Emerson: The Iconoclastic Spontaneist and Proto-Georgist Economist

Cay Hehner, Ph.D.
Director, Henry George School, New York, NY

[A paper delivered at the Henry George School/Birthplace Museum,
Philadelphia, PA, 25 September, 2010]

Voices against Emerson

The most common perception of Ralph Waldo Emerson is that he comes out of some kind of theological lala land with no grip whatsoever on reality, that he was a failed Unitarian minister who had to make a living giving talks along the New England Coast on "everything and nothing", who married a tubercular patient who promptly died on him, and who later engaged in some kind of intellectual tourism prying into the life and works of eminent Europeans, a kind of Larry King or Charlie Rose of the Romantic Age, who had the bad luck on top of everything else that TV had not been invented yet. A kind of seducer of youth, most notably the young, unbalanced Thoreau and Whitman who got further unhinged through the exposure to the master's presence and writing. A pre-hippy-age hippy with a better barber who would anticipate and model all the mistakes that were made in the 60s and 70s, foolish nature-worship, country commune life of questionable morality, incitation to civil disobedience and insurrection, condoning of all manner of misfits and precursors of the gay liberation movement. Generations of popular, literary and philosophic recipients have followed Hawthorne and Melville's verdict that the Transcendentalist Club founded by Emerson was an unfounded and dangerous aberration of the human spirit: Mad Captain Ahab's obsession with the white whale Moby Dick and the Captain's consequent demise, the phoney spooks and ghouls in the House of the Seven Gables and their inevitable exposure as frauds and inheritance thieves, this is what the Transcendentalists' quest for the Absolute amounted to and their unquestionable downfall, in Melville's and Hawthorne's mind, would be equally calamitous and well deserved. So much may be said by way of introduction for the later 19th and 20th century reception of Emerson and his renegade Unitarian School. It is also just possible - but only just so - that Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson and their like-minded peers were up to something that our friends, the afore-mentioned realists-pragmatists-materialists in the Melville-Hawthorne mode had in themselves as well, but that they obstinately refused to recognize! This presentation will explore a side of Emerson that is rarely brought to the fore and that appears decidedly untranscendental in its major aspects, namely those elements of his spiritual experience and thought that deal with the nuts and bolts of existence: house husbandry, agriculture, botany, microeconomics and macroeconomics, ecology, the science of government, Emerson's hands-on, Machiavellian side if you wish and the rare image of Emerson seen as a proto-Georgist Classical Economist.

Emerson's Criticism of Classical Economics

It seems odd of such an ethereal character and luftmensch -- as Emerson was purported to have been -- to expect any valid criticism for such meat-and-potato issues as Classical Economics, and here moreover English Classical Economics to be exact; yet surprisingly enough he takes them on in droves: Smith, Say, Ricardo, Malthus, the Younger Mill, even Carlyle, the elitist misanthropist, par excellence, explicitly named or unnamed, he takes them all on:

"There is no country in which so absolute a homage is paid to wealth. In America there is a touch of shame when a man exhibits the evidences of large property, as if after all it needed apology. But the Englishman has pure pride in his wealth, and esteems it a final certificate. A coarse logic rules throughout all English souls - if you have merit, can you not show it by your good clothes and coach and horses? … There is a mixture of religion in it. They are under the Jewish law, and read with sonorous that their days shall be long in the land, [that] they shall have sons and daughters, flocks and herds, wine and oil. In exact proportion is the reproach of poverty. They do not wish to be represented except by opulent men. An Englishman who has lost his fortune is said to have died of a broken heart. The last term of insult is, 'a beggar'. Nelson said, "The want of fortune is a crime which I can never get over." Sydney Smith said, "Poverty is infamous in England." And one of their recent writers speaks, in reference to a private and scholastic life, of "the grave moral deterioration which follows an empty exchequer."[1]

Much water has flown down the Hudson, since Emerson has written these lines a century and a half ago and methinks "the touch of shame" about wealth in our 21st century United States will have to be sought after with an extremely large magnifying glass, probably one the size of Mt. Rushmore. The worst insult that can be thrown at a man or woman in contemporary America is not "beggar" anymore, but "loser", the term is different but the impact of the insult and the economic implications are the same. The thrust of the quote, however, is clear: Poverty is a shame, a crime. We can find that exact attitude, for instance, throughout in the plays and writings of Bernard Shaw from the end of Emerson's life well into the middle of the 20th century. The further implication Emerson makes here, that for the Anglo-Saxon mind frame the poverty must needs be self-inflicted. Underlying this "shame" is the Puritan-Calvinist mind set that equals wealth with virtue and as the corresponding counterdeduction will recognize no virtue unless it is clearly and ostentatiously displayed in material riches!

What follows is a strong and distinct indictment of the British national character from our not-so-impartial overseas observer, after all the imperialist power from which the young nation had just a generation or so ago won its independence against a hefty blood toll:

"I found the two disgraces," writes Emerson, "…are first disloyalty to Church and State, and second, to be born poor, or to come to poverty. A natural fruit of England is the brutal political economy. Malthus finds no cover laid at nature's table for the laborer's son [emphasis added]. … The respect for truth of facts in England is equaled only by the respect for wealth."[2]

If we brush aside the gilded halo that has been glued onto Malthus anemic countenance as being after all the first classical economist after Adam Smith, and the first altogether to get tenured position in that nascent field, then it will have to be bluntly stated that Malthus was a hired hand of the lords and princes who were afraid that the marvelous and very hygienic proto-modern invention of the French Dr. Guillotine would cross the Channel and do its equalizing work at its level best, just as it had done in France in 1789. Malthus mission as a minister was to inculcate the lower classes with the obvious lies that riches were based on merit, not fraud and inheritance and that poverty was based on natural law. We can see that Emerson, no trained economist himself, is not deceived by any accepted expert opinion or any truist conventional wisdoms.

As the gist of the summary of the next pages Emerson, in essence, states that every British subject is a born political economist in that vein! In other words the main thrust of society goes toward trade and commerce. Many a learned and reputable writer down to the historian Arnold Toynbee or the various illustrious lecturers at the London School of Economics would attest to the same assessment later. Hitler regularly would work himself into a frenzy disdainfully calling the British "a nation of shopkeepers", however, fortunate for the rest of the world he did not completely succeed in turning the German and Prussian nation into a nation of killers, torturers and brown-shirted henchmen. By contrast a democratic "nation of shopkeepers" would be amply preferable. The U.S. in a similar manner has been called a continent of salesmen. Nothing to be said against either, however, what about the archetypical professional calling of such nations unplagued by the plight of monopolies, trusts, speculators against the people. Emerson's perspective of political economy, I think, can fairly be described as one of free-market with a level playing field. At the time Emerson was writing in the United States free access to land was a given, one of the natural rights of man not explicitly stated in the constitution, but clearly implicit therein.

Let's hear Emerson's take on the industrial revolution that had started at the end of the 18th century and was in full roar by the middle of the 19th:

"The ambition to create [economic] value evokes every kind of ability, government [itself] becomes a manufacturing corporation, and every house a mill [emphasis added]. The headlong bias of utility will let no talent lie on a napkin -- if possible it will teach spiders to weave silk stockings. An Englishman, while he eats and drinks no more or not much more than another man, labors three times as many hours in the course of a year as another European; or his life as a workman is three lives. He works fast. Everything in England is at a quick pace. They have reinforced their own productivity by the creation of that marvelous machinery which differentiates this age from any other age."[3]

The point about the inter-exchangeability of governments and large corporations is made a good six generations on by the prize-winning Canadian filmmaker Mark Achbar in his documentary The Corporation, Achbar attests both an unholy power and an uncanny insanity to legal constructs that are, after all, supposed to be fictitious. Emerson in the above-quoted passage makes reference to the Benthamian concept of utility. Emerson had met John Stuart Mill and was in continual correspondence with him; hence he was well familiar with the precepts and principles of utilitarianism. If an item, matter or activity had no practical or economic utility than it was of no importance whatsoever. Out of the window go the ride on the rainbow, Beethoven's Ninth, Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, Blake's mystic poetry, e. e. cummings, Thor Heyerdahl's Kontiki, Bellini's Casta Diva, Henry George's Law of Human Progress, Joseph Campbell's injunction "to follow your bliss" and pretty much everything else that really matters, not excluding Emerson's Essays or the Henry George Birthplace Museum. This just shows that nothing is to be gained when we hand over the rule of society to the bean-counters, or to coin a new term: beancounterocracy! (Speaking of which, I don't need to add here, that the laptop spellchecker on which this paper was written sternly admonishes the writer to refrain from using such unrecognizable terms!)

What follows is a brief recap of the developments and inventions that led to the industrial revolution and than led it on to confirm Great Britain as the world's dominant empire even after the loss of the former colonies to the U.S. Independence: "The great strides were all taken within the last hundred years. The Life of Sir Robert Peele, in his day the model Englishman, very properly has, for a frontispiece, a drawing of the spinning-jenny, which wove the web of his fortunes. Hargreaves invented the spinning-jenny, and died in a workhouse. Arkwright improved the invention, and the machine dispensed with the work of ninety-nine men; that is, one spinner could do as much work as one hundred had done before. The loom was improved further. But the men would sometimes strike for wages and combine against the masters, and about 1829-30, much fear was felt lest the trade would be drawn away by these interruptions and the emigration of the spinners to Belgium and the United States. Iron and steel are very obedient. Whether it were not possible to make a spinner that would not rebel, nor mutter, nor scowl, nor strike for wages, nor emigrate? At the solicitation of the masters, after a mob and riot at Staley Bridge, Mr. Roberts of Manchester undertook to create this peaceful fellow, instead of the quarrelsome fellow God had made."[4] So the whole allure of the march of invention, the mechanization, this kind of early Taylorism did lie in the idea for the industrialists of getting a mechanical obedient machine-slave instead of a self-assertive human worker. While Emerson's sympathies are clearly with the drive of the entrepreneur he is not blind, deaf, or insensitive to the plight of the laborer.

This historical synopsis which sings the paean of the marvelous increase in productivity, customary for 19th century writers, culminates in: "But when, added to this labor and trade and these native resources was added this goblin of steam, with his myriad arms, never tired, working night and day everlastingly, the amassing of property has run out of all figures. Forty thousand ships are entered in Lloyd's lists. The yield of wheat has gone on from 2,000,000 quarters in the time of the Stuarts to 13,000,000 in 1854. A thousand million pounds sterling are said to compose the floating money of commerce. In 1848 Lord John Russell [the British prime minister and grandfather of the philosopher Bertrand Russell] stated that the people of [Britain] had laid out 300,000,000 pound sterling of capital in railways, in the last four years [1844 - 1848]. But a better measure than these sounding figures is the estimate that there is wealth enough in England to support the entire population in idleness for one year."[5]

When I was about five years old my father explained to me that the British through their world empire had let the rest of the world work for them, and so they consequently had lost the habit and ability to work for themselves. That's why in the view of my father they were now on the verge of national bankruptcy [in 1961]. Kennedy had just been giving his Inaugural Address. You can image that I was much impressed. In case you have any doubts of this analysis you can see that the British still are on the verge of national bankruptcy half a century later and the U.S. and most other countries are trying their dandiest best to emulate them in this respect. Emerson's daring image of "enough wealth [accrued] to support the entire population in idleness for one year", of course countermands the principles of classical economics. Henry George repeatedly teaches that economic wealth has to be perpetually renewed, as society lives off on-going production and not the quantity of products made by preceding years or generations. The point here is, however, not one of the duration of time in idleness of the leisure class or rather an imperialistic "nation of leisure", but the impressive quantity of the surplus thus accumulated. According to Niall Ferguson the U.S. is trying its best to outfox Great Britain from the early 20th century in letting it's entire national product be done and financed in China. We seem to have here not a case of "hedge fund envy", Joseph Stiglitz's appraisal of what happened to smaller neighborhood banks during the financial crisis 2007 - 2009, but a rather severe case of "empire envy". According to the consensus of most cultural and civilizational historians even Great Empires go the way of all flesh … but let's continue with Emerson's critique of English classical economics. In the passage following he reflects on the power and importance of the growing financial system for productivity:

"But another machine more potent in England than steam is the Bank. It votes an issue of bills, population is stimulated and cities rise; it refuses loans, and emigration empties the country; trade sinks; revolutions break out; kings are dethroned. By these new agents our social system is moulded. By dint of steam and money, war and commerce are changed. Nations have lost their old omnipotence; the patriotic tie does not hold. Nations are getting obsolete."[6]

For having been written in the middle of the 19th century this passage is mind-bogglingly prescient of the erosion of the nation state by international finance and multinationals. In all of Marx one will look for such passages in vain; and Emerson was not even an economist. But come to think of it, neither was Marx. Emerson correctly deduces that the industrialist and the financier will "prove an overmatch for the landowner"[7] And on the power of financial capital: "The creation of wealth in England in the last ninety years is a main fact in modern history. The wealth of London determines prices all over the globe. All things precious, or useful, or amusing, or intoxicating, are sucked into this commerce and floated to London. … A hundred thousand palaces adorn the island."[8] Today over a century and a half later all of this would be true to new financial centers like Manhattan, Hong Kong or Singapore, or for resources-rich countries like Saudi Arabia. The reason why the British don't have a revolution like the French Emerson explains with their conception of property:

"With this power of creation [read: production] and this passion for independence, property has reached an ideal perfection. It is felt and treated as the national life-blood. The laws are framed to give property the securest possible basis, and the provisions to lock and transit it have exercised the cunningest heads in the profession which never admits a fool. The rights of property nothing but felony and treason can override. The house is a castle which the king cannot enter. The Bank is a strong box to which the king has no key. … Vested rights are awful things, and absolute possession gives the smallest freeholder identity of interest with the duke. High stone fences and padlocked garden-gates announce the absolute will of the owner to be alone. Every whim of exaggerated egotism is put into stone and iron, into silver and gold, with costly deliberation and detail. [emphasis added]"[9]

Emerson does not share with Adam Smith whom he had studied the latter's belief in the self-regulating power of self-interest. Neither as becomes apparent from a later passage is Emerson keen on the division of labor, with George he feels that this specialization process indispensible for the industrial revolution directly and ultimately impoverishes the soul and consciousness of man: "But man must keep an eye on his servants [read: machines], if he would not have them rule him. Man is a shrewd inventor and is ever taking the hint of a new machine from his own structure, adapting some secret of his own anatomy in iron, wood and leather to some required function in the work of the world. But it is found that the machine unmans the user. What he gains in making cloth, he loses in general power… A man should not be a silk-worm, nor a nation a tent of caterpillars [emphasis added]."[10]

This passages culminates in the rather scathing indictment: "In true England all is false or forged."[11] Industry and finance become the magic that destroys the sorcerer's apprentice, means become ends that threaten to destroy societies and nations. And Emerson ends this essay on wealth with the perennial question: "We estimate the wisdom of nations by seeing what they did with their surplus capital."

Emerson's Enlightened Economics

In Emerson's second foray into the subject of Political Economy he is more positive and guarded. Now he has in mind the democratic economy of the United States. There is a passage which describes a kind of psychology of the acquisition and dispensation of money which can be called nothing less than Gnostic:

"Money is representative, and follows the nature and fortunes of the owner. The coin is a delicate meter of civil, social and moral changes. The farmer is covetous of his dollar, and with reason. It is no waif to him. He knows now many strokes of labor it represents. His bones ache with the days' work that earned it. He knows how much land it represents -- how much rain, frost and sunshine. He knows that, in the dollar, he gives you so much discretion and patience, so much hoeing and threshing. Try to lift his dollar; you must lift all that weight. In the city, where money follows the skit of a pen or a lucky rise in exchange, it comes to be looked on as light. I wish the farmer held it dearer, and would spend it only for real bread; force for force. The farmer's dollar is heavy and the clerk's is light and nimble; leaps out of his pocket; jumps on to card and faro-tables; but still more curious is its susceptibility to metaphysical changes. It is the finest barometer of social storms, and announces revolution [emphasis added]."[13]

The conclusion that Emerson draws from these economic reflections is equally astounding: "The crime which bankrupts men and states is job-work - declining form your main design, to serve a turn here and there. Nothing is beneath you, if it is in the direction of your life; nothing is great or desirable if it is off from that … society can never prosper but must always go bankrupt, until every man does that which he was created to do."[14]

If we wanted to find a kind of lowest common denominator or a theoretical framework into which to fit Emerson's reflections on economics and wealth we would have to state:

Emerson is well aware of the source of all wealth as his two essays on the subject of nature prove. He parallels the historic philosopher G.B. Vico in that he believes man cannot truly know except what he himself created. Consequently Emerson is against the mere passing on of property,[15] resources and land are not especially excepted as is the case with Henry George, but this can likely be inferred. He is very much an advocate of free-trade and free-market like George after him, in the sense that Emerson believes property irradiates naturally through the genuine being of the individual soul and spirit and to the extent to which one stays true to that spiritual identity. He is more democratic in the most basic grass-roots sense than most political, economic or social thinkers in that he believes that all men have the capacity to live up to their innermost spiritual identity and thus to their highest economic potential, if they only find their true path and place.


Brooks Atkinson (ed.), The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson; intro. by Mary Oliver; the Modern Library New York, 2000
br> Lawrence Buell, Emerson, Harvard Univ. Press, 2003

W. Larkin, The Esoteric Emerson, NYC 1996

John McAleer, Emerson: Days of Encounter, Boston, Little, Brown, 1984

Encyclopedia Britannica, London, 1978 edition



  1. Brooks Atkinson, Mary Oliver [ed.], The Essential Writings of R.W. Emerson; The Modern Library New York, 2000, English Traits (1856), Chapter X "Wealth", p. 541. To distinguish it from the other later and longer essay on "Wealth" in Conduct of Life (1860), it will in from hereon be referred to as Wealth I, the 1860 essay will be referred to as Wealth II
  2. "Wealth I", op. cit., p. 542
  3. "Wealth I", op. cit., p. 543
  4. "Wealth I", op. cit., p. 544
  5. "Wealth I", op. cit., p. 544 - 545
  6. "Wealth I", op. cit. p. 545
  7. op. cit., same page
  8. op. cit., p. 546
  9. op. cit., p. 546-47
  10. op. cit., p. 548
  11. ibid.
  12. Wealth II, op. cit., p. 621 ff.
  13. op. cit. p. 629, 630
  14. Wealth II, op. cit., p. 635
  15. cf. the passage in the essay Politics, op. cit., p. 380