Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle on Slavery: Transatlantic Dissentions and Philosophical Connections
de Galzain, Alice, Sophie
Reflecting upon the fundamental role of public intellectuals in the nineteenth century, this dissertation focuses on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle’s epistolary friendship and examines their respective stances on slavery. More specifically, this study aims to think comparatively about how and why these intellectuals sought to present themselves as national representatives of American and British major philosophical movements and reflects upon the transatlantic dissentions of their times regarding the abolition of slavery. In fact, this dissertation looks at American abolitionism as a key element of a transnational dialogue between the “Old” and “New” world: while debunking the widespread assumption that Emerson and Carlyle were intellectual polar opposites, this study also analyzes the similarities of their philosophies. My argument falls into three parts: first, I demonstrate that both Emerson’s and Carlyle’s attitudes towards slavery were strongly influenced by economic arguments. On the one hand, Emerson advocated civil freedom while simultaneously recognizing the economic benefits of free labor. On the other, Carlyle’s defense of slavery was based on the belief that the master/slave relationship offered more stability than laissez-faire economics’ unstable work-relations. Secondly, I analyze both authors’ stances on government and democracy: I argue that both Romantic authors believed in the necessity of a ruling elite. Chronologically framed by the years of the American Civil War, my last chapter analyzes Emerson and Carlyle’s major crisis and examines their divergent views on the abolition of slavery in the United States.