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Chapter 9: Garrison and Emerson.

These two men were almost exactly the same age; for Emerson was born in 1803 and Garrison in 1805. The precocity of Garrison, however, who became one of the figure-heads of his day at the age of twenty-four, and the tardy, inward development of Emerson, who did not become widely known till almost twenty years later, seem to class them in separate generations. Each of the men was a specialist of the extremest kind; Garrison, devoted to the visible and particular evils of his times, Emerson, seeking always the abstraction, and able to see the facts before his face only by the aid of general laws; Garrison all heart, Emerson all head; Garrison determined to remake the world, Emerson convinced that he must keep his eyes on the stars and wait for his message. Each of these men was, nevertheless, twin to the other. Their spirit was the same, and the influence of each was a strand in the same reaction, a [220] cry from the same abyss. Emerson, no less than Garrison, was the voice of Abolition, and the dying Theodore Parker names him as a prophet. I should sum up Garrison's whole life-work in one word, Courage. And I cannot find another word, except Courage,to sum up Emerson.

The function of Garrison was to crack up, to dissolve. He cannot bear to see two men agree about anything, he cannot tolerate assent; toleration is the enemy, toleration is the sin of the age. In like manner is Emerson a sphinx who puts questions to his age. His thought cannot be understood without a thorough pulling-down of extant prejudices. Both men are dissolvents. With Emerson, this was idea; with Garrison, it was function. Garrison does, he knows not what — he talks foaming, he cannot fit two conceptions together; but he is generally, and on the whole, the agent of dissolution and re-crystallization. Emerson has only one note. He sits helplessly on his perch and utters his note;--waits a while, and again utters his note; and he is everywhere and always the agent of dissolution and re-crystallization. To compare the relations of these men to each other brings out very vividly the strong and the [221] weak sides of each of them; for each seems to split the age, and show the sutures in the skull of the world; each is the key to the puzzle, and each is the missing half of the other's nature. That they did not understand one another, that there was no plane on which they could meet (except for a flash), is a sort of proof, by paradox, that they stood for the same thing expressed in different symbols.

Never in all literature has there been such a passionate proclamation of the individual as Emerson makes; and one of the few men that ever lived, who best fulfills Emerson's ideal picture of the influential individual, is Garrison. It is indeed strange to reflect that Emerson's life was given up to picturing the strong man who sheds all positive influence upon his age, and receives nothing from it, and yet to remember that Garrison's activity in real life was unsympathetic and even repulsive to Emerson.

The fame of the two men is unequal; because Emerson had about him a dry glint of the eternal, and his mind was a unity; whereas Garrison was a professional agitator and his mind was sometimes at odds with itself. The power that counts towards fame seems to be the power of vision. [222] A man with vision leaves behind him a clear picture, consistent with itself, easily understood, popular, enduring; and though there be but few strokes in the sketch, his thought carries. The practical man, though he have the heart of the Samaritan, and do the work of a Titan, deals in more ephemeral symbols and is sooner forgotten. There was no single contemporary whose nature covered the divergent fields of both of these men. The Anti-slavery cause was always badly crippled for lack of a philosopher; and Emerson's influence has always stood in need of more animal life as a vehicle to float it towards mankind. Let us review the points at which the careers of the two men touched each other; remembering all the time that any age is a unity, that all men who live in it are members of each other, and that the Unconscious is the important part of life.

Emerson, after the loss of his first wife, followed by a breakdown in health and a year of gloomy travel in Europe, returned to Boston in 1833, a frail man of thirty, with a theological training, the tastes of a recluse, and an immense, unworldly ambition. To live in a village, to write in his journal, to walk in the woods and ruminate, [223] --such was to be his existence. The organic reticence of Emerson has all but concealed the strong current of purpose that ran beneath the apparent futility of his external life. IHe was indeed a man of iron; and both he and Garrison might be compared to Ignatius Loyola in respect to their will. Emerson writes in his journal in 1834:

The philosophy of Waiting needs sometimes to be unfolded. Thus he who is qualified to act upon the public, if he does not act on many, may yet act intensely on a few; if he does not act much upon any, but, from insulated condition and unfit companions, seems quite withdrawn into himself, still, if he know and feel his obligations, he may be (unknown and unconsciously) hiving knowledge and concentrating powers to act well hereafter, and a very remote hereafter.

“A remote hereafter,” --this was ever in Emerson's mind. He feels himself to be an outpost or advance guard of future wisdom. “It is a manifest interest which comes home to my bosom and every man's bosom,” he continues a page or two later, “that there should be on every tower Watchers set to observe and report of every new ray of light, in what [224] quarter soever of Heaven it should appear, and their report should be eagerly and reverently received. There is no offense done, certainly, to the community in distinctly stating the claims of this office. It is not a coveted office: it is open to all men.”

Never for one moment was Emerson's mission far from his thought. His fear of approaching it, his excessive reverence for it, is due to his artistic instinct; just as Garrison's blatancy about his mission — the same mission — is a part of Garrison's lack of artistic instinct. With that gleam of practical sagacity which distinguished him, Emerson had resigned from the Church at the first whisper of coercion. He was a free man. He was freer than Channing. He was freer even than Garrison; for Garrison kept founding Societies which gave him endless trouble. Emerson's early and unobtrusive retirement from office shows us an amusing exchange of roles between the two; for in this instance Emerson, the recluse, knew the world better than Garrison, the man of action. But Emerson knew the world only in spots. His diary shows us a mind that is almost callow.

“Never numbers,” he writes, “but the simple and wise shall judge, not the Whartons [225] and Drakes, but some divine savage like Webster, Wordsworth, and Reed, whom neither the town nor the college ever made, shall say that we shall all believe. How we thirst for a natural thinker.” Emerson's “natural thinking” leads him to collocate the names of great men very unexpectedly and somewhat mysteriously. Entries like the foregoing seem more like the work of a man of twenty than of thirty. We must note in the following not only the lack of emotional life which is implied: we must note also its perfect intellectual poise.

“You affirm,” says Emerson in his journal, “that the moral development contains all the intellectual, and that Jesus was the perfect man. I bow in reverence unfeigned before that benign man. I know more, hope more, am more, because he has lived. But, if you tell me that in your opinion, he hath fulfilled all the conditions of man's existence, carried out to the utmost, at least by implication, all man's powers, I suspend my assent. I do not see in him cheerfulness: I do not see in him the love of natural science: I see in him no kindness for art: I see in him nothing of Socrates, of Laplace, of Shakespeare. The perfect man should remind us of all great [226] men. Do you ask me if I would rather resemble Jesus than any other man? If I should say Yes, I should suspect myself of superstition.”

This passage is like the stalk of the pieplant without the sap. But nature had gifts in her lap for the youth that penned it; and imagination can detect some sort of power even here. Here is at least a creature who will test other persons by himself, and not himself by others. The lacking element seems to be experience-experience of persons, experience of literature, experience of emotion. He has the coldness of crystal, but also its transparent purity. You would not suspect the man who writes thus of holding a pastorate over souls — of secretly regarding himself as a bishop and an apostle to lost sheep. Yet such was the fact. A care for men, a love of mankind, is the motive power in him.

Emerson is a man whom we are obliged to understand all the time by the light of what only breaks out of him once in seven years and endures but for two seconds. By the spark of this betrayal we know him: witness the opening of his Cooper Union address which I shall quote shortly.

The Abolitionists, of course, made a descent [227] upon Emerson in their diocesan rounds — for they visited and proselytized everyone. May and Thompson, two of Garrison's lieutenants, called upon Emerson. Their mission was incomprehensible to Emerson, who writes in his journal: “Our good friend, Samuel J. May, may instruct us in many things.” He admired May but not Thompson, of whom he says: “He belongs I fear to that great class of the Vanitystricken. An inordinate thirst for notice cannot be gratified until it has found in its gropings what is called a cause that men will bow to; tying himself fast to that, the small man is then at liberty to consider all objections made to him as proofs of folly and the devil in the objector, and, under that screen, if he gets a rotten egg or two, yet his name sounds through the world and he is praised and praised.”

Any one who has followed May and Thompson through good and evil report, who has felt the heat and depth of their devotion to truth, must almost wince at seeing what effect a visit from them produced upon the chill-blooded young parson who sat in his meager study, reading his threadbare library in the village of Concord.

We are brought to see by such anecdotes [228] as this that Anti-slavery was a sort of special illumination. The greatest saints lived without an understanding of Abolition till, suddenly one day, Abolition broke out in their hearts and made them miserable. Abolition was a disease — the disease caused by the flooding of withered natures with new health. The infection jumped from one man to another. Genius and talent had nothing to do with it; learning and piety seem to have been immune to it. Emerson was no nearer to an understanding of it than if he had been a clerk in a drugshop. He had, moreover, a dry disposition,--a cold wind seemed to blow out of him,--and the sweat and unction of emotion were always antipathetic to him. Nevertheless Emerson thought about the Abolitionists. It cannot be said that he thought about slavery. He neither saw nor knew much about slavery. But he looked out of his window and saw Garrison and the Abolitionists shouting in the streets. They invaded his musings: they troubled his solitude. He tries to shelve them in his mind by a final analysis; but he never quite suits himself, and so tries again. His lecture on “The times” in 1841, is in reality a lecture upon Garrison and Garrison's multitudinous [229] causes. The rather old-maidish young Emerson was disgusted by the miscellaneous and ramping enthusiasm of Garrison. He says, for instance, in the lecture on “The times” :

These reforms are our contemporaries; they are ourselves; our own light and sight, and conscience; they only name the relation which subsists between us and the vicious institutions which they go to rectify.

This is complimentary to the reformers: they have at any rate, discovered the evils. But Emerson goes on almost immediately: “The young men who have been vexing society these last years with regenerative methods, seem to have made this mistake; they all exaggerated some special means, and all failed to see that the Reform of Reforms must be accomplished without means. . . . Those who are urging with most ardor what are called the greatest benefits to mankind, are narrow, self-pleasing, conceited men, and affect us as the insane do. They bite us and we run mad also. I think the work of the reformers as innocent as other work that is done around them; but when I have seen it near I do not like it better.”

It appears, then, through these last-quoted [230] phrases, that Emerson thinks the reformers are quite off the track, after all. But in the final sentence of the essay there is another phrase to the effect “that the highest compliment man receives from Heaven is the sending to him its disguised and discredited angels.” So Garrison, it appears, was a disguised angel, after all. The essay on “The times” is a glacial attempt to explain the function of the Reformer. It contains valuable ideas, and beautiful ideas; but it leaves unbridged the chasm between the apparent odiousness of the reformer and his real utility. It explains nothing: it demonstrates only that Emerson did not understand these particular “times” but was greatly puzzled by them. Dr. Holmes has said “that it would have taken a long time to get rid of slavery if some of Emerson's teachings in this lecture had been accepted as the whole gospel of liberty.” “But,” he adds, “how much its last sentence covers with its soothing tribute!”

Sometimes in reading this essay on “The times,” it has seemed to me as if the whole of it were tinctured with condescension;just as the paragraph about Christ quoted above is unpleasant through its crudity of feeling. There is, however, no condescension [231] in either passage. Emerson was the last man in the world to feel condescension. If he had had an inkling of what Garrison's activity signified he would have shouted approval. Emerson's humility was abundantly approved in the outcome. Let this be noted: Emerson was a perfectly courageous person; regard for appearance has nothing to do with the ineffectuality of his perceptions. Upon Lovejoy's murder, in 1837, Emerson “sternly rejoiced,” says Dr. Edward W. Emerson, “that one was found to die for humanity and the rights of free speech and opinion” ; and soon thereafter Emerson delivered a lecture in Boston in which “he suddenly looked the Boston audience in the eyes” as he said these words about Lovejoy, “and a shudder seemed to run through the audience, yet unprepared for this bold word, for a martyr of an unpopular Cause.” Dr. Emerson cites this episode twice over, once in the Journals, and once in the Works, and he adds, “of course Lovejoy had other defenders in Boston.” Yes, Lovejoy certainly had other defenders in Boston; and it is fortunate for us that he had.

Emerson's words of approbation for Lovejoy seem to have been carefully [232] weighed, and he does not mention slavery. He belonged, in fact, to that large class of people who were shocked because free speech was murdered in Lovejoy's murder. Now, inasmuch as Emerson was lecturing before very conservative people, even this reference to “free speech and opinion” called up before the imagination of the audience the spectre of the Abolition Cause;and a shudder warmed the room. Even so remote an approval of Abolition as this, was thought to be very bold in Mr. Emerson.

I believe that had it not been for Garrison and his crew, Mr. Emerson would have seen nothing in the street as he looked out of his window in the years 1833-1840. He would, therefore, have turned his eyes upon the heavens, and continued to develop a neoplatonic philosophy. The thing which he did develop during these years, and while he was thinking a good deal about Garrison, and wondering what was the matter with Garrison,--the outcome of Emerson's reflections upon Garrison,--was that picture of the Just Man which runs through Emerson's thought; that theory of the perfect man, the Overman, the Apollonian saint, who accomplishes all reforms without using any visible means. [233]

In 1844, Emerson gives us a glimpse of this Overman in an essay entitled “The New England reformers.” The essay records a lack of progress in Emerson's thought, and shows that he had as yet no idea of the difference between Anti-slavery and the other many and clamoring reforms of the day. Like the essay on “The times” it contains beautiful ideas, but betrays ignorance of this particular matter-Anti-slavery. “The man who shall be born,” he says, “whose advent men and events prepare and foreshow, is one who shall enjoy his connection with a higher life, with the man within man; shall destroy distrust by his trust, shall use his native but forgotten methods, shall not take counsel of flesh and blood, but shall rely on the Law alive and beautiful which works over our heads and under our feet.” “If,” he says on another page, “we start objections to your project, oh, friend of the slave, or friend of the poor or of the race, understand well it is because we wish to drive you to drive us into your measures. We wish to hear ourselves confuted. We are haunted with a belief that you have a secret which it would highliest advantage us to learn, and we would force [234] you to impart it to us, though it should bring us to prison or to worse extremity.”

This last passage is an echo of the admirable fooling of Plato's dialogues. But it is not in phrases like these that men show their understanding of a subject like slavery. The time shall come when the fire shall descend on Emerson and he shall tear his mantle and put dust upon his head. If you would see how a man speaks when the virus of Anti-slavery has really entered his veins, you must turn to the address that Emerson delivered at Cooper Union in New York on March 7th, 1854. It is the Fugitive Slave Law that has aroused the seer and wrenched him from his tripod. He hates to leave his study, yet must leave it. His voice is strident; he forgets the amenities, and begins speaking almost without making a bow to his audience, and while he is still removing his overcoat.

“ I do not often speak to public questions; -they are odious and hurtful, and it seems like meddling or leaving your work. I have my own spirits in prison;--spirits in deeper prisons, whom no man visits if I do not. And then I see what havoc it makes with any good mind, a dissipated philanthropy. [235] The one thing not to be forgiven to intellectual persons is, not to know their own tasks, or to take their ideas from others. From this want of manly rest in their own and rash acceptance of other people's watchwords, come the imbecility and fatigue of their conversation.” He continues to speak in haste, making use of the personal pronoun — belligerent, reckless. “I have lived all my life without suffering any known inconvenience from American Slavery: I never saw it; I never heard the whip; I never felt the check on my free speech and action, until, the other day, when Mr. Webster, by his personal influence, brought the Fugitive Slave Law on the country. I say Mr. Webster, for though the Bill was not his, it is yet notorious that he was the life and soul of it, that he gave it all he had: it cost him his life, and under the shadow of his great name inferior men sheltered themselves, threw their ballots for it and made the law. I say inferior men. There were all sorts of what are called brilliant men, accomplished men, men of high station, a President of the United States, Senators, men of eloquent speech, but men without self-respect, without character, and it was strange to see that office, [236] age, fame, talent, even a repute for honesty, all count for nothing.”

Emerson next discovers that Webster (formerly one of his gods) has never said anything of any consequence anyway. “If his moral sensibility had been proportioned to the force of his understanding, what limits could have been set to his genius and beneficent power? But he wanted that deep source of inspiration. Hence a sterility of thought, the want of generalization in his speeches, and the curious fact that, with a general ability which impresses all the world, there is not a single general remark, not an observation on life and manners, not an aphorism that can pass into literature from his writings.”

Emerson now has the disease of Antislavery. The proof is that he feels obliged to take some sort of personal action. He feels responsible to the community for the educated classes. “The way in which the country was dragged to consent to this (the Fugitive Slave Law), and the disastrous defection (on the miserable cry of Union) of the men of letters, of the colleges, of educated men, nay, of some preachers of religion — was the darkest passage in the history.” And again: “Yet the lovers of [237] liberty may with reason tax the coldness and indifferentism of scholars and literary men. They are lovers of liberty in Greece and Rome and in the English Commonwealth, but they are lukewarm lovers of the liberty of America in 1854. The Universities are not, as in Hobbes's time, ‘the core of rebellion,’ no, but the seat of inertness.” We find no avoidance of the word “slavery” in this address. Every other word seems to be “Slavery, Slavery!” “A man who steals another man's labor steals away his own faculties; his integrity, his humanity is flowing away from him. The habit of oppression cuts out the moral eyes, and, though the intellect goes on simulating the moral as before, its sanity is gradually destroyed. It takes away the presentiments.” And finally in the last paragraph, comes a fierce, frank, almost incoherent, acknowledgment of the country's debt to the Abolitionists. “I respect the Anti-Slavery Society. It is the Cassandra that has foretold all that has befallen, fact for fact, years ago; foretold all, and no man laid it to heart. It seemed, as the Turks say, ‘Fate makes that a man should not believe his own eyes.’ But the Fugitive Slave Law did much to unglue the eyes of [238] men, and now the Nebraska Bill leaves us staring. The Anti-Slavery Society will add many members this year. The Whig Party will join it: the Democrats will join it. The population of the Free States will join it. I doubt not, at last, the Slave States will join it. But be that sooner or later and whoever comes or stays away, I hope we have reached the end of our unbelief, have come to a belief that there is a divine Providence in the world, which will not save us but through our own cooperation.”

Happy Emerson, who has lived to be so moved! Now what is it that has brought Emerson to this pass? It is Daniel Webster's defection. Webster's defection was like the falling of a mighty tower that jarred whole classes and categories of men into an understanding of the Slave Power. It did what neither Lovejoy's murder, nor the Annexation of Texas was able to do: --it waked up “the better element.” To this group, the better element, Emerson belonged by education and tradition. He crossed the Jordan along with the rest of his caste. This was just twenty-five years after Garrison's discovery of Immediate Emancipation: for these things were hidden from the wise and prudent and were [239] revealed unto babes. The Abolitionists had been studying Daniel Webster for fifteen years. They had seen the menace in sticks and straws; Emerson sees it in the earthquake. They had then left their desks and hearths as he does now, and had talked on street corners to any one who would listen about “slavery,--slavery, slavery!”

Now it seems to me clear that Emerson had, from the beginning, been dealing with souls in slavery. This was the vision he saw, a vision which was consequent upon the Slave Epoch, a vision of moral slavery. And the man of Emerson's imagination, who is to set free these slaves is Emerson himself. This Overman is certainly a beautiful person. He does suggest truths, --this Apollo-like person of Emerson's,he is valuable and he is beautiful. All of Emerson's abstractions and summaries of moral idea bear somewhat the same sort of relation to the real world that this Overman bears to Garrison. They are spirit-pictures, drawn from the life, a life never fully understood in its throb and passion; yet the pictures are given with such accuracy, such nobility, such power, that they speak forever. They are the artistic outcome of our Anti-slavery period. Garrison set a great [240] brazen trumpet to his lips and blew; and the walls of Jericho fell. Garrison dies, and his trumpet sounds no more. Nevertheless, the small, inner, silver trumpet of Emerson caught and sounded the same note; and it continues to sound the note, shaking down the walls of inner Jerichoes in men of later and ever later generations.

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