September 10: On this day in 1856 Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke “On the Affairs in Kansas” at a fundraising meeting in Cambridge, Mass. Two years earlier, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had repealed the Missouri Compromise banning slavery in the new territories and granted residents the right to choose for themselves on the issue. Pro-slavery gangs had been shooting and even scalping their opponents, and the Cambridge Relief Meeting was one of many attempts to aid the Abolitionists, as Emerson put it, “against these enemies of the human race.”
When John Brown was hanged for the events at Harper’s Ferry, Emerson only escalated his support, allegorizing him in ringing tones: “For the arch-abolitionist, older than Brown, and older than the Shenandoah Mountains, is Love, whose other name is Justice, which was before Alfred, before Lycurgus, before slavery, and will be after it.” Emerson regarded Brown as a pretty fair speaker also, ranking his trial speech in a league with the Gettsyburg Address for passages such as this:
This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done — as I have always freely admitted I have done — in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments—I submit; so let it be done!
While Emerson did not become one of the “Secret Six”—those Boston-Concord citizens who actively supported Brown’s violent plans—some of his biographers regard his idealized support for the “Kansas Cid” as his most extreme venture into radical politics, perhaps his most misguided and naive.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.