Emerson and Democracy
Emerson and Politics
Words that have Wings
The Great Communicator
The attempt to observe, describe and understand this multi-facetted America that presents itself to us nowadays is almost impossible without taking into account a historical period that cannot be overestimated in its significance for the development of the country: Romanticism. Young poets, writers, philosophers, and intellectuals rebelled against old values, posed inconvenient questions and developed new ideas that shaped society. The Americans discovered their growing desire for intellectual independence from Europe. Their protest manifested within the transcendental movement, which was founded for the most part by the first American intellectual genius and surely the one of the most important characters of that time, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Considering his enormous impact on the American self-concept, the field of overarching Emerson-studies is still quite young. After “a temporary decline in his reputation between the two world wars” (Buell 1993: 3), Emerson became a much larger topic in the 1960s. In 1962 “the first selection of Emerson criticism ever made” (Whicher 1962: v) was published by Stephen E. Whicher and Milton R. Konvitz. Since then, “Emerson has become a cultural property appropriate for disparate uses, it is impossible to select a dozen critical discussions that will span his entire achievement.” (Buell 1993: 2) It seems that Emerson’s ambivalent texts can be used or rather misused(?) in any conceivable context. Students of an university course about Emerson even argued that his contradictory ideas can be used to explain everything and thus nothing. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore his intellectual legacy. The universality of his writings is at the same time what makes up their ingenuity and what makes it almost impossible for critics to come to a concluding analysis that answers more questions instead of asking new ones. One example is William L. Hedges’ essay “From Franklin to Emerson” (1976), which he wrote as a response to Perry Miller’s “From Edwards to Emerson” (1940). Hedges could make use of additional 35 years of American studies and thus had a completely different point of view combined with a less generalizing style. Yet these two works show the general attributes of every theoretical work about Emerson. “Both portraits have validity. Neither is complete.” (Buell 1993: 5)
This essay continues this tradition and I make no claim that it is uncontestable. I will try to deal with one of the most controversial and not easy-to-grasp topics in the Emersonian canon; politics. In the first part of the essay I will describe Emerson’s critical thoughts about democracy and his concept of politics. Therefore, I will also consider some of his less recognized essays of the second series that deal with his conceptions of power and wealth. In the middle part I will deal with political rhetoric especially in connection to the presidential office, which is the highest in the country. Presidential words create facts and they remain in our memory even decades after the concerning presidency. That will be the basis for the central part of my essay; namely, the connection of Emersonian ideas, values, and concepts in the politics of Ronald Reagan. I chose to focus on Reagan for two reasons. Firstly, he was regarded as “the most persuasive speaker of [his] time,” (Erickson 1985: 1) which brought him the nickname “Great Communicator”. Thus, his words are well fit to be compared to Emerson’s powerful, eloquent language. Secondly, I think that there are diverse parallels between Emerson’s philosophy of the self and the political agenda of Ronald Reagan. Both were Great Communicators, both kindled the fire of a spiritual revolution, and both became symbols of their time. Just as one can make a difference between Emerson's first series of essays and his later works, I will differentiate between Reagan’s domestic politics, and his foreign and economic policy.
My aim is to show the applicability of Emerson's ideas even more than a hundred years after his death no matter how contradictory they may seem at first sight, and without necessarily relating to him directly. Considering that Ralph Waldo Emerson is regarded as one of the biggest liberal thinkers and Ronald Reagan as one of the most conservative politicians in American history of the last century it is interesting to see if their seemingly contradictory world views fit together and how. The question that I will try to answer in addition is if we can talk about pure Emersonian ideas at all or if he was also just a something like a “Great Communicator” who spoke for a greater cause than the distribution of his personal ideas?
Emerson and Democracy
Before analyzing Emerson’s conception of politics, it is necessary to take a closer look at him and his reaction to the general moral concepts of his time. Emerson was born in 1803, at a time when the nation was still very young and democracy in its spring. After the uprising against the colonial rule of the old world and the signature of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, America became a sovereign state. This state “was committed to the principle of democracy by the logic of the Revolution.” (Gabriel 1938: 3) This principle ought to give hope to the people’s minds and stability to their lives. But it was “rather the village church” and not the Constitution that guaranteed social stability (cf. Gabriel 1938: 4) What people needed was something to keep faith with. “We are born believing,” said Emerson, adding that a “man bears beliefs as a tree bears apples.” (Emerson 1883: 195)
Under this presumption, we may not solely regard democracy as a political system but a collection of ideas and values. From the early 19th century until today, there have been two notions of democracy in America. The first is realistic democracy which includes free elections, political parties and the striving for political offices. The other connotation is more romantic and connects democracy to a cluster of ideas and values which define the national faith and give people something to believe in; a Civil Religion (cf. Gabriel 1938: 5) Ralph H. Gabriel made up four principles that Civil Religion is based on. The first is the “concept of the free, rational and responsible individual” who lives free to make his/her own decisions. The second principle was the conviction that human society needs to be supported by “a framework of fixed principles,” namely laws given by the government. The third principle is the “idea of progress,” which has its roots in the American westward expansion of the 19th century. The idea is that every generation starts with the legacy of the preceding generation. The last principle is still the most prominent of America’s present political self-conception; “the national destiny”. American democracy should give the world a perfect model of a free living society that governs itself. (cf. Gabriel 1945: 28 ff)
Besides some similarities between the principles of national faith and some of Emerson's later works, he was not a big friend of democracy in his younger years. While others celebrated Independence Day in a state of blind enthusiasm, he preferred to spend the day in nature, deeply sunken into his thoughts. (cf. Miller 1953: 73) Emerson went to Harvard College and graduated in 1821. He thus belonged to a generation of young men that “could hardly be [...] more numb to the notion that there were any stirring implications about the word ‘democracy’.” (Miller 1953: 72) These young Bostonians stood up against Puritan conventions and traditions. The group consisted of young aristocrats “voting Whig and Republican, associating the Democratic Party with vulgarity, with General Jackson and tobacco chewing.” (Miller 1953: 72) This was the time of Emerson’s intellectual crisis. Although he believed that the Democrats had “the best cause”, he thought that the Whigs contained “the best men.” (cf. Emerson 1844: 428) With General Jackson he even believed “a most unfit person in the presidency [...] doing the worst things.” (cf. Carlyle&Emerson 1883) Critics argue that Emerson “failed himself, and ignored the responsibilities of his own moral position.” (Schlesinger Jr. 1945: 385) Instead of making a decision for one political side, he remained undetermined.
First it seemed as if Emerson would remain the typical Bostonian Harvard student, living in Concord and voting Republican, when suddenly different ideas inhabited his mind. With the increasing importance of transcendentalism he had to reconsider his position. Especially after “the inevita]ble drift of transcendentalism towards democracy.” (Schlesinger Jr. 1945: 384) Emerson had to react to those ideas and emerged into literature as the “castigator of the genteel, the proper, the self-satisfied” (Miller 1953: 74) When he called the American freeman timid and imitative, he argued against the part of society where he had his own roots. (cf. Miller 1953: 74) Emerson was up to create his gospel of the self and prepare America for its intellectual independence from Europe.
From the very beginning, Emerson was able to use his unique, powerful style and rhetoric, with the consequence that not everyone was able to understand Emerson’s sometimes contradicting arguments and his reasoning. The contemporary critic Francis Bowen wrote about Emerson's “Nature”:
We find beautiful writing and sound philosophy in this little work; but the effect is injured by occasional vagueness of expression, and by a vein of mysticism, that pervades the writer’s whole course of thought. (Bowen 1837: 3) So we see that Emerson was not the celebrated prophet per se. None the less, his ideas had an appealing effect to the people of his time. He was “a person of great moral strength and integrity” who tried to establish the “homo Americanus” and thus “destroy the tradition in which virtues such as his own could be cultivated.” (Parkes 1942: 121) The intention itself stood in a democratic context. It was Alexis de Tocqueville who wrote in his famous book Democracy in America that “democracy make[s] every man forget his ancestors.” (Tocqueville 1840) The idea may not have been a new one, but has never been formulated in such a radical way as Emerson’s. He was not the inventor of the new movement for intellectual independence but he was made its ingenious prophet.
When Emerson returned from his European voyage, he knew how monarchy and aristocracy degrade mankind (cf. Miller 1953: 78) Emerson did not want to accept that a king is supposed to be greater than himself, if he was not more just than himself. But he liked the idea that “some great and natural genius, out of contempt for the herd, would master” society; (Miller 1953: 79) a person without ambition of personal enrichment. But no matter how great the genius that leads society is, “politics rest on necessary foundations and cannot be treated with levity”, for “levity was the devil.” (Miller 1953:79) These foundations definitely existed in the USA, which does not mean that Emerson regarded them as being perfect. Although Emerson was a critic of the government, he did not want to abandon it but he wanted to improve it. (cf. Aaron 1951: 96) “After a considerable amount of candid self-examination and after a long look at his country,” Emerson reached a “liberal view of government” and even came to terms with democracy. (Aaron 1951: 96) In his essay Politics he wrote: “Democracy is better for us, because the religious sentiment of the present time accords better with it.” (Emerson 1844: 427) That may not sound like the convincing manifesto of the Democratic Party. In fact, Emerson’s notion of democracy was a different one to those of the Democrats. His political philosophy might be called a spiritually and intellectually colored transcendental democracy (cf. Aaron 1951:94) It propagates a minimized State
that secures and protects its citizens and gives them the opportunity of economic, political, and individual growth. (cf. Aaron 1951:94) It will never be easy to put Emerson into a specific political corner, but I think we would do him no wrong by calling him an original Democrat. His increasing aversion against the politics of his Whig roots is best shown in this sarcastic line, describing their motto: “Better endure tyranny according to law a thousand years than irregular unconstitutional happiness for a day.” (Aaron 1951: 96)
Emerson and Politics
Although Emerson is a person of political ambiguities, he had a clear vision of what politics should look like. According to the tradition of the universal character of his writings, his earlier works show us a different Emerson than his later ones. His first political essay, Politics, was published in 1844. He propagated a state of laissez-faire, focusing on the power of each individual. Something he picked up again four years later in one of his most famous works, Self-Reliance (1848). With regards to Emerson’s applicability to the politics of the eighties, it is well worth taking look at two of his essays from his 1860 Conduct of Life, that deal with two quite important concepts of politics, “Power” and “Wealth”.