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Gary M. Galles - Contributor

Mr. Galles is a professor of econmics at Pepperdine University. [go to Galles index]

The Sage of Concord’s Legacy
Remembering Emerson...
[Gary M. Galles] 4/27/04

April 27 marks the 1882 death of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The Sage of Concord” was a major poet and influence on 19th century America, who has been described as “the outstanding representative of romantic symbolism in the English speaking world.”

Emerson was not just a poet and essayist, however. He emphasized individualism and challenged traditional authority. He worked for women’s rights and against slavery. According to scholar Barbara Solowey, “He inspired many of the best minds of his age to quest for authentic freedom...[and] embodied much of what is noblest and most admirable in our national character.”

Emerson can still inspire us with his defense of liberty.


Wild liberty develops iron conscience. Want of liberty…stupefies conscience.

...the times favor the idea of self-government, and leave the the rewards and penalties of his own constitution...

Of persons, all have equal rights...

We want...a state of things which allows every man the largest liberty compatible with the liberty of every other man.

...Liberty is the Crusade of all brave and conscientious men...

A man's right to liberty is as inalienable as his right to life.

We offer liberty instead of chains...

If any person have less love of liberty...shall he therefore dictate to you and me?

...liberty is an accurate index, in men and nations, of general progress.

It is not skill in iron locomotives that makes so fine civility, as the jealousy of liberty.

A nation of men unanimously bent on freedom...can easily confound the arithmetic of statists, and achieve extravagant actions, out of all proportion to their means...

Government and Liberty

…[the State’s] institutions...are not superior to the citizen...

Man exists for his own sake and not to add a laborer to the State.

Who is he that shall control me?...Who has forged the chains... and must I wear them?

…whenever I find my dominion over myself not sufficient for me, and undertake the direction of him also... it must be executed by a practical lie, namely, by force. This undertaking for another, is the blunder which stands in colossal ugliness in the governments of the world.

This is the history of governments--one man does something which is to bind another. A man who cannot be acquainted with me, taxes me; looking from afar at me, ordains that a part of my labor shall go to this or that whimsical end, not as I, but as he happens to fancy.

…[many] believe…any measure, though it were absurd, may be imposed on a people, if only you can get sufficient voices to make it a law. But the wise know that foolish legislation is a rope of sand...

...statesmen...are sure to be found befriending liberty with their words, and crushing it with their votes.

We live in a very low state of the world, and pay unwilling tribute to governments founded on force...[all] have been partial reformers, and have admitted in some manner the supremacy of the bad State.

Every actual State is corrupt. Good men must not obey the laws too well.

…necessity…secures the rights of person and property against the malignity or folly of the magistrate...

...what is the use of constitutions, if all the guaranties provided by the jealousy of ages for the protection of liberty are made of no effect, when a bad act of Congress finds a willing commissioner?

Hence, the less government we have, the better--the fewer laws, and the less confided power. The antidote to this abuse of formal Government is…the growth of the Individual...

We must not imagine that all things are lapsing into confusion...nor doubt that roads can be built, letters carried, and the fruit of labor secured, when the government of force is at an end.

Emerson’s admirers praise him as a writer and poet, and the freedom of expression he stood for. Yet we should remember his devotion to all our freedoms. He recognized that “Every step in the history of political liberty is a sally of the human mind into the untried Future,” but had confidence that “the great interests of mankind, being at every moment through ages in favor of justice and the largest liberty, will last win the day. CRO

copyright 2004 Gary M. Galles




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