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

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 read, she was told that for one thing it was against the law. But the main point of his disapproval was this as told by Douglass, “if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good . . .

It would make him discontented and unhappy” (Douglass 1762). Douglass explains that it was in this moment that he understood what the key was from slavery to freedom. It was learning to read, write and become an educated man. He trusted this truth. To quote Emerson, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,-that is genius” (Emerson 1334). In having this truth revealed to him he also later instructed other slaves how to read and write. He knew it wasn’t going to be easy from this point on to learn but he did any way he could. He learned from boys on the streets of Baltimore and from his master’s child’s school books. Trusting himself on this new information was the key piece to freedom which firmly planted him on his path to escaping slavery.

To speak of non-conformity as another one of the elements of Emerson’s, Self-Reliance, that leads to the path of self is to scream to the conformity of slavery. To quote Emerson, “What I

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must do is all that concerns me, not what people think. The rule, equally arduous in actual and intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness” (Emerson 1337). But to non-conform as a slave was to beaten regularly by the overseer or master and if that didn’t work the slave was sold and sent away.

In one extreme case Douglass tells the story of an overseer shooting a slave in the face in front of other slaves because the slave didn’t get out of a creek when told to by the overseer. When asked by the owner of the plantation why he shot the slave, Douglass recalls the justification, “He was setting a dangerous example to the other slaves,-one which, if suffered to pass without some such demonstration on his part, would finally lead to the total subversion of all rule and order upon the plantation” (Douglass 1758).

With these experiences and stories slaves were kept down from entertaining thoughts of freedom or individuality. They conformed not only because it was a way of life; it was survival. Non-conformity came at a price even death as just revealed but for a few the risk was worth the price for possible freedom even if it was only one step toward intellectual freedom from a master. In a pivotal event toward breaking away from the mindset of slavery Douglass rises up against one of his master’s, Mr. Covey and engages in a physical brawl.

Mr Covey was going to tie up Douglass and begin another round of beatings following the first round from the previous day. Not only did Douglass physically beat up Covey, he also told him that yes he was going to continue the fight because he had been abusing him for the past six months. Douglass explains in his narrative that this event gave him confidence and the determination to be free. He states, “My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed . . . and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact” (Douglass 1779). Douglass crossed the line that day from conformity to non-conformity.

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Douglass’s actions in the above example and the way he progresses through his life’s journey embodies this profound paragraph of Emerson’s whereby he explains that “conforming to the usages that have become dead to you . . . scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character” (Emerson 1337). He goes on to say that by conforming so much of your life force is taken away from your real purpose that no one can detect who you really are. “Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself” (Emerson 1337).

Douglass hits the path of non-conformity and never looks back. His life was spent hard at work for the abolitionist movement and the well being of other slaves still trapped in slavery. Intuition is layered into both elements of Emerson’s thoughts of trusting one’s self and non-conformity; as intuition is the soul force that leads us into and out of the sublities of our mind and eventually to our own individual actions. Emerson says about intuition, “In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin. . . Here is the fountain of action and of thought” (Emerson 1341). Intuition is not learned or taught it is there in all people.

It can be cultivated and tended to by the individual if they stop to listen, to hear and to trust even it means going against the grain of popular thought or what someone else might think is right for that individual. As stated earlier in the essay Douglass all along seems to be “listening” and “trusting” and “taking action.” But he starts to develop a cognizant understanding of intuition and the soul as he becomes more literate and knowledgeable. In an anthology he reads different passages that as Douglass states, “They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance. . . The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts” (Douglass 1765). Aside from taking actions towards his freedom and being an

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individual man he now is able to articulate and write down his personal thoughts formulating arguments against slavery and other subjects. A flow from his intuition, mind and soul begins to emerge that was there all along. Douglass explains at the risk of being called superstitious, “From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within it’s foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom” (Douglass 1761).

Like divine interventions Douglass pays attention to these unsolicited angles and lets them lead the way towards becoming a free man. These two extraordinary men grabbled with the ideas of individuality and self-reliance simultaneously through two different modes of exploration; Emerson intellectually and Douglass experientially. It’s like Douglass’s narrative is the case study for Emerson’s theories on selfreliance. Their studies and paths eventually led them to similar conclusions on the subject; although Emerson’s self-reliance had a more “soulful” twist and Douglass’s self-reliance had a more practical hands-ons twist. These differences stemmed from their different backgrounds and experiences.

Both these men listened to their intuition, trusted them selves and were not afraid to be non-conforming and became self-realized free men. But in the case of Frederick Douglass not only did he became intellectually free but physically free from slavery using all the same tools spelled out in Emerson’s, Self-Reliance. To end, Douglass shares an exchange with one of his masters, “He told me, if I would be happy, I must lay out no plans for the future. He said, if I behaved myself properly, he would take care of me. Indeed, he advised me to complete thoughtlessness of the future, and taught me to depend solely up him for happiness. He seemed

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to see fully the pressing necessity of setting aside my intellectual nature, in order to contentment in slavery” (Douglass 1792). Douglass flings, deflects and resists each point listening only to his ministering angels until they flew him into the hands of freedom.

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Works 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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