Monday, January 19, 2009

On him they could not calculate - a note on Thoreau, Emerson, and Reverend King

"Mr Webster told them how much the war cost, that was his protest, but voted the war, & sends his sons to it. They calculated rightly on Mr Webster. My friend Mr Thoreau has gone to jail rather than pay his tax. On him they could not calculate. The abolitionists denounce the war & give much time to it, but they pay the tax."

July 1846, Ralph Waldo Emerson's journal, Emerson in His Journals, pp. 358-9.

This is a tricky passage, full of irony. Webster is the great Senator, a hero of Emerson's. Here we see an early warning of the complete disillusionment that will come a few years later when Webster voted for the Fugitive Slave Act.

Another irony is that neither Emerson or Thoreau are really protesting the Mexican War in and of itself. They are opposed to the war because they believed it was waged in the interests of expanding slavery. Thoreau wrote about his protest in the 1849 "Civil Disobedience" essay, which eventually leads us to Rev. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Thoreau's protest was an unusually productive one.

But yet another irony is that Emerson was one of the abolitionists who paid the tax. He didn't go to jail. Emerson was fully aware of this irony.

Yet another: Emerson and Thoreau were both intellectually indebted to Thomas Carlyle. Around the time Thoreau published "Civil Disobedience," Carlyle was vigourously defending black slavery. This is why intellectual history is so interesting - ideas move around in such mysterious ways. One of the many strands of history that lead to our new President made an important stop in that jail cell in Concord.

I have been reading a lot of Emerson lately; I think I'll spend the week with him.

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