The Growth of American Thought

By Merle Curti | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XV New Goals for Democracy

The triumph of reform is sounding through the world for a revolution of all human affairs. . . . Already is the ax laid at the root of that spreading tree, whose trunk is idolatry, whose branches are covetousness, war, and slavery, whose blossom is concupiscence, whose fruit is hate. Planted by Beelzebub, it shall be rooted up. Reformers are metallic; they are sharpest steel; they pierce whatsoever of evil or abuse they touch.

-- The Dial, 1841

And yet we have reformers--yea, they swarm
Like bees in summer, pleased with the hum
Of their own insignificance, tho' no harm
Come from their stings, for they are silent, dumb;
Where they should cry loudest, their snarling word,
Save in their own praise, is weak, and therefore unheard.

-- SAMUEL BENJAMIN JUDAH, 1823

"What is a man born for," asked Emerson, "but to be a Reformer, a Remaker of what man has made . . . imitating that great Nature which embosoms us all, and which sleeps no moment on an old past, but every hour repairs herself, yielding us every morning a new day, and with every pulsation a new life?"1 In these words the popular lyceum lecturer from Concord expressed a central tenet in the reform philosophy which inspired men and women in their efforts to reform dress and diet in the interest of universal health, to uproot capital punishment and imprisonment for debt, slavery, intemperance, war, and prostitution, and to agitate for the full rights of women, the humane treatment of the insane and the criminal, and even for the overthrow of such venerable institutions as the family, private property, and the state itself. In another mood, to be sure, Emerson half-

____________________
1
Man the Reformer, The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson ( Houghton Mifflin Company, 1892), I, 236.

-368-

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