American History

HISTORY TODAY 1803: Essayist, Philosopher & Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson Reflections Based on Spirituality & Virtue

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Ace Press News From Cutting Room Floor: Published: May.28: 2023:

#AceHistoryDesk – Today in History – Essayist, philosopher, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston on May 25, 1803.

Ralph Waldo Emerson… c1884. Prints & Photographs Division

Son and grandson of Protestant divines, Emerson attended Harvard College and Harvard Divinity School, entering the Unitarian ministry in 1829.

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion;…The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance.” In Essays, First Series. Boston: James Munroe & Company, 1841. p. 38none

A popular, if unconventional preacher, young Emerson’s sermons consisted of personal reflections on spirituality and virtue.


He avoided expounding doctrine or engaging in scriptural exegesis. Increasingly dissatisfied with traditional protestant theology, Emerson resigned from the ministry in 1832. By the end of the decade, however, he was the leading exponent of transcendentalism, a philosophy that maintains the universality of creation, upholds the intrinsic goodness of man, and grounds truth in personal insight.

From the 1830s on, Emerson and a group of like-minded thinkers including Bronson AlcottMargaret FullerHenry David Thoreau, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody were based in Concord, Massachusetts. The transcendentalist community at Concord not only shared radical religious views, but also embraced forward-looking social reforms including abolition, temperance, and woman suffrage.

Emerson lived in his family home, The Old Manse, for one year, where he completed his manifesto, Nature (1836), and composed the poem “Concord Hymn” (1837) which commemorates the Revolutionary War battle with its phrase, “And fired the shot heard round the world.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife later rented the Old Manse.) A prolific writer and thinker, Emerson’s collected essays earned international acclaim, and, for decades, he remained a popular lecturer.

The Old Manse, Concord. c1900. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division
By the time of his death in 1882, the eighty-year-old radical was heralded as the “Sage of Concord.”Home of Emerson, Concord, Mass. Cosmos Pictures Co., N.Y., 1905. Prints & Photographs Division
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