Emerson on Anarchy

Ralph Waldo Emerson Ralph Waldo Emerson commenting on the not so wild wild west:

I am glad to see that the terror at disunion and anarchy is disappearing. Massachusetts, in its heroic day, had no government – was an anarchy. Every man stood on his own feet, was his own governor; and there was no breach of peace from Cape Cod to Mount Hoosac. California, a few years ago, by the testimony of all people at that time in the country, had the best government that ever existed. Pans of gold lay drying outside of every man’s tent, in perfect security. The land was measured into little strips of a few feet wide, all side by side. A bit of ground that your hand could cover was worth one or two hundred dollars, on the edge of your strip; and there was no dispute. Every man throughout the country was armed with knife and revolver, and it was known that instant justice would be administered to each offence, and perfect peace reigned. For the Saxon man, when he is well awake, is not a pirate but a citizen, all made of hooks and eyes, and links himself naturally to his brothers, as bees hook themselves to one another and to their queen in a loyal swarm.
(Speech on Affairs in Kansas, 1856)



6 Responses to Emerson on Anarchy

  1. Anon2 July 11, 2007 at 4:08 pm #

    I can certainly imagine peace reigning if any offense is immediately “corrected” by administering justice with a revolver.

  2. Shawn P. Wilbur July 11, 2007 at 9:03 pm #

    Nice find. This is one of the earliest positive uses of the term in the U. S. that I’m aware of, five years before Eliphalet Kimball’s “Boston Investigator” pieces.

  3. Dain July 11, 2007 at 9:36 pm #


    The idea that peace would reign if any minor offense were corrected by a firearm would seem to be counter-inuitive. That is, any society wherein a small, harmless trespass or theft of a loaf of bread resulted in the death penalty would not be the more or less tranquil place that Emerson is describing. The idea of proportionate justice is rich in common law, and informs the ideas we still have today about appropriate punishment.

    Without knowing the details of what Emerson is talking about when referring to justice, I doubt he means anything Klingon-esque as you are suggesting.

  4. Sergio Méndez July 11, 2007 at 11:12 pm #

    “Every man throughout the country was armed with knife and revolver, and it was known that instant justice would be administered to each offence, and perfect peace reigned. ”

    Hmmm..this doesnt sound like my ideal of justice in an anarchist society….

  5. Administrator July 12, 2007 at 11:52 am #

    To see what Emerson was talking about, take a look at the two articles that I link to from the words “perfect peace” and “reigned.”

  6. Scott Garner July 12, 2007 at 4:06 pm #

    May I suggest that the private actors may well have been more proportionate in their response than “the law” as such would have been? Given enforcement costs, many people believe that deals are more likely than shoot-outs, under such circumstances. One other thing I have always found interesting is the relatively decent and humane manner in which most of the settlers dealt with the Indians – not to say they were perfect, of course, but trade, intermarriage, etc. were common during the early settlement – compared to the brutal wars of aggression carried out by the state. (I am fully aware that the state was often carrying out the wars on behalf of the settlers, and that often settlement followed war, but the record is still that the settlers, in their individual capacity, tended to be pretty decent.)

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