EMERSON, THE BROOK FARM, AND THE PANIC OF 1837
On July eleventh, 1836 President Andrew Jackson issued his Specie Circular, which ordered the government to accept only cash payments, that is specie payments, or the notes of banks able to redeem their notes for specie, as payment for the sale of government real estate. Western banks, the sound banks as well as the wildcat banks which at the urging of land speculators had maintained an "easy money" policy and had issued bank notes far in excess of their available supply of specie, were unable to redeem all the notes they were suddenly asked to; they were unable to meet the demand for specie. The banks thus collapsed, and panic spread swiftly: "Suspension (of specie payments) in Boston followed that in New York by forty eight hours." 1
Emerson wrote of the panic in his Journal: "April 22 (1837) - Cold April; hard times; men breaking who ought not to break; banks bullied into the bolstering of desperate speculators; all the newspapers here a chorus of owls." 2 Emerson also wrote, most important of all, that "…sixty thousand laborers, says rumor, to be presently thrown out of work and these made a comfortable crowd to break banks, and rob the rich, and brave the domestic government." 3 The Panic of 1837 and the depression that followed it triggered a desire for social reform that was to manifest itself in the years to come among the men who had been a part of that mob and those who like Emerson had watched. As one writer put it, "The humanitarians, appalled at the waste of competitive industry and the working man’s lack of security, began to study the social philosophy of Robert Dale Owen, Saint-Simon, and Charles Fourier." 4 Among these men was George Ripley, the founder of the Brook Farm.
The Panic of 1837 thus was one of the roots of the growing desire for social reform that spawned many attempts – forty - fifty communities were started between 1836 and 1845, the years of the depression 5 - to establish ideal communities; the Brook Farm established only four years after the Panic was one of these communities; however, because such famous names as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau, George Ripley, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Peabody are connected with Brook Farm, it is the most famous of the experimental communities. The Brook Farm was an attempt to provide a better environment for the working man; in a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Ripley best enumerated the objectives of the farm:
Our objects, as you know, are to insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as possible, in the same individual; to guarantee the highest mental freedom by providing all with labor adapted to their tastes and talents, and securing to them the fruits of their industry; to do away with the necessity of menial services by opening the benefits of education and the profits of labor to all; and thus to prepare a society whose relations with each other would permit a more wholesome life than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions. 6
Ripley wrote this letter to Emerson to persuade him to join the others at Brook Farm and to remain there with them. Ripley never expected that he would have trouble persuading Emerson to join them, for Emerson had had a great part in inspiring the creation of the Brook Farm. In fact, Ripley and the others had considered him their leading "Mind." 7 "The Mind" had in his article "Nature" and in his address to the Harvard Divinity School best expressed the principles Ripley intended to base Brook Farm upon. Emerson had, in fact, apparently done everything to encourage the project.
At first Emerson had been truly in favor of the project. He wrote in his Journal that he thought that every man ought to have physical labor; that labor was the essence of life. 8 A year later in 1840 the desire for physical labor, like a fad, had completely died; instead when approached by Ripley, Emerson thought that it would be idiotic for a man like himself to forget his training and try to farm. He wrote:
October 17 (1840) - Yesterday George and Sophia Ripley, Margaret Fuller and Alcott discussed here social plans, (Brook Farm.) I wished to be convinced, to be thawed, to be made nobly mad by the kindlings before my eyes of a new dawn of human piety. But this scheme was arithmetic and comfort; this was a hint borrowed from the Tremont House and the United States Hotel; a rage in poverty and politics to live rich and gentlemanlike, an anchor to the lee-ward against a change of weather…and not once could I be inflamed, but sat aloof and thoughtless; my voice faltered and fell. It was not the cave of persecution which is the palace of spiritual power, but only a room in the Astor House hired for the transcendentalists. I do not wish to remove from my present prison to a prison a little larger…. Shall I raise siege to this hencoop and march baffled away to Babylon? 9
Obviously Emerson has become disenchanted with the idea. The main point of his disagreement with Brook Farm was his antipathy to crowds of any kind; he wrote, "…one man is a counterpoise to a city…is stronger than a city…his solitude is more prevalent and beneficent than the concert of crowds." 10 This too was to be a problem with Hawthorne.
Yet the problem was more than just Emerson’s antipathy to crowds; the problem lay deeper than that. There was a difference of personalities and purposes. Emerson was haughty, almost arrogant. He was more interested in his own future than in the success or failure of the Brook Farm. He wrote: "…I should not find myself more than now…in that select, but not by me selected fraternity." 11 Emerson had the sharpest, most capable intellect and the most magnetic personality; Ripley, on the other hand, not so quick of intellect, had the devotion and perseverance, almost the blind perseverance, which often accompanies such a lack. He went on without Emerson as he had to, for Emerson wrote him that he had decided not to join the venture, although he was glad to see that Ripley had gotten enough support so that his, Emerson’s, defection wouldn’t hurt the community irreparably. Emerson, enumerating one of his objections to the community, wrote that "…the institution of domestic hired service 12 is to me very disagreeable." 13 Ripley continued with the Brook Farm; he planned to buy the Ellis farm in West Roxbury, the buildings for ten families, and the supplies he needed for thirty thousand dollars. 14 He raised the money by selling stock in the enterprise for five hundred dollars a share. 15 Yet Ripley wasn’t the inspiring leader that Emerson would have been; Ripley’s previous failure as a pastor had already shown that.
Margaret Fuller in a letter to a friend expressed much the same feelings about Ripley’s capabilities. She wrote that "…his own mind, although that of a captain, is not that of a conqueror" 16 She wrote that she would "…not throw any cold water…" but that at the beginning she would just "…just look in and see the coral insects at work." 17 Yet Ripley went optimistically on and expected the farm which had just supported the Ellis family to support a whole community.
There was as Emerson noted a certain ambivalence between Ripley’s and his own conceptions and the reality of running the farm. Emerson, more the philosopher, the theorist, shied away from Ripley’s attempts to make the venture financially feasible, although they had both agreed upon the theories. This ambivalence between their idyllic dreams and the reality of Brook Farm where they had to slave over the land and where a washerwoman might have been as important as Ripley or Emerson was the major weak point, failing point, if you will, of the undertaking. In noting the difference between the theories and the farm, however, one last lost root must be discussed. Emerson, Ripley, Fuller, and the others who took part in the farm, among who were Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, Orestes Brownson, and John Dwight, all were Transcendentalists. The Brook Farm, in fact, was an outgrowth of the Transcendentalist movement. And Transcendentalism was an outgrowth of the Unitarian Church.
Transcendentalism originated in the late 1820’s in the liberal movement of the Unitarian Church of Boston and flourished particularly between 1836 and 1846 (not coincidentally, years of depression). It was influenced by European writers and philosophers, Kant, Goethe, Cousin, Wadsworth, Coleridge, Carlyle, and others, yet Transcendentalism was not created by these foreign influences. Transcendentalism seems to have been the product of the particular environment in the United States at the time. In the 1820’s and 1830’s the first generation, "the first intellectual generation," 18 born after the Revolution, founding, and expansion of the country was coming of age. Until this time there had really been little time for culture; in the 1820’s and 1830’s there was a change as New England, with the exception of Maine, composed of the original and now veteran states, began to flower.
When this generation came of age the United States was enjoying a period of great prosperity: the West was being developed, the South was recovering from the Civil War, New England, as has been said, was flowering, and the industrial revolution was beginning. The background of thriving business and the growing industrialization played the greatest part in the development of the Transcendental movement, for when the members of this generation thought of the economic and political revolution that had taken place in this country they saw a great disparity, a great contrast, between this development and the condition of the workingman, of education, and of the church. The Transcendentals perceived that, while the country had developed economically and politically, culturally and economically it had remained static. Thus Transcendentalism was a reform movement; the Transcendentals tried to bring Democracy, as they conceived it, more than a political concept, to the people. They tried to improve the standard of living conditions of the worker. They worked to improve education, for they thought it a universal panacea. And, as the movement had developed in the Unitarian Church, they tried not unexpectedly to reform their religion which they thought had become lifeless because it was too dogmatic. Looking for new ideas, new concepts to embody in their religion they turned to philosophy, thus the influence of the European writers.
Transcendentalism is hard to define. An optimistic reform movement, a religious movement, a philosophy: it was all this and more. Even Emerson couldn’t define it well. He did write – and he, surely, if no one else, was in a position to understand it - that "the Transcendentalist believes in miracles and the perpetual opening of the human mind to a new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration and ecstasy; he wishes that the spiritual principle be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to the state of man, without the admission of anything inspirational, that is anything positive, dogmatic, personal…."19
It is easier and more useful in evaluating the Brook Farm, however, to examine the objectives of the Transcendentalists rather than the meaning of their philosophy. On the plight of the working man, for example, Orestes Bronson wrote that "…the workingman is poor and depressed, while a large portion of the nonworkingmen, in the sense that we use the term, are wealthy. …men are rewarded in an inverse ratio to the amount of actual service they perform."20 He also wrote that, "The only way to get rid of these evils is to change the system…."21
On the subject of religion, Brownson wrote, "We object not to the gathering together of the people on one day in seven, to sing and pray, and listen to discourse from a religious teacher; but we object to everything like an outward, visible church…."22 Theodore Parker with the same thought wrote that "…it must be confessed, though with some sorrow, that transient things form a great part of what is commonly taught as religion. Religious forms may be useful and beautiful…but they are only the accident of Christianity, not its substance…. there must…be a philosophy of religion…."23 It was feelings such as these, moreover, that led Emerson in the summer of 1832 to conclude that he couldn’t administer the Lord’s Supper unless the Bread and Wine were left out.24 Brownson, summing up what Transcendentalists wanted to do, said, "We would establish the kingdom of God on earth…based on the principle of the Gospel, and realize(d)…as perfectly as finite man can realize them."25 These then were the reforms the Transcendentalists proposed; they believed that man obtains knowledge by intuitional processes which transcend the experience of the senses.26 Thus Brownson wrote that "the kingdom of God is an inward spiritual kingdom."27
Just what did Transcendentalism mean to the establishment of the Brook Farm? All the objectives of the Brook Farm were objectives of the Transcendentalists. Education for all, the value of labor, a common pay for both working man and the intellectual, and the Transcendental theory of religion all were inherent values enmeshed in the Brook Farm. The Transcendental religious theories, moreover, provided Ripley with a goal for the type of life that would be lead at Brook Farm: it would cultivate "the principles of truth, justice, and love in the soul of the individual…by bringing society and all its acts into perfect harmony with them."28 Thus Ripley wrote to an inquirer that he was seeking to "establish a mode of life which shall combine the enchantment of poetry with the facts of daily experience."29 And thus Ripley replied that, although members of the Farm were associated with the Unitarian Church or had been, they weren’t interested in any one sect or group, for their objectives would be universally pleasing; Ripley said that "…religious objections…are entirely without foundation. Our great purpose is the organization of industry in accordance with natural laws, irrespective of religious differences."30
And Ripley did succeed in creating a pleasing environment at Brook Farm. Emerson, who had in May of 1843 written in his Journal that "Brook Farm will Show a few noble victims, who act and suffer with temper and proportion, but the larger part will be slight adventurers and will shirk work."31 had later to admit that "the founders of Brook Farm…have made what all people try to make, an agreeable place to live in…all comers, even the most fastidious, find it the pleasantest of residences."32
In fact, almost everyone who has written of the life at the Brook Farm has praised it. In a letter to Dwight, Mrs. Ripley wrote that there was "…a busy and merry household at Brook Farm. We feel established and perfectly at home in the country, and all our relations to each other are so natural and true they seem to have existed always."33 Another Brook Farmer wrote that "…all of us are agreeably appointed in our physical power, particularly George (Ripley) who does a harder day’s work each day than the last, and feels better than ever before."34
The members of the Brook Farm both worked in the fields and at the farm house - the Brook Farmers had set up a school at the farm and they both taught it not only to earn money for themselves, but added to the resources of the farm. Even Hawthorne worked in the fields; among other tasks he had the care and milking of cows. Ora Sedgwick, the last living member of the Brook Farm, wrote in 1900 that Hawthorne "seems to have had a rather tender feeling for his charges, especially for Dolly and Daisy." Also for the pigs. When given a sparerib from a pig he had cared for, Hawthorne said, I should as soon think of a sculptor’s eating one of his own statues."35 Hawthorne’s unrealistic attitude to the pigs, however, serves even more to show that most of the members of the Brook Farm weren’t good farmers. The farm did begin to lose money. Without the school Brook Farm wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did; the school, because of Ripley’s reputation - he was a Harvard graduate – and the reputation of the others, prospered. Once Hawthorne married Sophia Peabody - Hawthorne had joined the Brook Farm only to try to get enough money to marry her – he left the farm. George Bradford also left, and he was one of their better teachers. Nevertheless, Ora Sedgwick wrote that the teaching "…at Brook Farm was fine, and, to one who really wished to learn, of the very best kind. It was not confined to daytime hours, for some, not only of the teachers, but of the scholars, used to work a portion of each day on the farm." 36 Alan Summer, however, offered a different opinion: he wrote that he "…learned little or nothing from the books, and only worked occasionally in the fields, just as to amuse myself."37 Thus, Emerson in this case at least had been right in criticizing the farm.
In 1843 the trustees of the Brook Farm made an ill-advised decision to change the set-up of the farm to conform to the plans of Charles Fourier. Fourierism was in vogue. Fourierism was the fantastic social philosophy advanced by the Frenchman it was named after. Basically, it was a system for reorganizing society into cooperative communities of small groups living in common. Despite the outcry about it and "Communitism" which Fourierism was related to, it was adopted. The main problem with Fourierism was Fourier’s Order of Love, his Laws of Moral and Industrial Attraction, and his proclamation that God governed the universe by attraction - "by pleasure, not by constraint. Surely," Fourier’s philosophy argued, "it would have been inconsistent for a good God to have made man with evil impulses with which he must constantly contend?"38 Fourier's Analysis of Passions, and his attempt to abolish man-made restrictions ("the moral code") which prevent man from following his natural God-planned impulses, were too "French" for the typical New Englander's idea of morality. Despite the fact that the Brook Farmers were mainly interested in Fourier’s community system, objections suddenly began to be raised about the Brook Farm’s coeducational policy which had, in fact, been in effect since 1841. It didn’t help the Brook Farmers, moreover, that Communitism with which Fourierism was associated "held for the common ownership of property, including wives."39 Rumor spread of scandal. The newspapers carried loathing condemnations: one paper called Fourierism a "creature of corruption which first began to crawl, lizard-like, in the filthiest dregs of Parisian infidelity, and has never left anything but its slime and venom in the track of its crawling, an odious creature…which offers to encircle in its scaly glistening folds all the business, industry, and education of the country – to crush, to besmear and to devour…."40 Ripley’s school, which provided much of the farm’s income and which depended on the Brook Farmers’ reputations, was doomed.
The farm lingered on until 1847, when the members disbanded. It might have lasted longer, if it were not for a small pox epidemic at the farm and a fire that consumed a small building that had taken most of their resources to build. Moreover, when the members did disband, the country had come out of the depression and had begun to prosper again at this time most of the experimental communities like the Brook Farm came to an end. There were several reasons for the Brook Farm’s financial failure. The fire, the epidemic, the rumors, Emerson’s and later Hawthorne’s defection, and the fact that the farmers weren’t realistic enough, that the farm was adapted only to those with angelic dispositions, all helped in one way or another to force the members to disband.
Yet was the venture a complete failure? Was it a failure? All of the less important members of the farm seemed to think that the farm was a success in anything except financial matters, which with a little luck might have turned out differently. Certainly these members would have benefited; they, the students and the others not well educated, received educational opportunities they would not normally have. Unfortunately, the more important members of the farm were as reluctant to write of it (after it was ended) as the less important members were eager to describe their experiences.
The only major complaint of an important member is found in a letter by Elizabeth Peabody to John Dwight. She wrote that "…he (Ripley) enjoys the work so much that he does not clearly see that his plan is not in the way of being demonstrated any farther than that it is made evident that gentlemen, if they will work as many hours as boors, will succeed…in cultivating a farm."41 But were they to prove anything more than they did? They proved that their idea of a wholesome society was indeed beneficial in practice. Asking them to change society greatly was asking too much, although their influence did being about improvements in education, coeducation, for example.
Sumner summed up the accomplishments of the farm best when he said the farm seemed to have no results because the results were upon the lives and characters of those who dwelled there.42
1. Edith Roelker Curtis, A Season in Utopia, Thomas Nelson & Sons, New York, 1961, p. 31.
2. Bliss Perry (ed.), The Heart of Emerson’s Journals, Houghton Mifflin Company, Cambridge, 1926, p. 108.
3. Curtis, Op. cit., p. 31.
4. Curtis, Op. Cit., p. 52.
5. Zoltan Haraszti, "Brook Farm Letters," More Books; the Bulletin of the Boston Public Library, Boston, February 1937, p. 53.
6. George Hochfield, (ed.), Selected Writings of the American Transcendentalists. The New American Public Library. New York., 1966, p. 373.
7. Curtis, Op. cit., p. 46.
8. Perry, Op. cit., p. 142.
9. Ibid., p. 156-157.
10. Ibid., p. 157.
11. Ibid., p. 157.
12. In the letter which Emerson was replying to, the letter in which Ripley had stated his objectives ( see note 5 ), Ripley as an afterthought had asked Emerson to recruit people such as washerwomen or farmers whose talents would be needed – the association was, Ripley justified, to be composed of various classes of men.
13. Hochfield, Op cit., p. 377-378.
14. Ibid., p. 374.
15. Curtis, Op cit., p. 54-55.
16. Haraszti, Op. cit., p. 58.
17. Ibid., p. 58.
18. Hochfield, Op. cit., p. x.
19. Haraszti, Op. cit., p. 53.
20. Hochfield, Op. cit., p. 255.
21. Ibid., p. 260.
22. Ibid., p. 264.
23. Ibid., p. 275.
24. Curtis, Op. cit., p. 27.
25. Hochfield, Op. cit., p. 267
26. Curtis, Op. cit., p. 26.
27. Hochfield, Op. cit., p. 267.
28. Ibid., p. 268.