Enslavement of Character Restricts Government Growth

June, 1835

“We bow low to the noted merchants whose influence is felt not only in their native cities, but in most parts of the globe; but our respect does them & ourselves great injustice for their trade is without system, their affairs unfold themselves after no law of the mind: but are bubble built on bubble without end; a work of arithmetic not of commerce.” (274)

“Statesmen are solitary. At no time do they form a class. Governments, for the most part, are carried on by political merchants, quite without principle, & according to the maxims of trade & huckster.” (275)

-R.W. Emerson, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. V

August 18, 1837

“Meek young men grow up in colleges & believe it is their duty to accept the views which <others ha> books have given & grow up slaves” (365).

-R.W. Emerson, The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. V

August 1, 1839:

“But I wish to say – at least let our theory not be slavish: let us hope infinitely & accustom ourselves to the reflection that the true Fall of man is the disesteem of man; the true Redemption selftrust; the growth of character is only the enlargement of this, & year by year as we come to our stature we shall inherit not only forms & churches & communities but earth & heaven.”

-R. W. Emerson to Harrison G. O. Blake, The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. II 


In the middle of the 1830s, Emerson is well known and studied for his ideas represented in The American Scholar to do with the thinking man and innate powerful soul. What is interesting is that while he is inviting the American public to think for himself, he is also very distressed in some of his private journals and correspondence of the ways in which the young minds of the future are being manipulated by the minds of the past in a very detrimental way to the American future.

In June of 1835, Emerson uses the metaphor of a statesman as a merchant, and goes on to describe the merchants as having a set of guidelines that have previously been in place. The “bubbles” don’t expand, but pile on top of one another in a repetitive, but never new manner. Emerson addresses this problem in his essay Politics composed in the 1840s, and explains how laws are made. “Every one of them was once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case” (213). Emerson recognizes the need for youthful generations to breakaway from the merchant-like mold. If one man’s initial idea is a brick, it cannot be the foundation from which all other bricks are laid. There needs to be outward expansion before there can be upward expansion. “They only who build on Ideas, build for eternity” (214). There is a necessity for more foundational “acts” to add support to a lasting and beneficial government.

Emerson believes that the statesmen of his time are content to carryon with the set of guidelines in place that govern the American people. In his August 17, 1837 journal entry, he touches on the notion that this type of government is enslaving the minds of the youth, that young individuals in college are not being instructed to think, but instructed to know. Emerson is aware of the inequality within his America, whether it is slavery, women’s rights or Native American suffrage. Emerson believes that the path to equality lies with in the young minds of the rising generation, but that their inner power is not being kindled, but snuffed-out. Thus, fourteen days later, he provides his controversial lecture of The American Scholar in attempts to reignite all that is being suppressed.

In a correspondence between Emerson and Harrison G. O. Blake, a member of the committee that arranged for Emerson’s Divinity School address, Emerson speaks to the young Blake about a “growth of character.” In Politics, Emerson claims that Americans are “superstitious, and esteem the statute,” which influences “so much life as it has in the character of living men” (214). In order for one’s character to grow, there needs to be a regaining of “selftrust.” To save one’s character, a scholar needs only to rely on their own innate moral beliefs, and not be influenced by the one-sided minds of politicians that cling to the “act of a single man.” If an individual can break away from the chains that suppress their character, then growth will occur, and as Emerson says in his essay Fate, “events [will] expand with the character” (276), which will hopefully lead to a better government.

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