Self-Reliance and Slavery in the Works of Frederick Douglass and Emerson

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Frederick Douglass and Self-Reliance

They also have a right to be helped, for they have helped themselves. Only who is able to stand alone is qualified to be a citizen. Even though Emerson treated this as a low priority instead of a high priority, he just did not have any respect for the government during that time. Massachusetts, in its heroic days, had no government and was anarchy. He did not believe in moral suasion; he believed in putting things through.

Abandonment of Self-Reliance: Emerson and Anti-Slavery

George Kateb did not take Emerson’s anti-slavery activities seriously but saw them as the abandonment of self-reliance, suspension of individualism in favor of mobilization, military discipline, and eventually conscripted self-sacrifice. Emerson’s philosophy is self-reliant thinking, a willingness to suspend all authorities and fixed intellectual positions and simultaneously entertain multiple and conflicting moral perspectives without choosing among them. Douglass felt that by far, the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves, thus, ignorant. Douglass stated that he did not remember to have ever met a slave. Douglass asked who could tell of his/her birthday.

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They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry time, spring-time, or fall-time. Douglass stated that the master is frequently compelled to sell this class of his slaves out of deference to the feelings his white wife, and, cruel as the deed may strike anyone to be, for a man to sell his children to human flesh-mongers, it is often the dictate of humanity for him to do so, for unless he does this, he must not only whip them himself, but must stand by and see one white son tie up his brother, of but few shades darker complexion than himself, and play the gory lash to his naked back; and if he lisps one word of disapproval, it is set down to his parental partiality and only makes a bad matter worse, both for himself and the slaves whom he would protect and defend.

Self-Trust and Consistency: Emerson’s Paradox

Emerson stated in “Self-Reliance” that men do what is called a good action as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world as invalids. The insane pay a high board. It is harder because you will always find those who think they know what your duty is better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion. It is easy in solitude to live after ours, but the great man is he who, in the midst of the crowd, keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency, a reverence for one past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loth to disappoint them. But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat what you have stated in this or that public place? I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being, as the inequalities of Andes and Himmaleh are insignificant in the curve of the sphere.

Beyond Conformity: Douglass’s Struggle for Identity

Emerson stated that ordinarily, everybody in society reminds us of someone else or of some other person. Character and body in society remind you of nothing else; it takes the place of the whole creation. The man reality reminds you of nothing else; it takes the place of the whole creation. The man must be so much that he must make all circumstances indifferent. The man in the street finding no worth in himself, which corresponds to the force that built a tower or sculptured a marble god, feels poor when he looks at these. To him, a palace, a statue, or a costly book has an alien and forbidding air, much like a gay equipage, and seems to say like that, “Who are you, Sir?”

This one fact the world hates is that the soul becomes one that forever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to shame confounds the saint with the rogue, and shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside. Man does not stand in awe of man, nor is his genius admonished to stay at home, to put itself in communication with the internal ocean, but it goes aboard to beg a cup of water from the urns of other men. We must go alone. I like the silent church before the service begins better than any preaching.  Douglass stated that he often found himself regretting his existence and wishing that he was dead, but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt that he should have killed himself or done something for which he should have been killed.


  1. Emerson, R. W. (1995). Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems. Bantam Classics.
  2. Kateb, G. (2002). Emerson and Self-Reliance. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  3. Perkins, G. (2009). The American Tradition in Literature, Volume 1: Colonial Period Through Whitman. McGraw-Hill Education.

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Self-Reliance and Slavery in the Works of Frederick Douglass and Emerson. (2023, Aug 30). Retrieved from

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