Ralph Waldo Emerson's Harvard commencement speech 175 years ago celebrated nature as a special source of American identity. His views are worth revisiting today as the federal budget sequester threatens national parks – wellsprings of our civic health.
Baton Rouge, La.
This month’s commencement season is a reminder that most graduation speeches are forgotten almost as soon as they’re delivered. One exception is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1838 address to graduating seniors at Harvard’s Divinity School, a speech so controversial that Harvard leaders didn’t invite the Sage of Concord back for another 30 years.
Emerson got into hot water for questioning religious orthodoxy, but his Harvard speech is also noteworthy for its celebration of nature as a special source of American identity. His views are worth revisiting today as the federal budget sequester threatens national parks, wellsprings of our civic health.
Emerson came of age at a time when America was still largely a frontier, its streets devoid of the great cathedrals, libraries, and museums that informed the cultural life of the Old World. But Emerson frequently pointed to America’s natural landscape as an equally promising resource for the mind and spirit.
Like his friend and fellow New Englander, Henry David Thoreau, Emerson believed that connecting with nature could be not only a pleasant pastime, but a path to clearer thinking and a healthier soul. In opening his speech to Harvard’s seniors in 1838, Emerson spoke with joy of a country where “the mystery of nature never was displayed more happily.” He thought that connecting with rivers and mountains and the open sky could help improve us mentally, morally, and spiritually.
That’s not a uniquely American idea, of course, but Emerson helped to place it at the center of our national creed. It’s why figures as varied as John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt embraced the cause of national conservation – and why Roosevelt did so much to advance the growth of a system of national parks across the country.
All of this came to mind a few weeks ago as I stayed overnight in Rocky Springs, a Mississippi campground operated by the National Park Service along the Natchez Trace Parkway – a scene 444-mile drive through Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. Visiting with some Canadian campers who had traveled from Quebec to experience the Trace’s fabled history and beauty, I was reminded that these vistas, as much as any flag or document, help express who Americans are as a people.