By Crispin Sartwell
2003 marks the bicentennial of the birth of perhaps the most celebrated American of the nineteenth
century: Ralph Waldo Emerson. Around the world, and in his native country, Emerson was regarded as
the essence of America and its aspiration, a man of fierce individualism and of deep generosity.
As anything other than a producer of a few quotable sentences, Emerson is far out of fashion.
Certainly he can no longer be regarded as our emblem or our conscience. American political life has left
him far behind, and neither the right nor the left has any claim or any connection to him. And thus they
have no connection to central traditional truths of the American character and political tradition, to
Patrick Henry, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry David Thoreau, Emma Goldman, H.L. Mencken, Abbie
Consider first the right. Emerson was in many ways a profoundly conservative thinker, but few
conservatives in 21st century America can have any sympathy with his thought. A Unitarian minister in
his youth and a deeply spiritual person on his own terms, he was no Christian, and his America was no
Christian nation. No religion, he believed, could relieve you of the burden of thinking out every situation
for yourself. And though he had as rigorous an ethics as any thinker that ever wrote, he attacked all
attempts to legislate morality as useless and arrogant.
Emerson was what today would be called a "peace activist," and he emerged from a New England
atmosphere of radical pacifism. He would have condemned neo-conservative war-mongering and
expansionism as simply, obviously evil.
Emerson continually expressed his own connection to the despised and excluded. The American
conservatives who might call themselves "individualists" worship at the altar of Ayn Rand and her
acolytes. They extol materialism, competition, even greed: they believe all human interactions come
down to cash. Emerson would have found them vicious: his economics and politics were based on the
reality of connection between all people and between all people and the earth.
Now the left. Certainly in his own time Emerson was regarded as a radical leftist. But the intervening
decades have produced a mainstream American left with no remaining connection to this tradition.
"Progressive" solutions to social problems are programmatic and involve massive bureaucratic
surveillance and regulation of every aspect of the lives of Americans. This is true of progressive
approaches to education, to health care, to firearms, to tobacco, to poverty, to race, to the
Emerson would have regarded these approaches as a disastrous distraction from individual
conviction and responsibility, an attempt to clone sheep from human cells.
If there are any elements of American political life that can claim a connection to Emerson and hence
to the basic American political and philosophical tradition, they are at the fringes: anti-capitalist
anarchists who listen to punk rock and fight war and the World Trade Organization in the name of wild
freedom; anti-Rand libertarians who think people are capable of love as well as greed, and want to let
people go and see what creativity, improvisation, and generosity of spirit can do.
I wonder who, among American public figures or political commentators, could endorse something
like this (from the essay "Politics"), not to say write it: "Wild liberty develops iron conscience. Want of
liberty, by strengthening law and decorum, stupefies conscience. . . . While I do what is fit for me, and
abstain from what is unfit, my neighbor and I shall often agree on our means, and work together for a
time to one end. But whenever I find myself not sufficient for me, and undertake the direction of him
also, I overstep the truth, and come into false relations to him. . . . Love and nature cannot maintain this
assumption: it must be executed by a practical lie, namely by force.
"We live in a very low state of the world, and pay unwilling tribute to governments founded on force.
There is not, among the most religious and instructed men of the most religious and civil nations, a
reliance on moral sentiment, and a sufficient belief in the unity of things to persuade them that society
can be maintained without artificial restraints, as well as the solar system; or that the private citizen might
be reasonable, and a good neighbor, without the hint of a jail or of a confiscation."
The truth is, the American left and the American right are equally committed to the "practical lie," to
morality enforced by the gun, to tax codes backed by huge belligerent machineries of enforcement, to
the idea that the state and the corporation can think for you and constrain you to live as they decree.
That there could be a politics of self-reliance, freedom, and love rather than regulation and self-aggrandizement: that was the hope of Emerson's America. In two hundred years, we have come very,
Crispin Sartwell's most recent book is "End of Story: Toward an Annihilation of Language and
History." Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org