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Emerson on the right of self-ownership of slaves to themselves and to their labor (1863)

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) caused a stir when he read this poem in Boston to celebrate President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. What seemed to ruffle some feathers was his notion that the slaves had a right to self-ownership and therefore should be compensated for the crimes committed against them while they were slaves:

But, lay hands on another

To coin his labor and sweat,

He goes in pawn for his victim

For eternal years in debt.

To-day unbind the captive,

So only are ye unbound;

Lift up a people from the dust,

Trump of their rescue, sound!

Pay ransom to the owner

And fill the bag to the brim.

Who is the owner? The slave is owner,

And ever was. Pay him.

Boston Hymn. Read in Music Hall, January 1, 1863.

THE WORD of the Lord by night
To the watching Pilgrims came,
As they sat by the seaside,
And filled their hearts with flame.

God said, I am tired of kings,
I suffer them no more;
Up to my ear the morning brings
The outrage of the poor

Think ye I made this ball
A field of havoc and war,
Where tyrants great and tyrants small
Might harry the weak and poor?

My angel,—his name is Freedom,—
Choose him to be your king;
He shall cut pathways east and west
And fend you with his wing.

Lo! I uncover the land
Which I hid of old time in the West,
As the sculptor uncovers the statue
When he has wrought his best;

I show Columbia, of the rocks
Which dip their foot in the seas
And soar to the air-borne flocks
Of clouds and the boreal fleece.

I will divide my goods;
Call in the wretch and slave:
None shall rule but the humble,
And none but Toil shall have.

I will have never a noble,
No lineage counted great;
Fishers and choppers and ploughmen
Shall constitute a state.

Go, cut down trees in the forest
And trim the straightest boughs;
Cut down trees in the forest
And build me a wooden house.

Call the people together,
The young men and the sires,
The digger in the harvest-field,
Hireling and him that hires;

And here in a pine state-house
They shall choose men to rule
In every needful faculty,
In church and state and school.

Lo, now! if these poor men
Can govern the land and sea
And make just laws below the sun,
As planets faithful be.

And ye shall succor men;
’Tis nobleness to serve;
Help them who cannot help again:
Beware from right to swerve.

I break your bonds and masterships,
And I unchain the slave:
Free be his heart and hand henceforth
As wind and wandering wave.

I cause from every creature
His proper good to flow:
As much as he is and doeth,
So much he shall bestow.

But, lay hands on another
To coin his labor and sweat,
He goes in pawn for his victim
For eternal years in debt.


To-day unbind the captive,
So only are ye unbound;
Lift up a people from the dust,
Trump of their rescue, sound!


Pay ransom to the owner
And fill the bag to the brim.
Who is the owner? The slave is owner,
And ever was. Pay him.


O North! give him beauty for rags,
And honor, O South! for his shame;
Nevada! coin thy golden crags
With Freedom’s image and name.

Up! and the dusky race
That sat in darkness long,—
Be swift their feet as antelopes,
And as behemoth strong.

Come, East and West and North,
By races, as snow flakes,
And carry my purpose forth,
Which neither halts nor shakes.

My will fulfilled shall be,
For, in daylight or in dark,
My thunderbolt has eyes to see
His way home to the mark.

About this Quotation:

The radical individualists grounded their defence of individual liberty in the notion of self-ownership. Thus they abhorred slavery – the idea that one human being could own another – as the grossest violation of that right. This is very clear in the writings of Herbert Spencer, Lysander Spooner and interestingly in this poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson who asks and then answers this key question in political philosophy “Who is the owner? The slave is owner, and ever was.”

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