The Emerson Letters


The MacDonald Papers – MacDonald Scrapbook


Letter 1 – Ralph Waldo Emerson to Francis MacDonald · April 21st, 1848

London, 21 April

Dear Sir,

You must forgive my seeming negligence in attending to your request.
No day was fixed And in London my time has been overfilled with every day’s demands. I was glad, (Back of Letter) in that circumstances, to learn from Mr Sanderson that you were preparing to embark. I enclose a couple of notes of introduction to two excellent young men, men of business [and] of large acquaintance in Boston whom I am sure you will be glad to know. On my return, (Last page of Letter) which will be I think in the month of July, I shall be happy to greet you on the other shore.

With the best wishes,
R. W. Emerson

Letter 2 – Ellen T. Emerson to Francis MacDonald · February 13th, 1876


Concord Feb. 13th 1876

Dear Sir,

The book was sent on the 6th of January. I carried it to Adams’s
Express Office in Boston, and told them I wished to pay it through. I paid them what they asked, and (Inside of Letter -Left Side) they gave me the enclosed
receipt. I did not send it to you, because it did not occur to me that that there
was any danger of the book’s going astray. If with the aid of the receipt you do not find it, please (Inside of Letter -Right Side) write again. I will meanwhile inquire at the Boston Office. If I remember rightly I copied your address immediately from  your letter, or asked my Father to. I feel quite sure that the right address was on it in full, though not copied on (Back of Letter) the receipt

Ellen T. Emerson

Letter 3 – Ralph Waldo Emerson to Francis MacDonald · May 13th, 1852


Concord, Massachusetts
13 May, 1852

Dear Sir,

I have a note dated 6 May, but which was misdirected Boston. and so did not come to me in time from Miss Jane Barland. I fear from the purport of it that she (Back of Letter) has already passed through Boston. But if it should happen that Miss Barland is still in New York, I wish you would say to her, that, if she will in a line to me (at Concord, Mass.) give mc her address in Boston,
I will come and see her With great pleasure.

R.W. Emerson

Letter 4 – Ralph Waldo Emerson to Unknown Recipient · No Date
(Top of Letter Missing)


by them VACAT highest terms as energetic, intelligent, steady, and worthy of implicit confidence. He will be glad to learn from you anything that is known to you respecting the comparative advantages which any of the newer towns
and cities in New Englander (Back of Letter -Top Missing) Can answer VACAT {–ete} practical questions. In the hope of seeing you in no very long time, I remain

Your friend,
R. W .Emerson

External & Internal Criticism:

The documents as transcribed are the letters of American writer, poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson and his daughter Ellen T. Emerson that have come from the MacDonald Scrapbook in The MacDonald Collection at the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences. The author of letters one, three and four are Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ellen Tucker Emerson is the author of letter number two. Three of the letters have been addressed to “Dear Sir.” The identity of “Sir” in the letters is Francis MacDonald. There is only one letter that has been damaged and the addressee, date, and location cannot be identified. The letter is written as a recommendation letter for Francis MacDonald.

There are several internal clues in which one can determine the author of the documents. In examining the documents one notices that the handwriting of letters one, three and four are very much different from that of letter two. Another clue to who the authors of the letters are is the signature. At the end of each letter there is a signature. The signature of “R.W. Emerson” can be found on Line 33 of letter one, Line 25 of letter three and on Line 18 of letter four. At the end of letter two, Line 26, is where the signature of Ellen Tucker Emerson can be found.

Another internal clue that can be considered is the location and date of the letters. Letter one is written by Ralph Waldo Emerson from London in 1848. In researching the letter it is important to note that Ralph W. Emerson was really in London in 1848. Researched biographies on Ralph W. Emerson on the web support this finding. “Emerson spent the rest of his life centered in Concord, with another trip to England in 1847 -1848.” ( This had confirms the time and date of letter one. Letters three and four are written from Concord, Massachusetts. That is the known place where Ralph Waldo Emerson had lived. Letter two is also written in Concord, Massachusetts where Ellen T. Emerson is said to have lived all her life without being married. In letter four, written by Ralph W. Emerson, there is a mention of New England, which would be an internal clue to where he is from.

In order to determine authenticity of the letters it was essential to have other documents that were written in the author’s handwriting. These works of reference can determine identity the author, and therefore was necessary to obtain letters from both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ellen T. Emerson for authentication purposes. By studying the signatures of letters one, three and four, and then comparing to other documents known to have been written by the authors, Ralph W. Emerson’s signature is remarkably the same. The letters “R ” and “W” are noticeably the same, along with the way Emerson was known to loop his “E” in order to complete “Emerson”. The same applies for Ellen T. Emerson’s signature. Ellen Emerson’s handwriting is also neat, legible, close together and feminine looking. This pattern follows through out the letters she writes. Her “B” is exactly the same through out her letter and when reviewing the letter received by the Concord Free Public Library the word “Dear” matches that of the letter in the MacDonald Collection. Some of the letters written by Ralph W. Emerson can be compared amongst themselves. If the Ralph Emerson letters are compared to each other one can see that the “Dear Sir” is written each time in the same manner. The only exception to this method of authenticity would be the letter written by Ellen T. Emerson because there are not several in the MacDonald Collection. One will also notice that in all of Ralph Emerson’s letters the author writes his date in the same fashion; Day, Month, and then the Year. In Ellen Emerson’s case she writes both ways. In the letter that is held in the MacDonald Scrapbook (pages 133a and 133d), the date is as it is written today: Month, Day, and the Year following. However in the letter from the Emerson Collection at the Concord Free Public Library, the date is written in the same pattern as her father’s: Day, Month and then year. Both of these authors include the location of where they were writing from.

In order to establish identity, it was necessary to also search other collections, including a search at the College of Staten Island’s library for any works that may contain handwriting of the authors of the letters. In this search several books that were written by other authors and even R. W. Emerson himself were located. These books include handwriting samples of Ralph Waldo Emerson. A few of these selections are The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Ralph L. Rusk and A Letter of Emerson by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Unfortunately there were no books available that contained samples of Ellen Tucker Emerson’s handwriting. Authorship can be proved through the same methods of searching and matching the signature, matching the handwriting, and the subject matter within the documents.

In order to place the historical time period of each document, one can look at the top of each letter in order to see the date. Although not all documents contain dates, an example of this can be seen in Letter Four. This letter is missing the top half of the document and so therefore the only way one can date the document is through two choices; carbon dating or simply attempting to decode the subject matter through internal and external clues. In Letter 4, there are no specific clues, but the subject matter may be connected to that of Lines 17-25 of Letter One, where Ralph W. Emerson puts a good word in for two young men in Boston. Letter One is dated April 21, 1848, Letter Two is dated February 13, 1876, Letter Three is dated May 13, 1852 and Letter Four, having been ripped or damaged, does not reveal the date.

Historical Background:

Each of the letters in the Emerson section of the MacDonald Scrapbook has their own story to tell. The letters all speak of different subjects. They have all been written either from Concord, Massachusetts or London with the exception of Letter Four. Letter 4, because it is damaged does not reveal a place but in the context of the letter there is a mention of New England, which might suggest the letter was written in Massachusetts. It is important to be careful with this because in Letter Two, for example there is discussion of Boston and the letter was written from Concord.

Letter One, which is written by Ralph W. Emerson to Francis MacDonald, is a personal letter and one that does not sound of the business nature. Emerson apologizes for becoming so busy and not being able to write MacDonald back sooner. His days have been busy with everyday demands. He also writes that he was glad to hear from Mr .Sanderson that MacDonald would be embarking on a trip. Emerson then goes on to recommend two young men that are excellent men of business from Boston and suggests that he meet with them. These men in the letter remain nameless. Finally Emerson tells MacDonald that he should be returning to the United Stated from London in July and expresses he will be happy to see him on the other shore. The intention of the authors’ letter is simply to drop a friendly line to a friend and recommend two men that might be of help to his export shipping business.

Within Letter one Emerson speaks of two men that Francis MacDonald should meet. The men’s names are not given, but it is possible that the two men could be Henry Thoreau and J .M. Cook. Henry Thoreau was a close family friend of the Emerson Family and in 1841 came to live with them. (Joseph, Linda. Cyber Bee. <>). He actually came to live with them several times and would do odd jobs in exchange for room and board. While he stayed there he helped Lydia Emerson when Ralph was traveling. Keep in mind the letter that Ralph Emerson wrote suggesting the two men was in 1848 and he was writing from London. Emerson and Thoreau being such good friends, Emerson wrote to MacDonald about his friend Henry Thoreau in seeking him a stable job. Keep in mind this is only a guess and not the actual answer. The second gentleman that Emerson speaks about could be J .M. Cook or Thomas Cook, a man who would be in the same degree of business as MacDonald – exports and shipping. Also discussed with in Letter One is Emerson hearing from a Mr. Sanderson that MacDonald will be embarking on a trip.

The historical context of Letter One’s date, which is 1848, indicates that Ralph Waldo Emerson was indeed in London at the time probably giving lectures and promoting transcendentalism. It is said he traveled to Europe between 1847 and 1848.

Letter Two, which is written by Emerson’s daughter Ellen T. Emerson, is also written to Francis MacDonald. This time the letter has a more business sound to it. It sounds very straight forward, to the point and impersonal. In the letter she is simply letting MacDonald know that she has sent the book through Adams’ s Express Office in Boston but did not see any reason to send the receipt because she felt the book would not go astray. She informs him that she will check with the Boston office to make sure she wrote his address correctly and if he does not receive the book she will ask her Father for the correct address. She does not sign the letter with any of the phrases such as “Yours”, “Respectfully” or “Your Friend” like her father does when he writes to him. This is also an indicator that she was not a close friend of Francis MacDonald and that he was simply an acquaintance of her family and father. The authors’ intention is to let the reader of the letter know he must be expected a package soon and if he does not, let her know and she will be sure to correct the mistake.

Within the letter there is a mention of an Adams’ s Express Office in Boston. This is the place where Ellen Emerson states she has taken the book to be delivered to him (Francis MacDonald). The Adams Express Company was started in May of 1840 by a man named Alvin Adams in Boston. The primary business was the carrying of small parcels, bank drafts and other valuable items between Boston, Worcester, Norwich, New London and New York City with the use of steamboats and railroads. At this time the shipping and delivery business was booming. A number of large local and regional companies such as Livingston, Fargo & Company, Wells & Company, and Butterfield & Wasson were beginning during this year also. The men who put together these companies later on in 1849 put together what we now know as The American Express Company. The business routes of the company expanded rapidly and at the start of the gold rush, a new trans-continental business development was started. Shortly after in 1849, Adams moved to California and started an Adams & Co. This firm was closely related to that of the Eastern company but this one focused on the transportation of gold dust from San Francisco to New York. During the Civil War the Adams Express Company initially acted as paymaster for both the Union and Confederate armies and later set up a separate wholly-owned company called the Southern Express to handle payment of the Southern troops. In 2004, the company observed its 150th year Anniversary. Today the Adams Express Company is still delivering and is a diversified equity investment company. Some of the publications of Ralph W. Emerson at that time were a Revised Editions of “Selected Poems” (1876), his essay entitled “Society and Solitude” (1875), or “Letters and Social Aims” (1876). One of these may have been the books referred to in the letter.

Letter Three, written by Ralph Emerson to Francis MacDonald discusses a misdirected note. He received a note dated May 6, (keep in mind the date of his letter is May 13, 1852) which was misdirected to Boston from a Miss Jane Barland. Miss Jane Barland must be an acquaintance or friend of Emerson’s because he fears she may have already passed through Boston and he would not be able to see her. He does ask a favor of MacDonald. He asks if Miss Barland still be in New York that he tells her to drop him a line in Concord Massachusetts so he may get her address in Boston and visit her. This letter along with Emerson’s other letters to MacDonald is personal and friendly. The authors’ intention is to find out if the reader of the letter could drop a note to Miss Barland so that he may contact and visit her.

Letter Four, which has been damaged with the top of the letter missing, displays no date or a place in which it was written. Nor is there nay indication of who the letter was sent to. It is written about Francis MacDonald in the form of a recommendation letter. The letter could have been written to someone in New York to help MacDonald with his export shipping business. The part of the letter that can be seen describes MacDonald in the highest terms using words such as energetic, intelligent, steady, and worthy of implicit confidence. He assures the individual he is writing to that MacDonald will be glad to learn from him and ends his letter in the hope of seeing this person soon. He signs this letter “Your Friend” which gives us the clue that this is a personal letter of recommendation for a friend, to a friend. The author’s intention is to write a good letter of recommendation for a close friend of his.


EmersonPhotoRalph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25th, 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts to Reverend William and Ruth (Haskins) Emerson and was the fourth child and the third son to the Emerson family. (Cabot, James Elliot. A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson – Vol. 1. Houghton, Miffin & Company. Boston. 1887. Page 3) It is said that in his boyhood he began schooling before the age of three and would go on to attend the Boston Latin School. (Ibid. Page 43) Early on in his school career, Ralph W. Emerson enjoyed writing and created extraordinary original poems and works. Even his teacher Mr. Gould had kept some to show the school committee. Clearly Emerson was beginning a writing career for himself at a young age. In August of 1817, Emerson entered Harvard College and continued to excel with his writing capabilities. James Cabot a boyhood and life long friend recalls when Emerson was nominated by his class to be poet for “Class Day” and his poem “was pronounced superior to the general expectation.” (Ibid. Page 60) Throughout his school years all his classmates and teachers liked him. In 1821, Emerson graduated from Harvard College in which he then continued on to study at Harvard Divinity School. In 1829, he became a Unitarian minister of the Second Church in Boston and married his first wife Ellen Louise Tucker. Eighteen months later in 1831, Ellen died of tuberculosis. She was only seventeen when she died and was said to have been the love of his life. His marriage to her “…made him a man of some substance, or rather had given him the promise of being so…” (Rusk, Ralph. The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Columbia University Press. New York. 1949. Page 142) After her death he became dissatisfied with his work in which he resigned from his pastoral appointments because of “personal doubts about administering the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson. Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. 2004) In 1832, he left the United States for a tour of Europe where he stayed in England for sometime gaining acquaintance with British literary notables such as Walter Savage Landor, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and William Wordsworth. (Ibid.) Thomas Carlyle would be a friend to Emerson throughout his life. In 1834, Emerson moved back to the United States and made a home in Concord Massachusetts in 1835. He began giving lectures in Boston, some entitled, “The Philosophy of History”, “Human Culture”, and “Human Life”. (Bode, Carl. Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Life. Hill and Wang. New York. 1968 Page 92) In 1836, he published his first book entitled Nature, which offered the beginnings to his philosophy of transcendentalism.

In September of 1835 he married once again to Lydia Jackson of Plymouth whom he came to call Lidian or sometimes Asia. Emerson would spend the rest of his days in Concord but ventured again one last time to London in 1847-1848. Ralph and Lydia Emerson had four children together – Waldo, Ellen Tucker (named by Lydia for Ralph’s first wife), Edith, and Edward. Unfortunately his son Waldo died in 1842 at young age of five due to scarlatina. Toward the end of his life, his home had been burned and friends paid for him to travel overseas while they secretly rebuilt his home and library for him. Some of his neighbors and friends consist of American’s most famous such as Louisa May Alcott (author of such works as Little Women and Flower Fables which she wrote for Ralph Emerson’s daughter Ellen Tucker Emerson), Margaret Fuller (The Dial – Transcendental Journal), and Nathaniel Hathorne. Emerson became frail, old, and forgetful and developed a cold while walking coat-less and hatless in rainy, cold Concord in April. His cold developed into pneumonia and at the age of 78, on April 27, 1882, he passed away. The bell of the First Parish rang, the funeral was elaborate, and he was laid to rest in Sleepy Hallow Cemetery in Concord Middlesex County, Massachusetts.

EllenEmersonPhotoEllen Tucker Emerson, named generously by Lydia after Ralph W. Emerson’s first wife Ellen Louise Tucker was born in 1839 in Concord, Massachusetts. (Rusk, Ralph. The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Columbia University Press. New York. 1949. Page 252) She was a life-long resident of Massachusetts and an active member of the community. Never married, she used her time to look after her aging parents who traveled to Britain, Europe, and Egypt. Ellen was extremely close with her parents. In her teenage years when she was sent to boarding school in the town of Lenox in Western Massachusetts, her father was her correspondent and advisor on educational matters. Even in her father’s final years she helped him keep his place with his lecture papers and assisted James Elliot Cabot in editing his manuscripts. Like her father she enjoyed writing and wrote a biography of her mother, which was published in 1980. Ellen Emerson was a member of Concord’ s School Committee, taught Sunday school at the First Parish and arranged the social dances in the Town Hall. The famous American writer Louisa May Alcott was a friend to the family and even wrote her first book in 1854 Flower Fables for Ellen when she was teenager. Ellen T. Emerson lived her life in her parent’s home until her death in 1929.

Francis and Elizabeth MacDonald were Scottish immigrants to the United States who had settled in New York in 1848-1849. Francis MacDonald (1825-1878) was from Helensburg, which is North of Glasgow in Scotland and was the eldest of six children. Elizabeth or Eliza Wallace (1825-1911) the future wife of Francis was born at Ely in Fifeshire, Scotland. Both were born into respectable families. Francis received an education at Glasgow University in which he was an apprentice in the shipping business. At the age of 23, Francis set sail for New York, leaving Glasgow and his future wife on September 16,1848 onboard the Augusta with hope in starting a new life in America. In 1849, Eliza joined Francis and they were married in Brooklyn on September 21, 1850. From 1863 on Francis MacDonald became a successful export merchant and became the “New York agent of the Anchor Line” which was a transatlantic steamship company. Eventually the couple moved to Staten Island and could afford trips back and forth to Europe due to MacDonald’s prosperity. The MacDonald’s had many well-known acquaintances, the Emerson family being one of them. In letter one, written to Francis MacDonald from Ralph Waldo Emerson, he states he would be happy to greet him when he returns and reaches the shore (meaning Europe back home to the U.S.). This can be seen in Lines 29 and 30 of letter one’s transcription. The friendship and correspondence between Francis MacDonald and Ralph Waldo Emerson would last over twenty years. Ralph W. Emerson even recommended Francis MacDonald as being an individual who was “energetic, intelligent, steady and worthy of implicit confidence” In Letter two, which is written by Ellen T. Emerson, she also writes to Francis MacDonald. She has sent him a package containing a book that may either be the book she wrote about her mother or a copy of her father’s book sent from Adams’s Express Office. When Francis MacDonald passed in 1878, his wife Eliza kept in her scrapbook the obituaries from the New York Times, which states that he was a very successful businessman and that his name became greatly well known in many places such as New York, London, Liverpool and Glasgow.


The letters by Ralph Waldo Emerson and his daughter Ellen show their contact with the world. They show what kind of people they were friends with and what social class they belonged to. We can study Ralph Waldo Emerson on a level other than his works, on a more personal level. As for Ellen Emerson, if her letter had been a more personal one then we might have be able to peer into her on a different level. Through Ralph Emerson’s letters we can see the man behind the books, the man who is a human being, the man who shows compassion for his friends. The Ralph Emerson letters allow us to see a more humanistic side of the author.


The back and last pages of the April 21st, 1848 letter.

Inside side of the February 13th, 1876 letter.

Back Inside right side of the February 13th, 1876 letter.

Back page of the May 13th, 1852 letter.

Back of Letter Four – No date.

Material Culture:

Adams Express Company Advertisement.

Statue of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Daniel Chester French.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home in Concord, MA.






Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord Massachusetts.