others enjoy?” In the view of Emerson scholar, Len Gougeon, “Ultimately, despite the prevalence of the ‘scientific’ findings of his day, Emerson found theories of deterministic racial inferiority simply inconsistent ‘with [as Emerson put it] the principles on which the world is built,’ and he rejected all such theories outright.”
Nell Painter singles out English Traits as an egregious example of Emerson’s racism. The book was written after his second visit to England and consists of observations and anecdotes regarding the character of the English people. While Emerson is not uncritical of English ways, the overall impression is that he is guilty, at worst, of cultural chauvinism. It is understandable that, given his subject matter and his own ancestry, he would find much to prize and praise in English culture and society.
In the opening chapters of the book Emerson describes the ethnic groups that have influenced English identity and society. In doing so, he adopts the language of race, and thus speaks of the Saxon, Celtic, Norman and Nordic “races” that have, successively, contributed to shaping the English character. He has more to say about the Saxon and Nordic groups than the others, giving the impression, perhaps, of a bias in their favor. Far from portraying the English as a pure race, he concludes that “Everything English is a fusion of distant and antagonistic elements.”
Although he cites the names of several writers who have written on the subject of race, Emerson dismisses the notion that racial characteristics are imperishable and deterministic. Moreover, he says, “you cannot draw a line where a race begins or ends.” Some reckon five races, others from three to as many as eleven. One who isn’t mentioned, but may have had more of an influence on Emerson’s thinking is the German philosopher, Johann Gottfried Herder, who promoted the notion of cultural identity, based largely on language. The discussion of race in English Traits has little to do with the racial theories, popular in America, that deemed Jews, Native Americans and African-Americans inherently inferior to Anglo-Saxon white people.
As far as Emerson’s views of black people are concerned, I believe it is fair to say, based on his journals, that these evolved. Early on, he seems to endorse conventional views of racial superiority, but, as time went one, he clearly distanced himself from his early statements on the subject. Growing up in New England, Emerson did not have much personal contact with African Americans or, for that matter, other ethnic groups. But, as European immigration and the issue of slavery became more prominent in and around Boston, his instinct was to embrace diversity rather than reject it.
*“Seeing White” Podcast: http://www.sceneonradio.org/episode-34-on-crazy-we-built-a-nation-seeing-white-part-4/