January 1, 2010

The Boston Hymn

The same day that the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect (January 1, 1863), the philosopher/poet Ralph Waldo Emerson presented his commemorative poem "The Boston Hymn."

The poem follows the colonization of the Americas by religious pilgrims who turn aside the monarchs of the Old World for a new "king" named Freedom. God asks for this world to be run by "the humble." Soon, it is God who breaks the bonds of slavery:

I break your bonds and masterships,
   And I unchain the slave:
Free be his heart and hand henceforth,
   As wind and wandering wave.

Emerson presented the poem at a public event specifically to honor the Proclamation held at Boston's Music Hall. Later that day, he read the poem again, this time in private. That gathering included fellow Transcendentalist A. Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May Alcott as well as Julia Ward Howe (who read her own poem, "The Battle Hymn"). Emerson's poem was published a month later in The Atlantic Monthly, then edited by James T. Fields.

Though Emerson noted a concern about slavery early in his life, he was not an active Abolitionist early on. In fact, in 1856, when fellow Bostonian Charles Sumner was beaten for his strong anti-slavery stance in the U.S. Senate, Emerson lamented that he was not as committed to the cause. Soon, however, he concluded, "I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom." Even so, he rarely acted on his abolitionist views in the same way as his friends Bronson Alcott and Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

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