December 16, 2010

Dana and a "select company"

In his journal entry for December 16, 1854, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. noted his dinner plans. The author of Two Years Before the Mast, a novel published in 1840, was among a "select company" that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, A. Bronson Alcott, and a young Franklin Benjamin Sanborn. Presumably with restraint, he concluded, "It was very agreeable."

Of Emerson, Dana recorded he was "a gentleman, never bores or preaches or dictates... and has even skill and tact in managing his conversation." He said the same of Alcott and noted, "it is quite surprising to see these transcendentalists appearing well as men of the world."

Perhaps more interesting, however, is that all these gentlemen were anti-slavery men. Dana himself had only recently defended the fugitive Anthony Burns in a trial meant to challenge the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Dana also paired with Robert Morris, an African-American lawyer; their efforts, however, were unsuccessful.

Emerson was a strong voice against slavery in the 1850s through his speeches; Lowell used his pen. For a short time, he edited an apolitionist newspaper in Pennsylvania but focused his poetic voice on the cause in poems like "The Present Crisis" and "On the Capture of Fugitive Slaves Near Washington." Alcott hosted at least one man escaped from enslavement in his Concord home years earlier and was part of a crowd that attempted to free Anthony Burns from a Boston courthouse. Dana referred to the young Sanborn, then a Harvard student, as "clever and promising." Only a few years later, Sanborn funded the radical abolitionist John Brown in his raid on Harper's Ferry as a member of the so-called "Secret Six."


  1. Love the image of Dana! I'm still working my way - with many interruptions and detours - through Dana's three volumes of his journals. Wonderful descriptions of sojourns at sea and to the White Mountains, Maine, &c. Dana sometimes likes to dress in rough attire and frequent the lowly places in cities where he has long conversations with fallen women. Don't think I would characterize Two Years as a novel. I just me got another copy - I'm always giving the one I have away.

  2. Interesting man, Dana, and an anti-slavery activist. Unfortunately, he was less inclined toward women's rights (not unusual at the time). His 1849 lecture series ridiculed that cause--which Lucretia Mott ably rebutted in her "Discourse on Woman" lecture, delivered in Philadelphia and later distributed in print.