Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Anglo-Saxonist Theory of Despair
In his 1854 address on the Fugitive Slave Act, Ralph Waldo Emerson criticizes pro-compromise Northern Whigs for basing their politics on a theory of “despair.” Lambasting the Compromise of 1850 for its torpid attempt to decelerate the consolidation of the Democracy Party, Emerson insists that political forces are not inevitable and that self-reliant political action is the antidote to such politics of despair. Investigating Emerson’s critique of political despair—along with the individualist theory, most fully articulated in “Self-Reliance,” that undergirds it—enables critical recontextualization of an emergent topic in Emerson scholarship: Anglo-Saxonism. Anglo-Saxonism, the nineteenth-century race theory that linked national identity and fate to mythic conceptions of Anglo-Saxon bloodlines and supremacy, informs Emerson’s theorization of racial determinism in texts such as English Traits and “Fate.” And in recent decades, critics and historians have begun to view Emerson’s Anglo-Saxonism as a logical extension of his individualist thought. This paper, however, argues that Emerson’s Anglo-Saxonism represents as despairing departure from self-reliant political action, rather than a manifestation of it. When Emerson explains history and fate in Anglo-Saxonist terms—employing weak rationalizations of supposedly inevitable historical circumstances—despair over the inadequacy of agency is often nearby. In place of individual agency, Emerson substitutes justifications for domination and mythic alternative realities.