Emerson and race

A couple of weeks ago on the Christian Century Web site, Edwin Blum reviewed a new book, The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter (Norton, March, 2010). In the review, Blum says:

“In the United States, slavery helped define whiteness. In this case, the white race was linked to freedom, whereas blackness was tied to enslavement. Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson gravitated to the idea that Anglo-Saxons were at the top of the human pyramid. Jefferson admired the myth of Saxon love for liberty and of Americans as the true heirs of the Saxons’ political virtue. He admired it so much, in fact, that his University of Virginia had classes in the Anglo-Saxon language. Emerson, according to Painter, became the ‘philosopher king of American white race theory’ because of his undying love for Anglo-Saxonism. Emerson saluted the Saxons for embodying manliness, beauty, liberty and individualism.”

Now Unitarian Universalists claim both Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson as our co-religionists, and we tend to claim them as thinkers who continue to inspire us, and who are central to our Unitarian intellectual heritage. Some of us have been critical of Jefferson’s actions as a slaveholder, but in general we have been content to adopt both Jefferson’s and Emerson’s theories of individual liberty and freedom without much in the way of critical reflection about what, exactly, they meant by liberty and freedom for individuals.

This is analogous to what happened in the House of Representatives recently. House Republicans, under the influence of a theory that we should follow the U.S. Constitution exactly as it was originally written, decided that they would read the U.S. Constitution in its entirety at the opening of the current session. Except that they left out all the bits about slavery and slaves being equivalent to three fifths of a human being. This is disingenuous of them, because when you read the original U.S. Constitution, you become quite clear that uncritical acceptance is not an option.

I’m not particularly well-read in Emerson, and can’t comment intelligently on his racial attitudes. But I am pretty well-read in his disciple Henry David Thoreau, and Thoreau is quite sure that white people like him are superior to, e.g., Irish, French Canadians, and working class people of the same narrow ethnic background as himself. If you indulge in an uncritical acceptance of Thoreau’s individualistic mystic theology and his philosophy of government, which is also highly individualistic, you’re going to indulge in a tendency to cover over how both his theology and philosophy are grounded in a hierarchical theory of race. And I’m pretty sure that I’d find similar problems in Emerson’s philosophy and theology.

I don’t mean to imply that we should discard Emerson and Jefferson; they are too central to our intellectual heritage to discard. But I do want to suggest that it’s past time for a serious revision of our understanding of Emersonian and Jeffersonian individualism within a Unitarian Universalist context.

One thought on “Emerson and race”

  1. 8 recovered comments

    Bill Baar says:
    January 7, 2011 at 1:21 pm
    Emerson left us. Jefferson never joined us. I’m not certain they’re all that central. I’d turn to either of the Adams first. Americans fought our most brutal of wars to remove slavery from our laws. I think it was ok to read the consitution as it lives today, and not as it was.

    will shetterly says:
    January 7, 2011 at 3:01 pm
    I have my doubts about that book. Here’s the whole of a blog post I did a while back that includes someone else’s criticism of her take on Emerson: it’s all one thing: on The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

    There’s another book about white people that appears to be a mishmosh of useful information and silly theory. And even the amount of useful information may be suspect. From Book Review – The History of White People – By Nell Irvin Painter:

    Painter misses some crucial regional differences. While Jews and Italians were nonwhite in the East, they had long been white in San Francisco, where the racial “inferiors” were the Chinese. Although the United States census categorized Mexican-Americans as white through 1930, census enumerators in the Southwest, working from a different racial under standing, ignored those instructions and marked them “M” for Mexican.

    I found another reason to be sceptical in “A Half-Read Interpretation of Emerson Casts Doubt on the Scholarship” at Amazon.com: Customer Reviews: The History of White People, which includes this:

    Nell Painter does not grasp, or seem to want to grasp, the dialectical nature of Emerson’s work as she goes about building the case that he was the father of American whiteness theory. In a sustained passage, she says repeatedly that Emerson’s passages on fate and race are confused and multi-handed, that he contradicts himself, but that in the end he supports some kind of white racial ideology. Ms. Painter quotes from Emerson’s ‘Fate’ and a related journal entry to prove her point. What Ms. Painter does not do is work with ‘Fate’ as a whole. In it, to paraphrase a passage Painter used repeatedly to hammer her point home, Emerson wrote that races stripped from their land and forced by circumstance to move to America are prematurely used up in labor and turned into so much guano for American profit. This is hardly a celebration of Anglo Saxon virtues. Regardless, Painter says nothing about the concept of ‘Power’ that appears a few paragraphs later in Emerson’s essay on ‘Fate.’ Power, Emerson writes, can trump and overturn fate. In other words, races are not pre-determined to any genetic outcome. All people can seize power. DuBois certainly agreed with this.

    Jeremiah Bartlett says:
    January 8, 2011 at 4:30 am
    I also seem to recall a snippet of a speech he once gave where he considered intellectuals (whom he all assumed to be men – and from this, I take it – white, Anglo-Saxon men) effeminate. That was my first taste of an Emerson I had never known.

    Dan says:
    January 8, 2011 at 9:42 pm
    Bill @ 1 — Actually, Emerson came back to Unitarianism later in life — apparently he attended the Concord, Mass., Unitarian church regularly in the last decade or so of his life, with his with Lidian and his grown daughter Ellen (both of whom were always stalwart members). But you’re right, he was something of an anti-institutionalist, so why do we give him so much play? I like your idea: let’s promote Adams — and not just John, but Abigail, and John Quincy as well.

    Will @ 2 — Thanks for the critical view. Emerson’s method is dialectical, and thus can be slippery — too many people have read into him whatever they want to read into him.

    But I still have a really strong case for Thoreau’s racism, including textual citations; not that he was worse than other white educated intellectuals of his day; in fact, Thoreau may have been better than Emerson, for there is firm evidence that Thoreau worked on the Underground Railroad.

    The real point here, I think, is that we shouldn’t accept anything uncritically — including Emerson himself.

    Jeremiah @ 3 — Interesting. As I said, I’m no Emerson scholar, but apparently Emerson was slow to get on board with feminism, and had some difficulty accepting women as equals. Again, typical of his time, but worth remembering — if for no other reason than to remember that the mid-19th American century was seriously different from early 21st century American culture.

    will shetterly says:
    January 8, 2011 at 10:22 pm
    Agreed, and I came across something else that seems to be true which bugs me: it appears Emerson blackballed Frederick Douglass, who had been proposed for membership in a private Boston club.

    J says:
    January 9, 2011 at 9:59 pm
    In regard to:

    ” Except that they left out all the bits about slavery and slaves being equivalent to three fifths of a human being. This is disingenuous of them, because when you read the original U.S. Constitution, you become quite clear that uncritical acceptance is not an option.”

    See this article:


    January 09, 2011
    The Constitution Did Not Condone Slavery
    By Ken Blackwell and Bob Morrison

    “…then, there’s the Post’s ritual repeating of the falsehood that the Founders viewed black people as “three-fifths of a person.” That is a wholly tendentious misreading of the Three-Fifths Clause. Don Fehrenbacher is a leading authority on this. In his penetrating study, The Slaveholding Republic, he writes, “[The] fraction ‘three-fifths’ had no racial meaning. It did not represent a perception of blacks as three-fifths human[.]” It was a compromise on methods of levying taxes and apportioning representation in Congress.

    Further, the Three-Fifths Compromise reduced the power in Congress of slaveholding states while giving an electoral bonus to any state that voluntarily emancipated its slaves. When seven of the original thirteen states abolished slavery, they were allowed to count free black people in the census for purposes of representation in Congress.

    It is especially galling to have liberals attack Republican members on these matters. They forget that it was Republicans who gave us the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments — those great guarantees of civil rights. Every vote cast against those amendments was cast by a Democrat. It was Republicans who passed the first anti-lynching bill in the House — in 1922. Those bills were routinely killed by Senate Democrats until 1957.”

    Dan says:
    January 10, 2011 at 5:46 pm
    Will @ 5 — Huh, I’ll have to look into that. Very interesting.

    J @ 6 — Sorry, but I think you’re arguing about a different point. My point was that uncritical acceptance of anything is unwise. The U.S. Constitution has problematic bits, and it doesn’t do any good to cover them over. Emerson had problematic bits, and it doesn’t do any good to cover them over.

    As someone who was trained in hermeneutics, I don’t like it when people try to rewrite texts to suit their own biases and prejudices. I like a lot of what Emerson has to say, but he says some things with which I disagree; I find his promotion of individualism to be problematic, for example. What I learned from my training in hermeneutics is that reading a text is like having a conversation with another person: the text is something different from you, you read it and it changes you, and when you come back to the same text several years from now you might find it seems completely different. But when you change a text, you can’t have that experience because you have imposed yourself on the text. Similarly, I don’t think anyone should take the word “nigger” out of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, nor should they rewrite that last quarter of the book (a section of the book which so many critics seem to love to hate). Engage a text on its own terms, and if you don’t like it, go write your own, new text.

    Steven Rowe says:
    January 15, 2011 at 2:14 pm
    Way late in blog reading, but just a note to Bill @1. that Jefferson died in the summer of 1826, the AUA was formed (as an association for individuals) in 1825. I know of no small u unitarian churches in Charlottesville , what is there for Jefferson to have joined or even to have refused to have joined? He did at least attend some unitarian services in Philadelphia.

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