An Analysis of Free Will and Self-Reliance in the Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Hannah Craft

Topics: Individuality

Throughout American history, authors, philosophers, activists, and political powers have debated the inherent right to freedom. Many hold varying opinions on how such freedom is accomplished. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in writing Self Reliance, discusses the importance of freedom in thought, as well as a freedom from consumerism. Hannah Crafts/Bonds in her narrative gives an authentic voice to the freedom of not only the African American slaves, but the human soul as well. Henry David Thoreau, in his essay Resistance to Civil Government, advocates freedom from organized law and American government, and overall self-reliance.

In Self Reliance Emerson makes passionate claims, urging his fellow man to resist conformity by declaring, “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist”. This concept of separating oneself from the influences of the masses perpetuates a unique view on ideal freedom. Emerson also rebels against any sort of fame, claiming that it is better to live humbly, true to oneself, than receiving renown and glory from the public.

By ignoring the opinions of others, Emerson is able to be free of societal pressures and focus on living his own life.

While disregarding the opinions of the masses, Emerson often advocates that we, as self- reliant individuals, owe it to ourselves to become true thinkers. To be a true thinker, Emerson says, is to be intuitive. He poses the antithesis of the intuitive man with a metaphorical drunkard. The drunkard is the unthinking man, living life only half awake, completely ignorant of life around him. We are called to not be the unthinking man, instead to be intuitive and self-reliant individuals.

In sharp contrast to Hannah Crafts’ faith and religious freedom, Emerson speaks against religion, stating that religion holds a fear of individual creativity. He recognizes that religion becomes a stale repetition of creeds and the thoughts of other men. Emerson claims, “Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother, because he has shut his own temple doors, and recites fables merely of his brother’s, or his brother’s brother’s God.” By saying this, Emerson is calling for a touch of self-reliant thought in religion, or no religion at all, because a stale religion secludes man from the true expression of self-reliant thought.

Emerson also finds freedom in self-worth and solitude. He does not need the praise of other people and insists, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think… the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Of course, Emerson clarifies the difference between a social hermit and truly enjoying and benefiting from selected solitude. He does not encourage the physical withdrawal from other people, simply entertaining a mindset of solitude. Solitude and self-worth are related in the fact that by accepting solitude, and being self reliant, one would be content in their own mind, unfettered by the opposing opinions of others.

Henry David Thoreau holds some of the same views on self-reliance that his friend Emerson does. Thoreau asserts that we must separate ourselves from the crushing powers of government. He claims that by answering to the majority; democracies answer the desires of the strongest group, not the most virtuous or thoughtful. By being self-reliant and going against the machine of government, Thoreau advocates that we are taking control into our own power.

When it comes to government, Thoreau is very clear. In order to avoid the corrupt system, we should avoid recognizing it at all. This is the crux of self-reliance, being completely independent of government allows us to be in full control of our lives. According to Thoreau, we have the moral duty to rebel against the American government; the same as we would give if it was seen as inefficient or tyrannical. For Thoreau the only reason to comply with government is to enjoy and hold onto the services we enjoy, otherwise it should be disbanded.

In contrast, Hannah Crafts poses a more general issue of freedom, writing from the place of a freed African American slave. Even in her early years, Hannah admits that while she was a slave she learned to always look on the bright side of things, and to do her duty to be kind. It was certainly her freedom in choice which allowed her to act in such a way while in a wretched position.

Early on in her escape, Hannah is confronted by men who find her and her mistress hiding in an abandoned shack. Hannah shyly admits to the men that she is or was a slave. At this point, she has begun to identify with being free. Once she made the decision to run away with her mistress, consequences no longer mattered to her. Hannah was free. In some ways, she always was free.

The “harsh reality” hits Hannah when she is then locked away with a woman accused of being a criminal. Even faced with this new prison, Hannah clings to her faith and realizes that she is unchained, free. To Hannah, regardless of her situation, she holds the only freedom that matters, freedom from sin and the curse of this evil world. As she is locked in “Egyptian darkness” Hannah is consoled by a “heavenly assurance of his (God’s) protection and presence”. With her faith, Hannah is truly free from the agonies of this “peculiar institution” of slavery because her salvation and faith in God is her own.

Hannah often interweaves philosophy and theological interludes concerning what it truly means to be free. She begins Chapter 8 by mourning the loss of her mistress. Hannah laments, praying for death though it would not come. She recognizes that she may not have any control over her circumstances, yet she still has faith that God will use her suffering for “some wise purpose”. When told that she is to be sold, Hannah is firm in her beliefs. She states that regardless of her perishable body, her soul was untouchable. For Hannah, her free-will comes from her relationship with God.

Each of the three authors held unique viewpoints and opinions concerning free-will and self-reliance. While Emerson and Thoreau shared similar beliefs, Hannah Crafts holds a stark contrast with her religious convictions. All three of these different viewpoints, however, maintain a valid representation of common American values, with the religious, the individualist, and the transcendentalist (not to say that both Emerson and Thoreau are not both “spiritual” in their own rights as well). Free-will and self-reliance are often simply different ways of expressing the same inherent rights of choice and control in our lives as human beings.

Cite this page

An Analysis of Free Will and Self-Reliance in the Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Hannah Craft. (2023, Feb 13). Retrieved from

Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7