Mad Dogs and Transcendentalists

How the individualism of Emerson and Thoreau differs from today’s libertarianism

David Cabrera (Flickr/linkogecko)
David Cabrera (Flickr/linkogecko)

In mid-November 1848, a mad dog was on the loose in Concord, Massachusetts. Roaming freely on the edge of town, the distracted animal posed an immediate threat to livestock and people. Rabies drove the poor creature to lunge at the hogs in one barnyard, bite several dogs in the village, and attack three or four people before it was finally shot dead. In its wake a “great excitement” spread through the town, for nobody knew how many other dogs were now infected with the virus of “hydrophobia.” So anxious were the inhabitants that 21 of them banded together and petitioned the town to establish a board of health, with the power “to destroy all the dogs in the town as nuisances and causes of sickness.” Among their number was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the philosopher of individualism, who was rapidly gaining a national reputation as the Concord Sage.

Why would a thinker renowned for love of nature and skepticism of government endorse so extreme a measure? In Emerson’s view, presented in Boston and Concord eight years earlier, “the less government we have, the better; the fewer laws, the less confided power.” For millennia, people had mistakenly believed that the state was superior to the individual, and in that conviction, they had subordinated themselves to laws and institutions not of their own choosing. Only now, with the rise of democracy, founded on faith in the infinite worth of every person, were they coming to see their error. The individual held the key to the advancement of humankind. “To educate the wise man the state exists and with the appearance of the wise man the state expires.” In the ideal society, the state would wither away, as its constituents became laws unto themselves, cultivating their character and perfecting their intellect, without any authority telling them what to do.

Here was a vision grounded in the belief that voluntary persuasion, not government coercion, should guide public policy. At its most expansive, Emerson’s rhetoric would seem to culminate in the unbridled libertarianism that so many Americans invoke today to resist mask mandates and required vaccinations. To millions of their fellow citizens, these antagonists of public health requirements are incomprehensible. In their insistence on freedom of choice, how can they fail to recognize that their own behavior affects others, that if they catch the virus, it is not their problem alone but that of everyone who has been in their presence, intentionally or not? The case for mass vaccination rests upon the premise that we are all bound together, hostage to each other’s fortunes (and germs) in the case of threats that no one can combat alone, and ethically obligated to come to our neighbors’ assistance when their—and our—survival is at stake.

It is this very notion of society as a mutual defense pact that Emerson and his erstwhile protégé Henry David Thoreau called into question. In his famous essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” composed to justify his refusal to pay taxes for an aggressive war to expand the immoral empire of slavery, Thoreau bewailed the lack of manhood among his countrymen. Rather than stand up for what was right, the typical white American male deferred to the prevailing powers. From cradle to grave he was habituated to look to others for support. His “first and chief concern, on coming into the world, is to see that the alms-houses are in good repair,” lest he someday fall in need. Even before he weds, he raises funds for “the widows and orphans that may be.” No cause is sufficient to risk his livelihood or safety. The American conformist “ventures to live only by the aid of the Mutual Insurance company, which has promised to bury him decently.” What we call a safety net was, for the Transcendentalist, a screen from reality and a trap for the conscience.

The individualism of Emerson and Thoreau was not a precursor of 21st-century libertarianism. But the two outlooks do bear remarkable resemblances in their rhetoric and in the social contexts in which they emerged. By now, it is commonplace to blame contemporary indifference to a common good on the corruption of modern communications: the disinformation campaigns on social media, the cacophony of unfiltered opinions, the weakening of gatekeepers, the suspicion of authority, the erosion of community, and the conflation of public opinion with consumer choice. Similar forces lay behind the social transformation of New England during the second quarter of the 19th century, even in Concord, Massachusetts, the small town of 2,000 souls that Emerson claimed as home in 1835.

John Adams once posited that the Massachusetts way of life rested upon a quartet of local agencies—town and church, militia and schools—embracing and serving all. To that list a fifth entity could be added: the neighborhood tavern. These institutions professed to be inclusive; in practice, access was restricted to those with the right credentials. By the 1820s, town meeting welcomed adult male taxpayers to participate in self-government; women, paupers, and transients watched from the wings. The Congregationalist establishment strove to gather all inhabitants together on the Sabbath; dissenters were free to worship elsewhere, though their taxes often went to the official church. Militia training was mandatory for able-bodied men aged 16 to 60; clergymen and Harvard students were exempt, while free Blacks were excluded. Common schools furnished elementary instruction for boys and girls (the latter for briefer times) at public expense; Boston reserved such education for whites only. Finally, village taverns opened their doors to all, but as social lines sharpened, some appealed to workingmen and others served the carriage trade.

Despite these omissions and proscriptions, an ethic of interdependence hung on in the New England countryside. Cooperative practices persisted: farmers “exchanged works,” trading labor and tools to assist one another in plowing, hoeing, and gathering crops; women joined together in sewing clothes and making quilts, often for the benefit of needy sisters. The fall harvest was a time to celebrate God’s providence, nature’s bounty, and neighborly ties, with dancing and drinking to ease the tedium of husking corn and skinning apples. The village stores were themselves centers of sociability. Customers haggled with merchants over the price of goods, with agreements sealed over a glass of toddy (at the trader’s expense) and payment often deferred for months, at no interest. In this close community, people resided in clusters of kin and followed a code of neighborliness. Blacks did so as well as whites; in the generation following the end of slavery in Massachusetts, they gathered in small settlements on the fringes of the towns. Hardly anyone lived alone, whatever their color; no one, that is, with any choice in the matter.

For all the holes in the fabric of community, the magistrates and ministers of Massachusetts continued to invoke the same Christian vision that John Winthrop had originally laid out for the Puritan “City upon a Hill” in his lay sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” Theirs would be a “community of perils,” the members bound to assist one another in coping with the trials and travails sure to afflict the frontier settlement. The very differences among them in wealth and ability were indispensable to this end. Diversity made for interdependence, with each contributing to the well-being of all. In this “Mutual Insurance company,” as Thoreau derisively termed it in “Civil Disobedience,” individuals cultivated a “sensibleness and sympathy of each other’s conditions,” a “desire and endeavor, to strengthen, defend, preserve and comfort the other.”

Two hundred years later, Concord’s minister, Ezra Ripley, step-grandfather of Waldo Emerson, was still preaching from the same book. Ordained in 1778, the parson occupied the pulpit for 62 years, during which he composed and delivered some 2,500 sermons, which invariably instructed listeners in the “social virtues and moral duties.” In the gospel according to Ripley, the fundamental value was community. “Who could live alone and independent?” he asked the congregation. “Who but some disgusted hermit or half crazy enthusiast will say to society, I have no need of thee; I am under no obligation to my fellow-men?” The good life consisted of living thickly among family and neighbors, subject to the support and supervision of common institutions. Maintaining community required active, continuous effort. “Order and regularity” were essential to every institution. “A community of people grown up without government, without the habits of subordination, could not subsist with any order, virtue, or happiness.”

Even as the minister rang changes on the theme of community, the parishioners were turning away from the customs of the past. On the farm, many heeded the advice of agricultural reformers and abandoned traditional practices. “Changing works” was now deemed inefficient; neighbors spent more time exchanging gossip than labor. Husking bees could degenerate into drunken frolics, costing the poor hosts as much in rum and biscuits and damaged crops as they gained in shucked ears of corn. If a man needed a job done, he should hire the help or do it himself. The country store cut back on the free drinks and imposed new terms for purchases; subject to demands for cash from urban wholesalers, they bought and sold goods for fixed prices and expected prompt payment. The temperance movement assailed the ubiquity of “ardent spirits” in everyday life and targeted the alehouse for elimination. Instead of sharing the village news over drinks with neighbors, respectable folk stayed at home, where they soberly read the newspapers.

In one sphere of life after another, Concordians disengaged from their neighbors and withdrew into enclaves of the like-minded. Tiring of Ezra Ripley’s dry sermons and seeking a more strenuous spirituality, Elizabeth, Jane, and Maria Thoreau, the writer’s aunts, led a little band of dissenters out of the First Parish and into a Calvinist congregation of their own. The New England ideal of one town, one church, gave way to demands for individual choice. Massachusetts ended its religious establishment in 1834; three years later five denominations were competing for adherents in Concord.

The democratic ideal of common schools, where children of the rich and the poor would learn side by side, faltered, too. Elite parents launched a private academy, where their sons and daughters could obtain a superior education, beyond the reach of workingmen’s purses. The Thoreau children could afford the tuition only if one sibling attended at a time. Henry David bided his time in the public grammar school until older brother, John, completed his term in the academy.

Common people enacted their own secession from irksome duties. At a time of peace, numerous men resented the obligation to turn out for militia training a couple times a year. In growing numbers, they skipped the mandatory drills and risked fines for nonattendance. In 1840 Massachusetts put an end to its centuries-old arrangement for an armed citizenry. Military service became a voluntary act. Inherited institutions and involuntary associations were no longer in favor; the premium in the 1830s and 1840s was on individual autonomy and voluntary choice.

Abandoning older modes of association and distant from one another, small-town Yankees lived in a fluid society, with so many strangers passing through and so many natives on the move in search of opportunity that it was ever-more difficult to know the neighbors. No wonder politics took on a sharper edge and eventually polarized into an arena for bitter partisan conflict. Democrats and Whigs battled for power, each accusing the other of endangering liberty and betraying the republic. The party press spoke to the converted in slogans and attacks designed to bring the faithful to the polls. Conspiracy theories abounded. So close was the contest in Concord that the rivals tried to disqualify each other’s voters and bankrupt the opponent’s press. Emerson was disgusted at the sight: “that ill thing vain & loud which writes lying newspapers, spouts at caucuses & sells its lies for gold” was demagoguery, not democracy. Even so, in the presidential election of 1840, every registered voter turned out.

How to comprehend the erosion of community? Despondent over the relentless contention among “his people” and the opposition to his leadership, Ezra Ripley could only complain that “with more than a few, it has been too much the practice of neighbors and fellow citizens to live like strangers, and to cherish little or no sympathy for one another.” The bromides could not heal the rifts. People struggled for new ways to make sense of the changes they had wrought in their lives. Few New Englanders urged the imposition of new constraints over the individual (though in much of the nation, Blacks suffered this fate). Democrats and Whigs championed free trade and the right to pursue economic self-interest (though they disagreed over the role of the state). Advocates for liberty of conscience defended the principle of religious choice.

But Transcendentalists put forward a broader, more idealistic case for individual freedom. As Emerson saw it, every aspect of religion and society was in flux. Nothing—not the church, not government, not the laws, not commerce, not education, not even the home—could be set in stone. Everything was “in perpetual flux,” and if individuals were to thrive, they would need to trust themselves and navigate the waves of change by and for themselves. Let every person seek out the divine spark within; let each realize the creative, spiritual powers within the self and express them to the fullest. The wider society would benefit in ways that could not be foreseen.

In their perfectionist outlook, the Transcendentalists thought every child was something new under the sun, with an untapped potential for creativity that could not be prescribed or channeled in advance but could be trusted to further the progress of humankind. This vision was democratic and egalitarian. As Emerson remarked, once the principle took hold that “every man has within him somewhat really divine,” ancient hierarchies and entrenched inequalities would collapse, and “the unpardonable outrage of slavery” would meet an immediate end. Let individuals learn to “reverence” themselves and heed the “voice of Reason” within; the “citizen” would then be elevated into a “state.” Emerson upended the priorities that had guided past societies from time immemorial and affirmed a credo of individualism that is now an American faith. Previous generations, he pronounced, “acted and spoke under the thought that a shining social prosperity was the aim of men, and compromised ever the individuals to the nation. The modern mind teaches (in extremes) that the nation exists for the individual; for the guardianship and education of every man.”

Yet, the individualism of Emerson and Thoreau was far too radical for their neighbors, not to mention fellow Transcendentalists, who experimented with social forms and founded such alternative communities as Brook Farm to facilitate the growth of individuals as free and equal beings. In Concord, earnest young people were drawn to Emerson’s message—the restlessness with inherited ways, the perception of the divine in nature, the desire for an authentic self, the excitement of widening intellectual horizons, the hopes of social reform. Transcendentalism inspired the rising generation of Thoreau and his contemporaries as they came of age in New England and the North in the 1830s and 1840s. It even reached well beyond Concord and inspired free men and women of color—activists for freedom—in leading cities of the North. But the moment was short-lived, as few in Concord and its environs could turn away from the imperative of being “useful” to society.

The libertarianism of the Transcendentalists was simply too selfish for most Concordians. The townspeople had listened too long and absorbed too well the message from the pulpit that they were “moral and social beings” with duties to their fellow men and women.  Each voluntary association affirmed a higher social purpose. “Every member of the community is obliged to seek and promote the public good,” declared the constitution of the Charitable Library Society. “It is the duty of every one, as far as in his power, to relieve the wants of the indigent and the distressed,” said the Female Charitable Society. The rules for the schools were progressive; with a child-centered curriculum stressing learning by doing, exposure to up-to-date knowledge, and discouragement of corporal punishment, public education embraced a mission “to bring all the powers and faculties of our nature to the highest perfection of which they are capable.” But the development of the individual was not an end in itself, as the school committee explained in its 1830 code of regulations. It was the means to “qualify us for the greatest usefulness in the world” as well as “for the eternal enjoyments of heaven.”

This social ethic sustained a local political culture with a strong regard for the common good. Despite the intense polarization between Democrats and Whigs, town government was capable of overcoming partisan divisions and taking robust action at moments of crisis. Whenever cases of smallpox broke out, local authorities took quick steps under state law to isolate the sick, often in “pest houses” at a safe remove from neighbors, and to keep them under quarantine until the illness was over. In 1832, some two years before Emerson arrived, the town launched a campaign to inoculate anybody “who may desire it” against the dread disease, and it hired a physician to visit each of the schoolhouses to vaccinate vulnerable children. Nobody requested an exemption, and should any pupils be absent on the appointed day, the doctor was directed to seek them out at home. Similar precautions were taken to protect the inhabitants against cholera. It was thus in keeping with long precedent that the townsmen, Emerson included, were prepared to protect themselves against rabies by euthanizing the canine population.

One resident, future Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Simon Brown, acted on his own, after his dog Trim had contact with the rabid stray. Though Trim showed no symptoms, he was kept on a leash in the barn for a couple days, utterly miserable, until Brown concluded to put him down. “Alas, poor Trim! We all feel that we have lost a good friend. He has been with us seven years, and had become one of the family.”

Despite his copious journals, Emerson never made any reference to the matter, but later in life he would become a founding director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. As it turned out, the town declined to authorize extreme measures; instead, it imposed a series of controls, including dog licenses, with each animal required to wear a collar bearing its owner’s name, and mandatory muzzles “to prevent biting.”

The rabies scare of 1848 illuminates the community context in which Emerson and Thoreau issued their expansive calls for “self-reliance.” For all their challenges to authority, whether in the state or in the home, they had no problem with government when it acted as an “expedient” for practical purposes and did not obligate individuals to violate their conscience, as was the case with the sordid Mexican War. Thoreau’s ideal government was one in which “the governed are most let alone by it,” but for the time being he demanded “at once a better government,” rather than none at all. Such a government could justifiably build roads, fund libraries and lyceums, and set aside land for what would become national parks. The Transcendentalist even suggested that dissenters should be cherished by the state as an early warning system of impending disasters from unjust laws. “Why does [the American government] not encourage its citizens to put out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?”

So pervasive was the ethic of interdependence that Emerson and Thoreau argued, implicitly, for the social utility of dissent, even for a minority of one. Unlike today’s libertarians, they argued for an ideal of individual creativity and self-realization, in the confidence that in the end, each person could find a way to benefit the community as a whole. If only the resisters to public health measures could make such a case.

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Robert A. Gross’s The Transcendentalists and Their World has just been published. His first book, The Minutemen and Their World, won the 1977 Bancroft Prize.


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