“The In-Between Where Politics Happens”: An Interview with Peter Wirzbicki (Part 2)

by guest contributor Alec Israeli

By Alec Israeli

This is the second part of an interview with Peter Wirzbicki about his book Fighting for the Higher Law: Black and White Transcendentalists Against Slavery (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021). You can find the first part here.

Alec Israeli: I sensed in your book that Transcendentalists felt that the pure, impressionistic empiricism which they opposed—the submission to the world as it was— was not precisely an incorrect philosophical position, but rather an active threat that actually could become true. As you write, in the view of abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker, “Only through active moral commitment did mankind transcend their passive bodies (bodies that were dependent on Newtonian laws of physics) and cease to be mere automata and become men, aware of their moral and spiritual freedom […]” (171). Here, it was not that there was a noumenal and phenomenal world, and we needed both, but that there was a possibility that the latter world could win.

Peter Wirzbicki: Yeah, I think you’re right, they were worried about the possibility that if you believed in a materialist philosophy, it would come true! That the problem with teaching philosophy or theology from the perspective of Lockean or Scottish common sense empiricism was that it would create people who were used to just taking all their cues from material world, rather than being self-transcendent in any sort of way.  So I do think the Transcendentalists had a belief in the power of philosophy, the power of thought: that if you could keep alive a vision of the self that was capable of self-transcendence, then that would become true, people would self-transcend. By reminding people that they were capable of transcending their circumstances, they would act that way. But if you did the opposite: if you told them that they were entirely the products of their material circumstances, they would lose the habits of critical thought, of transcendence, and fall into political passivity and conformity. This is a long way of saying that their theory of selfhood was both descriptive and normative.

AI: And this ties in very well to your point that Transcendentalists weren’t just people stuck in their own minds, and that there was an important practical aspect to what they were doing.

PW: I think they were most scared of the threat of materialism: that utilitarianism, industrialism, and modernity was going to create a mechanical life. But they— especially Emerson— were also scared of someone who just became so obsessed with their own mind that they were not living in the world. So there is a kind of the equator between these two extremes. You don’t want to become a pedantic person who only lives in ideas, but you also don’t want to become an animalistic person who only lives by their senses. It’s in the in-between where politics happens, where you can use your ideas to critique life. And life informs your ideas, and back and forth. 

AI: While we’re on this interaction between the world of the ideal and the world of the material: There were a few times throughout the book which seemed to imply an aversion among some Transcendentalists to physical labor, or performing physical labor. 

PW: Ha! Yeah! This was a problem at Brook Farm and some of the communes!

AI: Right, but even beyond that, there was an abolitionist sense of people being degraded by performing physical labor. You quote the black political theorist Maria Stewart, writing in 1832, that “continual hard labor deadens the energies of the soul, and benumbs the faculties of the mind,” (86). There’s this critique of what physical labor can do to you; this translated very well into Emerson’s critique of people identifying first with their profession or their job before identifying with humanity. Now, the latter critique was on a sort of bourgeois level, but on a working-class level, Stewart’s critique translates well into a critique of being dominated by industry, or by labor itself; of working to live rather than living to work. 

PW: It is a kind of bourgeois-radical critique of the market. It’s not one that pops up organically from the labor movement, which maybe held more to the dignity and importance of labor. I think you’re probably right that there was more of an aversion to manual laborer than to mental labor— so there was more of a critique of being a farmer or a washer-woman and what that might do to you than being a minister. But they do make similar critiques about the possibility that there is a version of this over-identification with your work for a minister or an intellectual. In a way this is the argument of Emerson’s American Scholar, that it is obvious to see how if you’re a shoemaker it’s not great to take all your life’s cues by a shoemaker, but that the same is true of the scholar, even though in many ways it is harder for us to see for intellectual. You should not just be a person thinking, but a person who thinks, that you’re a human being before you’re an intellectual. A cynic (not me, ha!) might say that academia today sometimes resembles a bit what Emerson feared—there can be a certain dominance of the inherited intellectual forms of certain disciplines, in other words people are trained to think like a historian, or political scientist or whatever, and not to think like a human being who is doing history or politics.

AI: I was curious if you had any sense of how this critical understanding of labor ended up interacting with Transcendentalists’ later positive connections to the labor movement which you delineate. They also end up in the Republican party, which is the party of free labor, the dignity of labor, the sanctification of the labor of free working people as such, as opposed to the degraded labor of the slave. On top of this, as you write, during the continual sectional crisis of the 1850s the Transcendentalist abolitionists developed a pride in their New England identity, which was super tied up in ideas of free labor and productivity. So, was there any tension? Was there ideological tension if Emerson was speaking at, you know, some working men’s association meeting? Was the celebration of the dignity of labor a problem within Transcendentalist thought?

PW: It is a big question. Something that comes to mind is a speech in favor of an eight hour day by Wendell Phillips (who is a bit of a stretch to be called a Transcendentalist, but one of the greatest abolitionist theoreticians). His argument basically was, you need an eight hour day because workers need to have time to read Charles Sumner speeches. It’s very much the citizenship argument: you can’t be a democratic citizen if you’re working 12 hours a day, you don’t have time to participate in all the intellectual and political work that goes into self-rule. So on the one hand there is a cultural arrogance, no doubt, about New England being better than the South— i.e. “our workers are educated and they read Charles Sumner speeches in their free time. This isn’t a mudsill class.” But it’s also about democracy, about the need to have time to participate in democratic self-rule.

So yes, this is any argument about citizenship, about democratic participation, it is not one that centers the productivity of labor itself. You’re not wrong to say that there is, if not a tension, a dislike of the realm of existence that is about necessity, maybe an attempt to leapfrog right into the realm of freedom.

AI: So in a crude sense, could we can say that these Transcendentalists are at least partially responsible for the political philosophy of the Republican Party, if not its political economy.

PW: The problem with talking about the Republican Party is that there are so many different strands that will develop in different ways. On the one hand there is a New England idealist line. Charles Sumner, for instance, is certainly far more driven by a sense of moral ideals than by any materialist concern. But of course, there are Republicans from the Midwest or Pennsylvania who develop far more out of a producerist mentality. Agricultural policy played a big role. And I think scholars are only now appreciating how populistic and democratic some of the 1850s Republicans were. It is so easy, but I think mistaken, to look at the 1880s Republicans and read that backwards.

But I think the abolitionist-Transcendentalist idealism does play a big role in the thought of people like Sumner. It even influences Lincoln—who famously stole his definition of democracy in the Gettysburg Address from Theodore Parker. Now there is a way in which after Reconstruction, this idealist style becomes detached, self-righteous, arrogant… paving the way, perhaps, for things like the Liberal Republicans. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

AI: To talk more about republicanism, this time with a little-r:  You do touch on republican thought a little bit. I sensed a great degree of affinity between classical republicanism and these Transcendentalists: the latter had this Rousseauian critique of artifice and the corruption of modernity; in your chapter on “Heroism, Violence, and Race” in Transcendentalist activism, you note that their ideal to emulate were the ancient Greeks, Sparta in particular. And, on a political level, you discuss Transcendentalists’ embrace of the transatlantic liberal nationalism of the age of democratic revolution— when they were supporting the radicals of 1848, people like Lamartine or Mazzini, they were supporting staunch republicans. Likewise, when they embraced the Constitution and the US government during the Civil War (as you describe), it was a celebration of American republican identity.

More theoretically, the other prong of Transcendentalist republicanism I noted in your book was these thinkers’ concern for the domination of market society, property, social mores and so on over people and their actions. Emerson’s critique of people identifying with their professions rather than with their humanity, you write, was a critique of the division of labor: “The division of labor was a classic example of alienation, of the specifically modern irony of how the tools and logics of industrial civilization— which we created to better our lives— now dominated us, leaving our lives shrunken and spiritually diminished.” You further elaborate: “The old republican idea— that one’s public and economic life was a transparent reflection of your true self— was increasingly difficult to attain,” (161-163). The language of domination is a thoroughly republican language. 

So, with all this in mind, is there like a republican ancestry or legacy that we can read in these Transcendentalists?

PW: This is a really interesting question. Yes, in some ways there is. You hit on some of the important connections— the desire to create a public self that is an authentic expression, that is not dominated by the false imperatives of the marketplace.  I argue in my chapter on civil disobedience that this was actually key to the abolitionist resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law. That one could not let one’s small roles—as judges, policemen, soldiers, etc.—trump their absolute moral obligations as human. The idea is that the market encourages us to role-play, to confuse the mask that we wear in the market with our true self. And this artifice makes critical or moral judgement more difficult. And I think this interest in a public self that is an authentic expression of your real self does owe a lot to the republican tradition.

In addition, you are correct to say that this language of domination becomes so central to the anti-slavery impulse. Think about Lincoln, in his debates with Douglas, where he says that a man ruling himself—that is the core of democracy—but when in addition to himself, a man rules someone else—well, that’s tyranny. Obviously that logic is so powerful, it can spiral into a critique of so many institutions: marriage, capitalism, established churches, all authority.

That said, I’m not sure that the full victory of the abolitionist imagination is entirely a victory of republicanism. First of all, the aspect of the republican tradition that is about the “people” or the commonwealth, as some sort of cohesive entity is, of course, challenged by the reality of racial divisions.

And it’s so hard because broadly speaking the story of the 19th century is the slow transition from a republican to a more mass democratic view. You could point to some innovations where Transcendentalists are not purely coming out of the classical or renaissance republican tradition. They’re more egalitarian at least in theory (not always in practice) than republicanism. They’re also more individualistic—especially the proto-anarchist wing. There is a far greater emphasis on individual development, individual authenticity, aware of the dangers posed, not just by tyrants but also by social pressure, by civil society itself. Wendell Phillips— I’ll go back to him for political theory, because I think he’s a brilliant political theorist — was actually very modern in the sense of understanding politics as about political interests. In this sense, it was not republicanism. It was not about the common good. He would often say things like, the abolitionist movement has to figure out a way to speak to the self-interest of Northern farmers and artisans. He understood, in other words, that the “people” were divided up into distinct groups—German immigrants, Midwestern farmers, New England textile workers, etc.—and that you had to appeal to each’s interests. In addition, he was very conscious about a politics of public opinion, that what we have to do is create a mass democratic public opinion that can put pressure on elites. In a sense that’s more like modern democratic mass politics, where you’re quite conscious of a strategic need to mobilize and create pressure groups, almost like a lobby. 

So if I had to answer your question, I think I’d say that that there’s a bigger transition occurring from classical republicanism to a vision of mass politics, and Transcendentalists and abolitionists are kind awkwardly in between the two. 

AI: As a fulcrum of this transition, we could look toward your chapter on Transcendentalists and the Civil War, and their political reconfiguration in defense of the federal government. You discuss these thinkers as rearticulating the philosophical foundation of American democracy. Again, as you detail, they embraced the liberal nationalism of the time: the idea of shaping the nation as an inclusive universality over the particular of localism; locating sovereignty in the people themselves rather than in the contracted states as discrete political units; basing nationhood upon a higher law of equality and liberty as opposed to the immediate conditionalism of contract theory.

I remember you mentioning at one point that your current work is on political theory and Reconstruction in the US. Is this chapter on the Civil War pre-figuring what you are going to be doing?

PW: Yeah! So part of what happens is a particular American story where you the Whigs and the Federalists had generally been the parties of a stronger national government over the states. But they had often wanted to empower the national government as a way to restrain democracy— if you think of someone like Joseph Story or Daniel Webster, they’re not wild populist democrats. They’re politically opposed to the Jacksonian project (not because of Jackson’s racism, which they don’t really care about, but because of the democracy), and they see the creation of, for instance, a powerful national judiciary as a way to restrain the democracy of the states. I think one of the innovations of the Civil War period (among many, of course) is that flips: all of a sudden, there is the developing idea that the national government is the most democratic, and the place that’s most able to protect individual rights as opposed to states. The states instead become seen— at least among some of the Republicans— as the place where particularity and injustice lies, and where you can’t trust elites to protect the rights of individuals. Again, here I think there is slightly more legalism and formality to their conception of individual rights than was common in the classical republican tradition.

AI: And there’s a lineage of this view of the federal government through the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century, and into today, too.

PW: Absolutely. The federal government certainly hasn’t been perfect, but it has generally been more likely to protect black civil rights than a lot of the states have. And the Transcendentalist cultural project is to try to come up with a conception of the American nation that is in ideal ways not defined racially or ethnically, but defined by some sort of transcendent values. Lincoln is probably the most prominent spokesman for this ideal. He has this speech where he says, there are German immigrants and Irish immigrants whose grandfathers were not here during the American Revolution, but are just as American as anyone because they see themselves as loyal to the values of the Declaration of Independence. He’s trying to understand the notion of American identity, that’s not ethnic or racial, while simultaneously enshrining the Declaration’s promise of equality as the core of the American national project. And I think that this cultural project of defining the American nation by these transcendent values of equality or liberty or democracy or something like that is tied into this more on-the-ground political project of understanding the nation as the more powerful and more democratic entity as opposed to the states, basically the Reconstruction-era Republican Party’s agenda.

AI: And that’s something you’re trying to tease out as developing during Reconstruction?

PW: Yeah, my next project is to think through the various, complicated ways that plays out. It’s such a fascinating moment because in so many ways, we take for granted a 20th-century vision where nationalism is a reactionary force, and it’s so hard to see the ways in which so many of those abolitionists were nationalists. It might seem an awkward reality that Charles Sumner was the most progressive senator of the time and was also the most rabid nationalist of the time, and that there was no contradiction for him in that. 

AI: To close: Reading this book roughly a year after a continuing upsurge in protest over great racial inequity and the continuing domination of the market felt appropriate. It is not always a compliment to call a history book “topical”; nor should history writing strive for topical-ness. But I must ask: Do you see a connection between the subject matter of this book, and the left politics of our time? Is there something in the Transcendentalist conception of the political— that anxiety of the phenomenal, that commitment to a higher law— that is still salient, or might our postmodern soup of malaise be beyond the reach of this 19th-century hope?

PW: There is so much to say. I started writing this book during a very different moment: the Obama-era fetishization of compromise and what was then called “pragmatism” (which I’m not sure had much to do with the tradition of James, Dewey, etc…)  At the time I wanted to rediscover this other approach to American democracy: one that was more utopian, one that spoke in the language of critical rationality rather than reasonableness (to use some Rawlsian terms), one that rejected the cult of expediency. Honestly, I’m not sure we’re still in those times anymore, for better or for worse. I’m pleasantly surprised at the slow return of some “big thinking” about economic and cultural life. This may seem odd to say as a historian, but part of that process, I think, has to be to put history in its proper place, to learn to be a bit less backwards looking, to remember that we are not determined in some absolute way by the past, but that, like all generations, have the freedom to chart our own path, that liberation movements may look very different in 2021 than it did in 1921 or 1821.

If you’ll indulge me, I do worry, in the era of social media leftism, of the return of a certain style of political conformity. One made possible by the hollowing out of a lot of the traditional sources of selfhood. If in the 1830s, Emerson was worried about how the new power of civil society—the mass press, political parties, etc.—made it harder for individuals to protect their self from the external pressures of society, today, thanks to social media, to twitter, to the internet-fueled destruction of privacy, we are exposed to a social pressure that is 1000 times more powerful. In a way, it is very very easy to let your inner self be determined from without. The external forces seem less mechanical—it is not the industrial revolution anymore where we worry about turning into a machine—but more postmodern: kaleidoscopic swirl of cultural ideas, discourses, and therapeutic moral norms will determine our inner life. I guess this is what David Reisman was talking about 75 years ago when he wrote about the “other-directed personality,” but made far far worse by the internet. And I sometimes see friends on the left accept, even celebrate, this loss of selfhood, I think under the cover of fighting individualism. But we need to distinguish between individuality—which is good and needs to be protected—from economic individualism, which is bad and will ultimately undermine individuality and the flourishing of the self. In addition, there is a sort of hang-over from the Foucauldian moment, where, even if none of us are Foucauldians anymore, we still have a sort of anti-humanist skepticism of any language of the autonomous self. If our inner life is already conceived of as, not a place of possible autonomy, but instead the site of various forms of political and cultural power, than we have no hesitation about a counter-mobilization of power to control or manipulate the self. And this is dangerous, I think. There is a wonderful essay by Richard Rorty that you may know called “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids.” (Two great intellectual historians have a podcast named after it). He has this sort of autobiographical account of going to a red-diaper summer camp where Rorty would be taught Trotskyism, but all he really remembered was the beautiful flowers, not the stern science of the dialectic. Neither the left nor the modern academy have been great at this, at appreciating the value of these private intimate moments, moments of beauty, or meaning, or love, that cannot be reduced to public political discourse. At one point, in honor of that essay, I debated calling my book “John Brown and the Winter Animals” to capture how, at their best, the Transcendentalists and Abolitionists combined these two elements, sought to create a radical politics that was supportive of, and not hostile to the project of self-transcendence. Thoreau could fund an anti-slavery revolutionary and also commune with the hedgehogs that visited him at Walden.  You need that: bread but also roses! Art for art’s sake, not as simply moral didacticism, for instance.  I worry that without this sensibility, the tendency of modern life towards human-resource-department style management—the bureaucratic manipulation and control of the self—will only continue to grow and become more powerful.

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 19th-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

Peter Wirzbicki, and intellectual historian of the 19th-century United States, is an assistant professor of history at Princeton University.

Featured Image: Broadside publicizing the arrest of fugitive slave Anthony Burns, in May 1854. A few days after his arrest, abolitionists (including, and in part led by, prominent Transcendentalists) stormed the court house where he was held, in an attempt to free him. Source: Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Boston Public Library.

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