Robinson Woodward-Burns: Emerson on Mobbing, War, and Abolition

Statue of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1905)

Robinson Woodward-Burns: “Rethinking Self-Reliance: Emerson on Mobbing, War, and Abolition”


JMC fellow Robinson Woodward-Burns has recently written an article for Journal of Politics on Ralph Waldo Emerson and his concept of self-reliance:

A famous proponent of solitude and self-reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson rejected the conformity of Jacksonian mobs and mass parties for solitary nature walks, and so has long been read as an antipolitical figure. Recent scholars have reinterpreted Emersonian self-reliance to include extralegal boycotts of slave-made goods and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act. This essay takes these accounts a step further, arguing that Emerson saw that some forms of extralegal cooperative action were compatible with self-reliance. Specifically, self-reliance requires contemplating and then acting on personal moral rules. As Northern crowds rallied to rescue and harbor fugitive slaves, Emerson saw that joining an abolitionist crowd allowed unconventional debate and intellectual self-reliance and created a space to act on one’s personal principles, encouraging active self-reliance. Union enlistment similarly let free Blacks and antislavery Northerners enact their principles and achieve a measure of self-reliance. Paradoxically, self-reliance can sometimes be achieved through common action.

Access the piece at the University of Chicago Press >>



Robinson Woodward-Burns is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Howard University, where he researches American constitutional thought and development, focusing on civil rights, federalism, slavery, abolitionism, and transcendentalism. He has published on American constitutionalism in The Journal of Politics, Polity, The Maryland Law Review, The Tulsa Law Review, and The Washington Post. His first book, Hidden Laws: How State Constitutions Stabilize American Politics, will be published in 2021 by Yale University Press.

Professor Woodward-Burns is a JMC fellow.

Learn more about Robinson Woodward-Burns >>



Facebook iconTwitter iconFollow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates about lectures, publications, podcasts, and events related to American political thought, United States history, and the Western political tradition!



Want to help the Jack Miller Center transform higher education? Donate today.