Spirit in Action: Margaret's Legacy for Us
by Michael Barnett and Rev. Dorothy Emerson
The following items by Michael Barnett provide background for this workshop:
“Margaret Fuller at the New York Tribune: Emerging As a Social Justice Activist”
“Margaret Fuller and Transcendentalism”
See items presented by Dorothy Emerson for the workshop on the Proceedings.
Margaret Fuller at the New York Tribune:
Emerging As a Social Justice Activist
by Michael Barnett, M.Div., M. Ed.
“Thanksgiving and Care for Others”
At Thanksgiving 1844, Margaret took a look at the deeper and practical meaning of this significant
Thanksgiving...is not wholly without use in healing differences...if the design of its pious founders
were remembered by those who partake...to show enough obedience to the Law and the Prophets to
love thy neighbor as ourselves...if in this nation recent decisions have shown a want of moral
discrimination on important subjects...there is cause for thanksgiving and that our people may be
better than they seem, the meeting last week to organize an Association for the benefit of
Prisoners....The prisoner, too, may become a man....We will treat him as if he had a soul....
In this thought-provoking essay on the spiritual meaning of Thanksgiving, Margaret moved critically
from the traditional family get-together to its transcending opportunity for her readers to experience
their shared humanity and to conduct social justice. She urged them to understand the religious
reasons why the Puritans shared their treasured bounty with those Native Americans who gave them
their knowledge and saved their lives. Margaret's extensive background in the Bible was evident as
she appealed to her public to grow from the Pharisees to embrace Jesus' greatest commandment. She
was acutely aware that her readers were well-versed in knowledge of the Bible, so she naturally used
this to her advantage to build her case for care of others. Implying that America has not lived up to its
supreme democratic mandate to eradicate slavery within its borders as well as to refrain from tensions
with Mexico, Margaret never gave up on the integrity
of the nation.
Proof of the pudding was her report that people have
come together in an atmosphere of tenderness to create
an organization for prison reform in New York. From
her experience, Margaret saw the prisoner as no
different from any other person who could easily go
astray due to difficult circumstances. If one treats the
prisoner as human, then the prisoner has the
opportunity for change and rehabilitation. Weeks
earlier, Margaret had heard the female prisoners at Sing
Sing prison sing hymns while filled with the spirit. She
confidently and sincerely asked Americans if they
could do their part to help those in less fortunate
circumstances than themselves.
Fuller had gone deeper inside herself and outwardly
into the world with her social criticism. She courageously traveled into the dark and difficult places of
America where people are pushed aside, left to fend for themselves, and are forgotten. She bravely
entered the prisons of New York to observe and to reflect upon people's conditions, then revealed the
monsters and demons lurking within. Margaret opened the locked door to penetrate the darkness and
to bring the light to shine on the horrendous circumstances. As a social crusader, she exposed the dark
side of our American society and enlisted her audience to become part of the healthy solution to
benefit everyone. How do we become engaged as part of the healthy solution today?
From her own life experience, Margaret realized that there is no separation between one's own
happiness and the welfare of others; in human interaction, human beings must live beyond any
racism, sexism, classism, and nationalism, which ultimately limit and undermine them.
New Year's, Slavery and War
In her 1844 New Year's reflection upon the course of the nation, Margaret dug deeply into her
Transcendentalist and mystical belief system to promote social and political justice:
...Let us look about us to see with...what acts of devotion, this modern Christian nation greets
the approach of the New Year;...This last week brings tidings that a portion of the inhabitants of
Illinois,...live...for themselves, acknowledging no obligation and no duty to God or to man. One man
has freed a slave, but a great part of the nation is now busy in contriving measures that may best rivet
the fetters on those now chained, and forge them strongest for millions yet unborn. National Honor is
trodden under foot for a National bribe....Yet we cannot lightly be discouraged or alarmed as to the
destiny of our Country. The whole history of its discovery and early progress indicates too clearly the
purposes of Heaven with regard to it...We too have been chosen...If the nation tends to wrong, there
are yet present the ten just men...There is still hope, there is still an America,...
Even in these dark days of Americans condoning slavery and the nation aggressively seeking its
expansive policy of Manifest Destiny and war with Mexico, Margaret still knew that there were sane
women and men who would stand up and act in accordance with what is right before God. She was
totally convinced that America would remember its original democratic commitment to all who seek
freedom. This was the greatness and promise of America for all its people. In her column, Margaret
repeatedly instigated whatever she could to lead her readers to recommit themselves to the nation's
true glory of living its ideals at home and in relation in the world. She instilled the thoughtfulness and
vigor for them to be and act their best as Americans. Both Margaret and Greeley adamantly opposed
the expansion of slavery and Texas annexation.
Poverty in Europe
Perceiving the severe poverty in Glasgow, Scotland, Margaret noted:
Certainly the place,...more resembles an Inferno than any other we have yet visited. The people
are more crowded together, and the stamp of squalid, stolid misery and degradation more obvious and
appalling....I saw here in Glasgow persons, especially women, dressed in dirty, wretched tatters,
worse than none, and with an expression of listless, unexpecting woe upon their faces, far more tragic
than the inscription over the gate of Dante's Inferno....Yet there is every reason to hope that those who
ought to help are seriously, though slowly, becoming alive to the imperative nature of this duty; so we
must not cease to hope, even in the streets of Glasgow, and the gin-palaces of Manchester, and the
dreariest recesses of London....
Margaret sorrowfully comprehended the massive scope of suffering poor amidst the growing
prosperity of England's industrial revolution. Those thriving industries and persons with means and
wealth, Margaret insisted, have a duty to respond to and alleviate this overwhelming by-product of
Poverty and Reform
In Paris for the 1846-47 winter season, Margaret realized the difficult plight of the people:
...the poorer classes have suffered from hunger this winter. All signs of this are kept out of sight
in Paris. A pamphlet, called "The Voice of Famine," stating facts, ...was suppressed almost as soon as
published; but the fact cannot be suppressed, that the people in the provinces have suffered most
terribly....the need of some radical measures of reform is not less strongly felt in France than
elsewhere,...The more I see of the terrible ills which infest the body politic of Europe, the more
indignation I feel at the selfishness of stupidity of those in my own country who oppose an
examination of these subjects,...
As Margaret watched and analyzed the people's unrest unfurling in her travels, she could not
help but see how the same problems of poverty and class were occurring in America and needed to
Seeds of Revolution and Reform
When the Austrians tightened their political grip on Rome in 1847, Margaret reported:
The Austrian rule is always equally hated,...there is always a force at work underneath which
shall yet,..shake off the incubus....In the middle class ferments such thought,...The Austrian policy is
to allow them a degree of material well-being,...Her policy is, indeed, too thoroughly organized to
change except by revolution....Alas! I have the more reason to be ashamed of my
countrymen...who...have no heart for the idea, for the destiny of our own great nation: how can they
feel the spirit that is struggling now in this and others of Europe?...
Through her ever-growing love of Italy and its people, Margaret attacked the Austrians' iron
rule and assailed America for its loss of democratic identity and freedom. As she entered and
supported the Roman Revolution, Margaret expected her fellow Americans to follow suit. Would
you join Margaret in her cause?
In 1848, Pope Pius IX reversed his liberal policies and acceded to the demands of catholic
Austria. Margaret felt called to the Italian revolutionary cause:
The loss of Pius IX is for the moment a great one....The responsibility of events now lies wholly
with the people....Hoping this era, I remain at present here....My friends write to urge my return; they
talk of our country as the land of the future. it is so, but that spirit which made it all it is of value in
my eyes...is mo re alive here at present than in America....
Margaret could not leave her active participation in the Revolution as journalist because it had
become her life. She felt vitally alive to report the ongoing progress of the Italian democratic
movement to America, which she felt had lost its revolutionary spirit and fervor. Realistically,
Margaret could not return to her native country because she expected a child. No one back home
knew about this.
The Roman Republic was established in February 1849, but France and Austria attacked. In
great despair, Margaret wrote her last dispatch:
I am sick of breathing the same air with men capable of a part so utterly cruel and false....I have
seen too much sorrow, and alas! without power to aid. It makes me sick to see the palaces and streets
of Rome full of these infamous foreigners....
Margaret was disgusted and sickened by the devastating cruelty and destruction of lives and
Margaret Fuller and Transcendentalism
Michael Barnett, M. Div., M. Ed
An American philosophical and literary movement which lasted from 1830 to
1850. It grew from Romanticism, which emphasized the individual, the emotions, and Nature.
Transcendentalism was a reaction to Enlightenment logic and reason. It advocated the importance of
intuition and understanding beyond the five senses. Transcendentalism focused on what Ralph Waldo
Emerson called "the Oversoul," the unity of God, humankind, and Nature.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832):
German poet, playwright, novelist, and scientist who
understood the individual as part of an organic whole.
He acknowledged the importance of the self.
Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805):
German dramatist, poet, and historian who worked closely
August Wilhelm (1767-1845) and Friedrich (1772-1829) von
German romantic poets, philosophers, and critics who
established the principles of German Romanticism.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850):
English poet who loved nature and was deeply interested
in the lives of common people. He led English
Romanticism with Coleridge.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834):
English poet, essayist, and critic who personified the
English romantic movement. With his friend, William
Wordsworth, Coleridge created and published poetry
and traveled to Germany, where he studied German. He
translated Schiller's work.
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881):
Scottish-born English prose writer who attacked excessive
materialism and believed in the power of the individual. He
admired Goethe's and Schiller's creative work, which he
popularized in England.
Margaret Fuller (1810-1850):
American Transcendentalist who translated Goethe.