Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was an American essayist, lecturer, and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. He was a Unitarian minister and Harvard graduate. He was seen as a champion of individualism and a critic of the countervailing pressures
of society and disseminated his thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States.
Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of
transcendentalism in his 1836 essay "Nature." Emerson wrote on a number of subjects, never espousing fixed philosophical tenets, but
developing certain ideas such as individuality, freedom, the ability for mankind to realize almost anything, and the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world. Emerson is one of several figures who rejected views of God as being separate from the world. When asked to sum up his work, he said his central doctrine was "the infinitude of the private man."
His essay “Self Reliance” is at the core of the history of American Individualism. Emerson was a staunch anti-slavery advocate who was disappointed that Lincoln was more concerned about preserving the Union than eliminating slavery outright. Emerson was a
supporter of the spread of community libraries.
As a lecturer and orator, Emerson was the leading voice of intellectual culture in the United States. There is little disagreement that Emerson was the most influential writer of 19th-century America, though today, he is largely the concern of scholars. He was complicated: a community advocate for public learning, and a learned scholar. Unitarians (he was a Unitarian minister), academics, English scholars, poetry lovers, and those who view themselves as spiritual but not religious may look up to Emerson.
Emerson was quite contradictory about his stance on race. While being an avid abolitionist who was known for his criticism of the legality of slavery, Emerson struggled with the implications of race. His usual liberal leanings did not clearly translate when it came to believing that all races had equal capability or function, which was a common conception for the period in which he lived. Many critics believe that it was his views on race that inhibited him from becoming an abolitionist earlier in his life and also inhibited him from being more active in the anti-slavery movement.
He saw direct ties between race based on national identity and the inherent nature of the human being. White Americans who were native-born in the United States and of English ancestry were categorized by him as a separate "race" which he thought had a position of superiority to other nations. His idea of race was based more on a shared culture, environment, and history, rather than on the more biological aspects of race.
Field, P. S. (2001). The Strange Career of Emerson and Race. American Nineteenth Century History, 2(1), 1-32. doi:10.1080/14664650108567029
McAleer, J. (1984). Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter. Retrieved from https://users.drew.edu/rcorring/downloads/Review%20of%20Emerson%20Book%20Mc Aleer.pdf
Richardson, R. D. (1995). Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press. Ward, J. H. (1887). The Andover Review. Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin and.