19th Century Precursors


An Oration Delivered Before the Phi Beta Kappa Society

Ralph Waldo Emerson Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1838. Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

When Emerson resigned from the ministry to become a prophet of consciousness, he told a friend that his own "particular parish" was "young people inquiring their way in the world." Speaking on behalf of the generation for whom Emerson's was the voice that found them in the wilderness, Theodore Parker wrote about how his words glowed in the American heavens, "drawing the eyes of ingenuous young people to look up to that great new star, a beauty and a mystery, as it led them along new paths and towards new hopes." Emerson's favorite rhetorical occasion was the college oration. In 1837 he gave "The American Scholar" address at Harvard. Telling the students in his audience that colleges exist "to set the hearts of youth on flame," he called for "the helpful giant to destroy the old or build the new." To the "young men crowding to the barriers for the career," he spoke of "the disgust which the principles on which business is managed inspire," and called each one of them instead to "plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide." Oliver Wendell Holmes called this speech "America's declaration of cultural independence." Shown is a second edition of the oration, now known as "The American Scholar."