Think Piece

“You’re a Human Being Before You’re an Intellectual”: An Interview with Peter Wirzbicki (Part 1)

by guest contributor Alec Israeli

By Alec Israeli

Peter Wirzbicki’s Fighting for the Higher Law: Black and White Transcendentalists Against Slavery, was released earlier this year by the University of Pennsylvania Press. In this book, Wirzbicki, an assistant professor of history at Princeton University, offers an engaging exploration of the relationship between Transcendental philosophy and abolitionism, as much in the realm of texts and ideas as in the realm of concrete action. Wirzbicki brings Transcendentalists beyond the woods of Concord (and beyond their own heads) and into the fractious world of antebellum politics, illustrating how the core thinkers of this philosophical movement—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, among many others—were deeply involved in antislavery activism.

Significantly, too, Wirzbicki draws Transcendentalism into the African American intellectual tradition, and vice versa, teasing out the shared ideational lineages and actual interactions between prominent Transcendentalists and contemporary black abolitionist thinkers like William Cooper Nell, Maria Stewart, and Alexander Crummell.

Contributing editor Alec Israeli sat down with Wirzbicki to discuss his new book. This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Alec Israeli: In your introduction, you discuss your book as a project of “intellectual history in the open air.” In your words: “[…] this book seeks to take seriously the traditional history of ideas—texts, arguments, writers—while simultaneously examining how those ideas left the page, so to speak, went out in the open air, and rambled around in the world of people and things,” (6). So, just to set the stage for the conversation, could you talk a little bit more about what you mean by this? About what this means on a methodological level, about your predecessors? 

Peter Wirzbicki: That line you just quoted from is a paraphrase of a Bob Dylan lyric. I liked the image of the sort of Walt Whitman-esque character, who isn’t stuck in the seminar room, but goes off with some ideas and walks down the dusty road or something like that.  Who, in the great American pragmatic tradition, experiments with ideas and sees how they live in the real world. There are certainly other great intellectual historians that I’ve drawn from—people like Daniel T. Rodgers, Tom Bender, for instance—who are very much engaged with the way ideas about economics or society shape policy and urban life. I’d add that there’s a wonderful Sarah E. Igo essay about “free-range intellectual history” that is perhaps a similar metaphor of intellectual history not just stuck in a pure realm of ideas.

Methodologically, I found it a useful way to think because it allowed me to open up the texts and sources I was using— for instance, things like advertisements, sermons, or newspapers that aren’t aimed at an elite audience. I would get really excited when I thought I could find ways in which “high ideas” showed up in more everyday places. I was so excited, for example, to see a textile worker in Lowell reading Emerson, actually engaging with some of these ideas. Or how young black abolitionists in 1830s New York City would read philosophy—starting with the Scottish Common Sense School and Locke, and, then, rejecting them in favor of Coleridge. And one of the most exciting things is that people never passively accept these intellectual sources, they are always doing these creative and exciting things with them. For instance, in my first chapter I looked at how these young black radicals in New York City were reading English romanticism—people like Coleridge who were actually fairly conservative—and adapting them into this radical anti-slavery message.

So I liked “intellectual history in the open air” both in the sense that I think it’s a more accurate description of how ideas work, and in the sense that methodologically it opened up the type of sources I was able to use, and the type of people I was able to look at. 

AI: Do you see yourself as the first person to try to study the Transcendentalists with this kind of methodological approach? 

PW: I don’t know if I’m the first, because it is in some ways a very Transcendentalist method. Trying to integrate abstract life and messy life… I think Emerson and Fuller would approve! There’s some great work that I’ve drawn on, including some biographies: Robert D. Richardson on Emerson is fantastic, and I think does some of this stuff. And also all of David Reynolds’ work I’ve loved, particularly Beneath the American Renaissance, which is this just brilliant exploration of all these funky and unexpected places that some of these writers were taking inspiration from. But also, of course, one of the defining features of Transcendentalism has been its openness to the everyday. Think about Emerson sneaking off into these rough and tumble Methodist revivals on the Boston waterfront so he could experience a form of worship that was so more alive than the buttoned up Unitarian Churches.

But on the specific question of slavery and Transcendentalism, I do think, there was often a tendency, especially in political theory or in English, to over-analyze the texts, to analyze, you know, “What does Self-Reliance tell us about abolition? What does Walden tell us about abolitionism?” This is important, but misses that whatever Emerson was writing, he was also going to anti-slavery organizations, he was speaking in front of anti-slavery clubs, he was interacting with black abolitionists and learning from them. If you only look at the ideas, you miss something about the real world application of them. I do think that you see the ideas more quickly engaged if you get outside of the text a little, or put the text in the context of action and what thinkers are doing on the ground.

In particular I think there was a world of black Transcendentalism that opened up once I looked beyond the canonical sources: for instance, I was able to recreate how this one black intellectual club called the Adelphic Union organized itself by looking at the advertisements that they placed in local newspapers. In particular I could see that they often invited Transcendentalists to speak before them.

AI: To be honest, while reading the book at first, I found myself thinking that these political commitments of Transcendentalists felt familiar. I was thinking this, of course, not in the sense of having personally encountered instances of Emerson attending anti-slavery meetings (much of your original contribution is bringing these kinds of interactions out of the archival woodwork), but in the sense of encountering instances of contemporaries assuming that people like Emerson were abolitionists. My own recent research has dealt with the thought of American slaveholders, and as I have seen, it was a favorite pastime of their intellectual class to attack much Northern and European philosophy as a jumbled mess of radicalism. Transcendentalists and abolitionists were never far apart in the reactionary mind.

Indeed, you make the point a few times in the book that either Southern slaveholders or Northern conservatives were saying that Transcendentalism, abolitionism, socialism—all of the radical -isms—were the same thing. An especially common move you discuss was for critics to discredit abolitionism by tarring it as Transcendentalist, or to discredit Transcendentalism by tarring it as abolitionist.

So, an interesting implication that I felt you suggested in the book was that we should take these conservatives quite seriously, that we should not see them as simply overreacting and failing to parse differences between and among the adherents of the various -isms. You in effect argue that conservative critics were actually observing all of these people working together. 

PW: Yeah, and these conservatives sometimes saw something about the internal coherence of ideas in a way that I think the ideas’ very proponents missed. I mean, the narcissism of petty differences is common on the Left—to fight over territory, and to each have one’s own slightly distinct priority. And so you had things like the land reform people tangle with the abolitionists or some of the abolitionists resent the Transcendentalists. But they, mostly, are fighting over the same constituency of reformers. But sometimes the people who are the farthest away from the movement can see how and why these groups actually go together very well. So for instance, the land reformers would fight with the abolitionists, but they still both end up in the Republican Party which, of course, passes the Homestead Act. There’s a way in which Southern slave owners almost see that happening before the land reformers and abolitionists do themselves. In a similar way it takes some time for the Transcendentalists to get over their initial skepticism of the abolitionists, no doubt. But by the early 1840s, they are collaborating on all sorts of issues.

AI: Do you think that this is something that historians have missed? That is, when they see 19th-century conservatives lumping together the -isms, do you think that there’s been a tendency for historians to say, “Oh, they’re wrong to lump these people together,” and then walk away without actually engaging this critique in good faith?

PW: I think so. You see this a lot with a figure like the proslavery theorist George Fitzhugh, who often said things like, “the abolitionists are all socialists” or something. And of course that’s not entirely true—abolitionist political economy may not have been as free market-y as historians have sometimes made it out to be, but of course Fitzhugh was exaggerating: abolitionists were certainly not all self-conscious socialists. But Fitzhugh did put his finger on something real,  something about the way in which by introducing the kind of humanitarian and democratic impulse into the slave labor process introduces a wedge, it raises the idea that the economy ought to be managed via a collective moral or political logic. There’s a reason so many eight-hour day activists in the 1860s called themselves the “next abolitionists.” Ira Stewart for instance. They took up a lot of that energy. Once you say, “democracy has the right to manage labor in the South, to intervene in the ‘private’ realm of the planation,” it is natural for that idea to spread to the North as well, and to say, “democracy has the right to manage labor here too, to intervene in the factory.” Wendell Phillips is the greatest example of this—someone who understood his embrace of labor rights after the Civil War as a natural extension of his earlier abolitionism.

AI: And in turn, as you argue, the historical separation of Transcendentalism from abolitionism and its attendant radicalisms has produced an incomplete intellectual biography of all of these ideational tendencies. In the conclusion to your book you talk about how the first histories of the Transcendentalists tamed them in a way, or tried to make this strict division that actually was not there.

Is that the source of how all of the black abolitionists and thinkers you discuss in detail were written out of the history of Transcendentalism? 

PW: That’s a big part of it. There were a couple of moments where an erasure of this alliance occurred. First, some of the early histories of Transcendentalism were written in the conservative period following Reconstruction. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. writes a biography of Emerson in the 1880s that erases Emerson’s politics; a lot of the first histories of the Transcendentalists were written when Transcendentalists themselves were older, and honestly when they were more conservative. It’s not wrong to say that in general the intellectual and political climate of New England by 1880 was much more conservative than it was in 1850 in pushing on issues of race. So these first histories de-emphasize these questions of politics and certainly of race.

And, as I argue in the introduction, in the 1960s there was a move to separate the Transcendentalists from the abolitionists to protect the abolitionists— to say the abolitionists were more reasonable actors than contemporary narratives that tried to write the abolitionists off as fanatics, utopians, dreamers. Separating abolitionism and Transcendentalism was a way to say, “Well no, there was more practicality there than we had assumed.”

And finally, of course, there were generations where the scholarship barely took black thinkers seriously even as abolitionists—that doesn’t begin to change until Benjamin Quarles in the late 60s. So perhaps it is no surprise that scholars weren’t also looking more broadly at how black thinkers engaged with other movements. I think we’re finally in a moment that people are really taking seriously the depth of black intellectual history, which is a great thing.

AI: Yeah, and on this subject of reframing the relationship between abolitionism and Transcendentalist philosophy: I think the most striking part of the book for me was in the first chapter, where you discuss various black intellectual circles in the 1830s that were taking philosophical figures like Coleridge and Kant, and (unexpectedly) using them towards abolitionist or even proto-black nationalist political ends. You discuss at length this role of German idealism on Transcendentalists and abolitionists— in receiving Kant via Coleridge, these Americans absorbed a concern for the distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal; the primacy of generative Reason against merely reflective Understanding; an insistence on egalitarian free will against an empiricism that renders humans as receptacles of sensory input. As you put it, “More than a rigorous philosophical system, Americans inherited from Kant an unfocused impulse towards idealism and mental dualism and a vague suspicion of the body and the senses,” (37).

In a word, you suggest a deep humanism in this American reception, and its rejection of Lockeanism and the so-called Scottish school of philosophy. Abolitionist intellectuals feared such doctrines threatened to turn humans into passion-bound animals on the one side, or completely mechanistic automatons on the other. This empiricism which abolitionists opposed was very popular among contemporary conservatives more broadly; as I have seen in my own research, proslavery thinkers were quite ready to point to the world as it was as a prescription for how it ought to be, as opposed to the abolitionist insistence on the yawning gap between the is and the ought

In your book, I read Transcendentalists and their conservative opponents as both appealing to Nature—a reference point which unites them— but in very different ways. My attempted gloss here is that both looked to nature as it is as an affirmation of their worldview. Yet the conservatives, the empiricists, the adherents to the Scottish school, basically said, “Okay, we’re looking at nature as it is, which is a reflection of the world as it ought to be, and human society is just an extension of currently-existing nature, so observable human society (with slavery and all kinds of hierarchies) is acceptable and naturally justified.” Whereas the abolitionists and the Transcendentalists saw nature, and saw something that preceded human society, something that proves human society to be pure artifice, quite deviated from nature. So, they prescribed, we ought to look to nature for how the artificial human world ought to be.

PW: Like a kind of Rousseauian sense— that there is a simplicity or nobility to nature that can be contrasted with the ugliness and artifice of human society. 

AI: Right, and they parallel this contrast between the natural and the artificial with the Kantian contrast between the noumenal and phenomenal, the ought and the is. What I thought was interesting about this through-line of division was the sense of valuation which they ascribed to it, which is quite a step away from Kant. For Kant, creating the distinction between noumenal and phenomenal was a matter of really rigorous description; it is the thing that makes his system of philosophy possible. He creates this division and then it allows him to create realms of the moral or the ethical or the aesthetic or the purely scientific. He was not saying, “Oh, we have the phenomenal world and it’s bad.” Rather, he was just saying, “Okay, we can separate the phenomenal world, and we need that world to do science and to understand where we are and the objects with which we interact, but we can’t use that world to understand how humans should act towards objects and towards each other.” For him, his distinction is a very practical distinction. But for the Transcendentalists…

PW: They almost moralize the distinction.

AI: Yeah! But even beyond moralizing it, I got the sense that they almost saw a truth, or a potential truth, to the mechanistic, phenomenal world which their opponents claimed as the source of all truth. For the Transcendentalists/abolitionists, slipping into this worldview was something that they had to actively combat— for them, to exercise the noumenal over the phenomenal was something strenuous.

PW: I think you’re onto something really important: the almost proto-Pragmatism of Transcendentalism, which is fearful and skeptical of a world of nature without any humanity in it. Let me give you an example: how they see landscapes. Both Emerson and Thoreau at various times use the distinction of, on the one hand, some people look at a landscape and see it as split up as a utilitarian, frontier mentality might see it (you see so-and-so’s farm and so-and-so’s farm, with this wall between them, and you think about the land as worth a certain amount of money, capable of growing certain things), and, on the other hand, some people will see that same scene as a landscape, seeing the sublime, the totality of nature, the beauty of it all, etc…. The same scene, in other words, can be experienced in very different ways depending on what moral and spiritual values you bring to bear on the observation.  So there’s not just dead matter that you are passively observing, but your observation of nature always should include interaction with the human as well. Thus there is a sort of irony to the “go-back-to-nature” reputation of the Transcendentalists. They always saw the major value of nature to be, not its inhumanness, but instead exactly how it might reflect something ethical or spiritual, something human. They would have nodded along at William James’s insistence that the trail of the human serpent is over everything.

But they are really scared, and they’re not alone in this, of the idea that people are beginning to see nature as dead, as inhuman, as mechanical. It is such a 19th-century problem, this vision that in a totally disenchanted, totally material, and totally mechanistic world, all aspects of human life are totally determined, including our self! Laplace’s demon and all that. And politically, this is Hobbes, right; even the inner self could be almost a robot, a physical object determined by the experiences it had had. And anyone who wants to be consistent in this total determinism has to follow Hobbes into atheism and authoritarianism.  And so Transcendentalists really want to retain a sense of the human, and the will, and intuition, and all these categories, which means for them that you don’t just passively observe nature, but that observation always has a little bit of yourself in it as well. So for the Transcendentalists there is not a victory of the noumenal over the phenomenal, but always a back and forth between them, an interaction between (partly free) consciousness and (mostly determined) experience.

Alec Israeli is an incoming student at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, where he will be studying for an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History as a recipient of a Dunlevie King’s Hall Studentship. His research interests span the overlaps of labor history and intellectual history in the nineteenth-century Atlantic, with particular focus on theorizations of free versus unfree labor. His work has also appeared in the Vanderbilt Historical Review, the Columbia Journal of History, the Princeton Progressive Magazine, and the Mudd Library Blog. He can be reached at

Featured Image: Illustration of an attempt by an abolitionist crowd to free fugitive slave Anthony Burns from a Boston courthouse after his arrest in 1854. The crowd included (and was in part led by) contemporary Transcendentalists. Source: Wikimedia Commons, from Anthony Burns, a history, By Charles Emery Stevens (1815-1893).

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