The Motives of Emancipated Prose
Whilst I insist on the doctrine of the independence and the inspiration
of the individual, I do not cripple but exalt the social action … to
each man the largest liberty compatible with the liberty of every other
man. No citizen will go wrong who upon any question leans to the
side of general liberty.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Lecture on Slavery”
One may without presumption believe that even if Emerson has no
system, nonetheless he is the prophet and herald of any system which
democracy may henceforth construct and hold by, and that when de-
mocracy has articulated itself, it will have no difficulty in finding itself
already proposed in Emerson.
John Dewey, “Ralph Waldo Emerson”
In the 1840s and 1850s, as his involvement in the abolitionist movement grew more intense, Emerson recognized a distinction between what he most often thought of as democratic and aristocratic linguistic structure and, more specifically, how the “democratic” structures—or what he often simply called “the forms”—were highly dependent on a collaborating reader. A reader who took advantage of the contingency of language could, in a sense, turn reading into a form of writing. Likewise, a writer could encourage this possibility latent in the act of reading by emphasizing the contingent nature of his or her writing. The result would be a text that functioned like a symbolic republic: “It is our republican doctrine,” Emerson wrote, “that the wide variety of opinions is an advantage … a living soul contending with living souls. It is, in every expression, an-