On the Anniversary of the Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies
An address delivered by Ralph Waldo Emerson on August 1, 1844, at the Concord Court House (Boston: James Munroe, 1844). Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1844 speech is one of the best-known and better-anthologized examples of antislavery rhetoric to emerge from the Transcendentalist movement. Prior to this speech, Emerson (1803-1882) had not been known as a public voice in support of abolitionism even if his private sentiments long had been opposed to slavery. Likely heavily influenced by his wife Lidian’s strong abolitionist sentiments, he accepted a speaking invitation from the Women’s Anti-Slavery Society, of which his wife was a member. Public opinion did not support abolitionism at this date and Concord churches refused to host this meeting, causing it to be scheduled for the court-house. To ensure attendance, Henry David Thoreau campaigned from door-to-door throughout town. For further, see Robert D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995) chap. 66, 396ff.
In keeping with his social views emphasizing the advance of human progress, Emerson locates his discussion of race slavery within the “history of mankind [that] interests us only as it exhibits a steady gain in truth and right…” (4) With language that is by turns ironic and incensed, he discusses features of slavery – deprivation, disenfranchisement, ruin of families -- that contradict such a social advance. Emerson enumerates the horrors of slavery and writes “the blood is anti-slavery: it runs cold in the veins: the stomach rises with disgust, and curses slavery.” (6) Progress, he argues, arrives through witness reports of these sights and ensuing political action.
Emerson traces a summary history of the development of British abolitionism and its judicial, parliamentary, and public advances through to the Emancipation Act of August 1, 1834. He argues that the behavior of Jamaica’s former slave-owners since emancipation has evidenced, beside covetousness, “a love of power, the voluptuousness of holding a human being in [their] absolute control.” (15) The economic convenience of slavery had long provided cause to overlook the oppressions of slavery: “The sugar they raised was excellent: nobody tasted blood in it.” (19) Yet the institution of slavery inherently corrupted its host society, he argued; it produced social weakness and hindered progress. “Slavery is no scholar, no improver; it does not love the whistle of the railroad; it does not love the newspaper, the mailbag, a college, a book, or a preacher who has the absurd whim of saying what he thinks.” (20)
The history of the English antislavery movement leads Emerson to contemplate the inability of the US antislavery movement to end slavery. Emerson calls upon New England regional pride to rise and resist the kidnapping and enslavement of colored seamen from northern states. “The Union is already at an end, when the first citizen of Massachusetts is this outraged,” (24) he writes. Emerson casts the north-south conflict in terms of honor, disgrace, and manhood: “there is a disastrous want of men from New England,” (25) he concludes. By contrast with the American situation, the emancipation of slaves in the West Indies was “a moral revolution.” (26) Emerson asserts that this same moral revolution is spreading in the United States and provoking democratic discussion of reforms of all sorts.
For Emerson, August 1st marks the entrance of Africans into modern European politics. (29) “The arrival in the world of such men as Toussaint, and the Haytian heroes… outweighs in good omen all the English and American humanity. The anti-slavery of the whole world, is dust before this…” (32) Emerson welcomes both African American political participation and self-determination. In conclusion, Emerson calls upon rationalism to eliminate slavery, arguing that the concepts of Right and Freedom are aligned with each other. (34)
- Joe Lockard