Apr 30

Emerson and Thoreau

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau the former was born in the month of May, the latter died in the fifth month. They were two great American intellectuals of the 19th Century. Intellectual is defined here. Both were authors, historians, poets, philosophers and Thoreau, dear to my heart, was a tax protester. Emerson was the elder and a mentor to Thoreau. Emerson was a strong advocate of individualism, that the individual should have precedence over the state or any social group.

“Concord Hymn” is a classic American poem written by Emerson for the dedication of the obelisk (erected in 1837) that commemorates the Battle of Concord.

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood,

And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;

Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;

And Time the ruined bridge has swept

Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On the green bank, by this soft stream,

We set to-day a votive stone;

That memory may their deed redeem,

When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare,

To die, and leave their children free,

Bid time and Nature gently spare

The shaft we raise to them and thee.

This historical verse speaks eloquently of the birth of America as a free and independent nation. It is my favorite poem by Emerson. Years ago, school children would be required to memorize and recite it. Today, sadly, most school children have never heard of it.


Both men were transcendentalists and advocates for a more simple life. Thoreau is perhaps most recognized for his book titled Walden, also known as Life In The Woods. Another of Thoreau’s powerful prose, one of my favorites and though less well known, addressed the topic of moral opposition to an unjust state. The essays titled, CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE and LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE, include these assertions: “I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living. “

Thoreau went further to say that, “America is said to be the arena on which the battle of freedom is to be fought; but surely it cannot be freedom in a merely political sense that is meant Even if we grant that the American has freed himself from a political tyrant, he is still the slave of an economical and moral tyrant.

“…What is it to be born free and not to live free? What is the value of any political freedom, but as a means to be free, of which we boast?

“…With respect to a true culture and manhood, we are essentially provincial still, not metropolitan,–mere Jonathans. We are provincial, because we do not find at home our standards, — because we do not worship truth, but the reflection of truth, — because we are warped and narrowed by an exclusive devotion to the trade and commerce and manufactures and agriculture and the like, which are but a means, and not the end.”


Resistance to tyranny, a willingness to challenge injustice and a recognition that the individual is sovereign were the foundation upon which America rose to greatness. I posit that as a nation we have strayed far from this sentiment and that is much to our detriment.

On a day when many celebrate collectivism, I offer this post in celebration of individualism.

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