An American thinker’s Jewish journey

By Kenneth Sacks, July 5, 2013
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Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson, from a photograph dating to the mid 19th century

Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson, from a photograph dating to the mid 19th century

At a time when European antisemitism appears once again to be on the rise, it is pertinent to recall the experience of the 19th-century intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who learned of the struggles of British Jews and consequently became their advocate in America. Emerson was a highly influential thinker, casting a giant shadow over philosophy, politics, social activism, literature, art and spirituality. Having him on their side became an inspiration for American Jews.

As a young man, Emerson wrote to his brother a few letters that refer to Jews as money-lenders, which has disposed historians to label him an antisemite. But Boston of the 1820s had almost no Jews living there, and Emerson's village of Concord, some 25 miles from Boston, probably had no Jews during his life-time. When he referred to Jews as money-lenders, he was trying to impress his brother by repeating medieval stereotypes.

Even 50 years later, in 1876, when poet Emma Lazarus (whose The New Colossus was to be inscribed on the Statue of Liberty) visited, Emerson's daughter Ellen wrote in astonishment that she was playing host to "a real unconverted Jew." (Ellen later recorded that she greatly enjoyed hosting Lazarus and invited her back to Concord.) But when Emerson sailed to the UK in 1847, Jews were not on his intellectual horizon. That was to change dramatically.

In Britain, the free-thinking Emerson spoke publicly on politics and religions, subjects that were, for the times, controversial, and his tour made quite a stir. One newspaper article described it as "Emerson mania" and some papers denounced him as a heretic and a misanthrope. Emerson at one point worried that he would be prevented from speaking. But most listeners approved.

When Emerson sailed to the UK in 1847, Jews were not on his intellectual horizon. That was to change dramatically

George Searle Phillips, who walked many miles to hear the lectures, wrote that Emerson's essays had an enormous impact "on the minds of the young and thoughtful in England… For a long time it was customary to swear… by him who lives at Concord." The affection was amply returned. "My admiration and my love of the English rise day by day," Emerson told his wife.

Despite that affection, Emerson expressed concern for the status of Jews. His visit resulted in a widely read set of essays, English Traits (1856). In one, Race, Emerson relates that "the Jews have been the favourite victims of royal and popular persecution". Probably in doing research for this essay, he notes in his diary the "ferocity/ the persecution of the Jews." In Religion, he observes that "the bill for the naturalisation of the Jews (in 1753) was resisted by petitions from all parts of the kingdom…" and quotes the official reason why: it was "tending extremely to the dishonour of the Christian religion, and extremely injurious to the interests and commerce of the kingdom in general". The remark is obviously sarcastic, as he also voices frustration with the Church of England. In the concluding essay, Result, he laments of England that: "there is a drag of inertia which resists reform in every shape - law-reform, army-reform, extension of suffrage, Jewish franchise, Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery, of impressment, penal code, and entails."

On his return home, Emerson lectured in Boston and announced: "There are in London several little nations; a Jew's quarter in Monmouth Street and Holywell, a German quarter in Whitechapel; a French quarter in Spitalfields…" Emerson recorded his visit to Whitechapel and Spitalfields, but there is no evidence of his ever having gone to Monmouth Street or Holywell. I suspect he read about these Jews in Meditations in Monmouth-Street, a short story written by his friend Charles Dickens in 1836.

Dickens admired Monmouth Street Jews for being "a peaceable and retiring race… and their habitations are distinguished by that disregard of outward appearance and neglect of personal comfort, so common among people who are constantly immersed in profound speculations," while saying that "[the Jews] of Holywell-street we despise; the red-headed and red-whiskered Jews who forcibly haul you into their squalid houses, and thrust you into a suit of clothes, whether you will or not, we detest".

Emerson chose to overlook Dickens's harsh description and listed the Jewish quarter first and alongside those of the French Huguenots and Germans in emphasising the vitality and cosmopolitan nature of London.

Although there were probably only around 35,000 Jews then in England, Emerson made contact with a few of importance. During his speaking tour, he stayed with industrialist and labour advocate Joseph Neuberg of Nottingham, and described him to others as "our good friend". This may have been the first self-identified Jew Emerson ever had close contact with, and he was so impressed with Neuberg that he enthusiastically recommended him as a secretary to Thomas Carlyle, who eventually dedicated a book in his honour. With Neuberg, Emerson discussed the importance of the Rothschilds, as he wrote in his journal: "Mr Neuberg said that the Rothschilds make great fortunes, but they really do a certain important service to society; they are the cashiers of the world: and it is a public mischief when any calamity befalls them. People at Nottingham are carried into crime, because Rothschild does not accept bills at Paris; it is quite obvious to him: he can trace it all the way. So when a bank discounts freely in any district, immediately an impulse is given to population, & new men are born."

Emerson later dined with Lionel Rothschild, whom he accurately described as "a round young comfortable looking man," and with Benjamin Disraeli. He generally had good things to say about Disraeli as novelist and politician, and harshly criticised the Irish leader Daniel O'Connell for impugning Disraeli's Jewish origins (he called him the "worst possible type of Jew"). He spoke well of the Schwanns of Huddersfield, another publicly identified Jewish family, as manufacturers who provided schools for their workers and families. Not once do we read anything negative in Emerson about English Jews.

It is around Rothschild that Emerson may have fully sensed the struggle of British Jews. In 1860, Emerson published Fate. He observed: "sufferance, which is the badge of the Jew, has made him, in these days, the ruler of the rulers of the earth." He is referring, of course, to the Rothschilds, and scholars wrongly suggest he is antisemitic in alluding to a grand Jewish cabal, akin to the Elders of Zion. But Fate is paired with Power, and one need only look at it to see precisely what Emerson intended. He linked Rothschild with Newton (science) and Pericles (politics) as positive examples that "concentration is the secret of strength in politics, in war, in trade, in short, in all management of human affairs".

When he esteems the Jewish banker alongside Newton and Pericles, we can measure just how far he had come from his youthful references. It is no coincidence that Emerson, who earlier in English Traits had been critical of British slowness in awarding Jews the franchise, now exalts an English Jew as "ruler of the rulers". "Fate" was published just two years after the first Jew, following 14 attempts at altering the law, was admitted to Parliament. That was Lionel Rothschild. Emerson was in England during one of the previous times in which Rothschild, though elected, was denied his seat, and it is reasonable to assume that Emerson's favourable disposal spurred his own indignation.

How did Emerson come to develop a sensitivity toward English Jews? Perhaps from those he met. But also, Charles Knight had just published volume six of his London, which contained an extensive and generally sympathetic discussion of the history of Jews in England. Emerson dined with Knight in 1848. Perhaps, then, he drew on what he heard from others, what he saw for himself, and what he might have learned from Knight.

His British experience sensitised him to the status of Jews in his home country. By the time of the American Civil War, he proclaimed publicly that "you cannot bring me too good a word, too dazzling a hope, too penetrating an insight from the Jews. I hail every one with delight, as showing the riches of my brother, my fellow soul, who could thus think and thus greatly feel." Much of this came about as an inevitable result of his powerful stand on abolition, for he began to appreciate the depths of suffering brought on by persecution. When, in Fate, he referred to, "sufferance… the badge of the Jew," and reflects that "we see how much will has been expended to extinguish the Jew, in vain," it becomes clear that the engagement with British Jews and their struggles reflected his greater commitment to the cause of social justice in the US.

Emerson went on to be a great supporter of Jews and Judaism in his country. As a result, he influenced the development of American Reform Judaism, and many Jewish American intellectuals still look to him for inspiration. Part of that important relationship occurred because of his trip to Great Britain where he met British Jews and learned of their struggles for equality.

Kenneth Sacks is professor of history and classics at Brown University. He will be speaking on "Ralph Waldo Emerson, Transcendentalism and some Jewish Questions" at the Institute of Jewish Studies on July 18. www.ucl.ac.uk/ijs

    Last updated: 3:32pm, July 5 2013