Emerson Is Not Our Future
Sam Trumbore | Dec 11, 2017

Two years ago in a sermon I quoted Emerson who, in 1829, wrote:

I think it cannot be maintained by any candid person that the African race have ever occupied or do promise ever to occupy any very high place in the human family.  Their present condition is the strongest proof that they cannot.  The Irish cannot; the American Indian cannot; the Chinese cannot.  Before the energy of the Caucasian race all other races have quailed …

Clearly this quote is not the Emerson we think of when we remember his essay on Nature, or Self-Reliance or my favorite, The Over-Soul.  Emerson did become a strong abolitionist after the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, twenty one years later.  Some evolution of his thinking did happen over those years, especially through the influence of his second wife Lidian and his good friend Theodore Parker both of whom were ardent abolitionists, but not enough.

Using this quote brought to the attention of our congregation a side of Emerson that is not well known. Reaction to it started a controversy about using his name for the main hall in our 2007 building expansion.  In the last two issues of this newsletter, Anne Marie Haber has shared more objectionable quotes from Emerson’s journals that have stimulated a lot of discussion.

I’ve had a chance to do more research on Emerson’s views and found an excellent article by Emerson scholar, Dr. Peter S. Field in the Spring 2001 journal of American Nineteenth Century History titled “The Strange Career of Emerson and Race.”  Dr. Field’s in depth analysis revealed Emerson’s lifelong belief in the superiority of Americans of English descent over everyone else.  Though Emerson never approved of slavery, it took many years for him to decide that slavery must be actively resisted.  Even after 1850, there is little evidence to show he believed in the value of an egalitarian society that embraced all peoples.

As we celebrate the tenth anniversary of our addition in April, many are wondering if that room needs a new name.  In a time when Confederate statues and monuments are being removed, we have less willingness to celebrate leaders with ambiguous moral character.

One concern I’ve heard is judging people from the past by contemporary standards is unfair.  Reading Dr. Fields’ analysis reveals that Emerson was not a leader among the abolitionists, far from it.  When it became a freedom issue with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, that was when he stepped in, not when it was a human dignity issue before that.  Emerson was very much a man of his day on this issue rather than a visionary thinker.

And I wonder if Emerson is even a visionary thinker for our times.  His emphasis on freedom and independence that we read in his essay Self-Reliance is not what is needed in the twenty-first century.  The libertarian attitude that a man’s home is his castle doesn’t cut it anymore in the era of climate change, powerful weapons of mass destruction increasing pollution and decreasing fresh water and arable land to share to support life.  Endangered species need for protection should infringe on property rights.  The seventh principle of the interdependence of all life becomes more and more important as a governing principle that trumps individual freedom.

We need not disrespect the contributions Emerson made to the advance of American thought, writing and culture during his time.  His Transcendentalist appreciation of the human spirit continues to inspire me.  Yet he is not the person I would look to for the future of Unitarian Universalism.  Those who are envisioning a multi-faith, multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-gender future for Unitarian Universalism are the visionaries who should be guiding us.  Out of that conversation and debate I expect to come new ways for us to be together.  As Emerson was for his time, these are the people who are charting our future right now.

So, maybe we don’t need to name spaces after people but with words that evoke our aspirations and our values.  Even though the road feels muddy and rough sometimes, I have great hope that we are going a direction that whole world needs to go if we are going to cultivate world peace.  The world needs examples that people who are very different can live together respectfully in peace and be enriched by the experience.

May we grow into being that example.