Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglas in Relation to Self-Reliance

Topics: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Slavery in the United States, Slavery Pages: 6 (2060 words) Published: October 18, 2013
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Mary Kate McTeigue
American Literature to 1865 - Section 1
Sean McPherson
April 28, 2013

Emerson’s, Self-Reliance and It’s Parallel with Frederick Douglass’s Journey to Self

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in 1803 in Boston although his family were not wealthy they were well connected, privileged and educated. Emerson attended Harvard, Harvard Divinity School and became a minister interested in such topics as non-conformity, the individual and the soul. Frederick Douglass was born in 1817 in Maryland the son of a slave and white man. He was born into slavery, saw his mother only a few times and did not know his father. Douglass went on to be an abolitionist, an editor of a newspaper, an avid writer and lecturer. These two men couldn’t have been from more diverse worlds. They may as well have been from different planets. While walking the green sunlit quads of Harvard, Emerson was fleshing out his esoteric thoughts on the soul, nonconformity of the individual and the subtleties of self-reliance. In contrast, Douglass was in a dark barn being beaten on his bare flesh by a brutal overseer who held the key to the gate of slavery. This beating took place in August of 1833 while Emerson had already written a few of his ideas in his journal for his essay, Self-reliance by 1832. (Self -Reliance was first published in 1841).

Slavery was a subculture set up for the benefits of farmers, plantation owners and rich city folk who could afford to buy people - not hire them but buy them. The slaves were isolated

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physically and mentally from the rest of the community and the world in order to maintain control and keep them within the bounds of the strict unspoken codes of slavery set up by the their owners. The codes signed, sealed and delivered by the overseers or the masters of the slaves. And when that didn’t work they were sold and separated from any family and friends they had.

The system of slavery didn’t allow and didn’t encourage the development of the individual person. Man or woman. Instead as Douglass states relating to the slave, “It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man” (Douglass 1790). Douglass transforms the collective mindset of him the slave to that of an individual, self-reliant man without the ivy clad buildings in which Emerson ruminated, pondered and wrote. For slavery to exist there could be no individual man or woman that had ownership rights over his or her own body or mind; despite this truth Douglass escapes from slavery and clearly steers destiny into his homeport of freedom hitting all the main points of Emerson’s theories on SelfReliance; trusting-self, non-conformity and intuition on the way there. Trusting yourself on the path to Emerson’s, Self-Reliance, and becoming an individual is one of the main tenets of Emerson’s writings. “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages” (Emerson 1334). Frederick Douglass’s first “gleam of light” was in the songs the slaves sang on the way to their masters main house. He describes the songs which were

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sung in deep tones like anguished souls as prayers for deliverance from slavery. Douglass states, “To those songs I trace my first glimmering of the dehumanizing character of slavery” (Douglass 1754). A seed was planted and took hold in his soul. He continued to listened for clues along the way to trust and believe.

A pivotal opportunity to trust himself in a new revelation was offered to Douglass while learning the alphabet and simple words at the home of his new master’s in Baltimore. When the father of the house found out that his wife was teaching the slave boy how to...


Cited: Perkins, George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature. 12th ed.
New York: McGraw-Hill. 2009. Print.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas.” Perkins and Perkins 17541792.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” Perkins and Perkins 1334-1341.
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