Alcott, Abigail and Bronson

Amos Bronson Alcott
Amos Bronson Alcott

Amos Bronson Alcott (November 29, 1799-March 4, 1888), educator, philosopher, utopian, and visionary, ran the progressive Temple School in Boston, founded the Fruitlands community in Harvard, Massachusetts, and led many public Socratic “conversations.” Although he belonged to no church, Alcott was influential both in the Transcendentalist wing of Unitarianism and in the Free Religion movement which followed. His Unitarian wife Abigail May Alcott (October 8, 1800-November 25, 1877), abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and pioneer social worker, supported her husband and the Fruitlands community through her labor and resources. She provided the model for “Marmee” in her daughter Louisa May Alcott‘s novel, Little Women.

Amos was born in Wolcott, Connecticut, the oldest of eight children of Anna Bronson and Joseph Chatfield Alcox, a farm couple. Although his boyhood education was minimal, he was fascinated by books, built his own library, and read widely. One in particular, John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress, struck him with the force of a conversion experience. He re-read the book throughout his life, memorizing and internalizing it, and making of it a manual for living. “That book was incorporated into the very substance of my youthful being,” he later wrote.

At thirteen he briefly attended nearby Cheshire Academy, but soon returned home, humiliated by the other students for his rustic manners. He then tried a number of jobs—farming, clock-manufacturing, and door-to-door bookselling—but wished above all to be a teacher. At nineteen, newly self-christened as A. Bronson Alcott, he sailed to Norfolk, Virginia, hoping to teach in the South. Unable to find employment as a teacher and reluctant to return home, he worked for five years as a peddler in Virginia and North Carolina. Among the Quakers of North Carolina he absorbed the doctrine of the “inner light,” which became the germ of his belief in each individual’s direct relationship with God.

After returning home, from 1823 until 1828 Alcott served as an innovative schoolmaster in Cheshire and in Bristol, Connecticut. His progressive approach attracted attention: a report in the Boston Recorder and Telegraph called his Cheshire school “the best common school in the State, perhaps in the United States.” He was elected to the Connecticut Society for the Improvement of Common Schools. Alcott nevertheless lost his positions at both schools after parents objected to his methods. In 1827 Samuel Joseph May, the Unitarian minister in Brooklyn, Connecticut and an educational reformer himself, invited the celebrated teacher to visit. Greatly impressed, May arranged a position for him at the Charity Infant School in Boston the following year. Alcott made an even greater impression on May’s sister Abigail.

Abigail Alcott
Abigail Alcott

Abigail, the youngest child of Dorothy Sewall and prominent Unitarian layman Col. Joseph May, had been given a largely informal education, though, like the rest of her family, she was well-read. As a young adult she had studied history, languages, and science in Duxbury, Massachusetts under tutor Abigail Allyn, daughter of liberal Congregationalist minister John Allyn. Having met Alcott while staying with her brother in Brooklyn, she applied for the position of assistant in Alcott’s new Boston school. A few months later she wrote her brother, “I am engaged to Mr. Alcott not in a school, but in the solemn—the momentous capacity of friend and wife.” She rejoiced that she was not only Alcott’s lover, but “his pupil, his companion.” Alcott was pleased to discover that “philosophy is no enemy of love,” rather “its intimate friend.” They were married in 1830 by Francis Greenwood at King’s Chapel, the Mays’ church.

Having moved away from the Calvinism in which he had been reared, Alcott was attracted to the Mays’ Unitarian faith. When he first arrived in Boston, he attended Unitarian churches regularly, sampling the preaching, and looking for a spiritual message that reflected his own thoughts. “The general style of preaching, as regards thought and manner, among the Unitarians approaches nearer my view of correct preaching than that of any other class,” he wrote in his diary in 1828. He went on to say, however, that “even this, it seems to me is very objectionable. There is too much merely doctrinal, too little of practical thought. . . . Preaching is too much an affair of another life—to teach men how to die rather than how to live.” After a few years, he fell away from attending any church at all. He then confided to himself that “the Christian world is anti-Christ.”

Unlike her husband, Abby, who had grown up in the Unitarian church and whose beloved brother was a Unitarian minister, retained the habit and the pleasure of going to church. Later, in 1831 and living in Philadelphia, she attended Quaker meetings because she felt that the Joseph Priestley-influenced Unitarians there were “worse than infidels.”

Based upon his experience teaching in Boston, Alcott wrote Observations on the Principles and Methods of Infant Instruction, 1830. Impressed by this pamphlet, wealthy Pennsylvania Quaker industrialist Reuben Haines hired him to organize a progressive private school. Thus, at the end of the year, the newlyweds moved to Germantown, Pennsylvania. In early 1831 their first child, Anna Bronson, was born, and eighteen months later a second daughter, Louisa May. Their father followed the girls’ development carefully, recording detailed observations. His aim was to find in his daughters evidence of the same spiritual essence that he was confident was present in himself.

When his patron Haines suddenly died in 1831 the Germantown school was left with inadequate resources. Alcott kept it going for another year, then found another patron who helped him to establish a progressive school in Philadelphia. Here, as in Connecticut, parents questioning his methods soon began to withdraw their children from his care. In the fall of 1834, after Abby suffered a near-fatal miscarriage, the Alcott family moved back to Boston.

With the help of Elizabeth Peabody, who recruited children from Boston’s most distinguished families, Alcott organized the School for Human Culture, commonly known as the Temple School. Here he hoped to bring out the innate divinity dwelling within each young mind. He engaged his “disciples” intellectually in Socratic dialogue and emphasized openness and self-expression in an atmosphere of discipline and mutual respect. Peabody, herself a pioneer educator, assisted Alcott in his innovative work and published an enthusiastic transcript of his methods, Record of a School, 1835. When in 1835 the Alcotts had a third daughter, she was named Elizabeth after Bronson’s friend and associate.

Although Bronson Alcott would no doubt have favored abolition in any case, that he was so early active in the anti-slavery movement was largely due to the influence of Abby and the May family. In 1830 Alcott had been one of the founding members, with William Lloyd Garrison and Samuel J. May, of the first Boston anti-slavery organization. Alcott admired Garrison above other abolitionists because he saw him as a “free spirit” who moved beyond narrow party principles to fight all abuses and to “establish truth in the common mind.” Abby, whose closest personal friend was Lydia Maria Child and who regularly attended abolitionist meetings, was admired by Garrison himself. She wrote in her journal, “Every woman with a feeling heart and thinking head is answerable to her God, if she do not plead the cause of the oppressed.”

During his church-going years in Boston, Alcott most frequently went to the Federal Street Church to listen to William Ellery Channing, with whom he soon began to have long private conversations. At first he thought Channing had a “splendid genius” and that his mind “throws upon the principles of Christianity a light which dissipates the darkness in which it has been so long enclosed.” Eventually he began to perceive how his thought differed from that of his mentor. “Dr. Channing has less faith in education than I have, distrusts direct influences more than I do, and has much less confidence in the young mind than I have.”

Alcott fell out with Channing in 1837 over Channing’s criticism of his “Friday Evening Conversations” for Sunday School teachers and other adults. In one of the discussions with Channing that followed Alcott “attempted to show the identity of the human soul, in its diviner action, with God. At this [Channing] expressed great dislike, even horror. He felt that doctrines of this character undermined the very foundations of virtue, confounded the nature of good and evil, destroyed human responsibility, and demolished free will.”

Although not a minister, in 1836 Alcott became a founding member of the Transcendental Club (which Alcott called “our Symposium Club”). Ralph Waldo Emerson had insisted that Alcott, as a “God-made priest,” be included. The first discussion meeting of the club was held at the Alcotts’ house. During its several years of existence Alcott was one of the most frequent in attendance. At these meetings he was glad to bring his “own mind in communion” and to “receive and impart light” with “the few among us that take higher and diviner views of the soul than men have been wont to take in past times.” He later called the club “a fine whetstone for the wits.”

During 1836-38 Alcott wrote “Psyche: an Evangele,” an account of the early years of daughter Elizabeth. In the end Emerson, who had encouraged him as a writer, advised him that it was unpublishable. Although Emerson was not impressed by Alcott’s style, he was greatly taken by the ideas that he read in early drafts of “Psyche” and in Alcott’s journals, and had heard in conversations with Alcott. He used these to better effect in his own essay, Nature, 1836. The “Orphic Poet” Emerson invoked in the essay may have been Alcott himself.

The Temple School’s time of glory proved short-lived. Although Alcott had little use for institutional religion, he recognized Jesus as a spiritual master. He felt that Jesus “ever declared the union of his own soul with God.” Accordingly, he incorporated “Conversations on the Gospels” into the Temple curriculum. When these conversations began to include sexual topics such as conception and birth, parents became uneasy. Then, in late 1836, against the advice of Peabody, Alcott published Conversations with Children on the Gospels. There followed a storm of denunciation in the press and from many pulpits. Conservative Unitarian Andrews Norton labeled Conversations “one-third absurd, one-third blasphemous, one-third obscene.”

Around the same time Harriet Martineau‘s second volume of Society in America became available in Boston. The year before she had visited the Temple School and had engaged in a quarrel with Abigail Alcott and Elizabeth Peabody over their attendance and activities at anti-slavery meetings. Fiery-tempered Abby accused Martineau, who had just begun to take a courageous stand against slavery, of “talking one way to Priests and one to the people.” Offended by Abby and unimpressed by Bronson, Martineau wrote of the “mischief [Alcott] is doing to his pupils . . . by his extraordinary management, offering them every inducement to falsehood and hypocrisy.” After most of the parents withdrew their children from the school because of the Conversations, Abby unjustly blamed Martineau for the disaster. Decades later she persisted in claiming that “Martineau took the bread from the mouth of my family.”

No longer able to teach the children of the rich in quarters rented at the Masonic Temple, Alcott moved his school in 1838 to his home, where he taught younger pupils whose parents had smaller means. When, the following year, he admitted a black girl into his classes, he lost these students as well. This ended his teaching career.

In the spring of 1840, on Emerson’s urging and with financial help from Abby’s father and brother, the Alcott family moved to a farm in Concord near Emerson’s house. Alcott proposed to be a philosopher-farmer—”Orpheus at the plough,” Channing called him—making a living for himself and his family entirely off the land. In following this course the Alcotts found that money was required to make ends meet. Alcott hired out as a laborer. Abby and her daughters took in sewing.

During their last years in Boston Abby had two disheartening pregnancies—first a stillborn child and then in 1839 the birth of a “fine boy, full grown, perfectly formed” who died after only a few minutes. Soon after they arrived in Concord she gave birth to their fourth and last daughter, Abigail May. Unlike her three sisters, Abby May grew up without the close monitoring of her father.

In 1840 the Transcendental Club launched a periodical, The Dial, under the editorship of Margaret Fuller. Alcott, who had suggested the magazine’s name, submitted a series of fifty short philosophical epigrams, “Orphic Sayings,” for the first issue. Many of these, for most readers, defied interpretation: for example, Number 17: “In the theocracy of the soul majorities do not rule.” His more metaphysical pronouncements did not appeal even to Emerson and other Transcendentalists. The sayings garnered so much ridicule that Fuller refused to print any more.

In 1841 Col. May died, but Abby’s small inheritance was not available as a lien against the estate had been filed by the Alcotts’ creditors. The rest of the year was difficult, the debt from the failed schools growing and the family falling into a notorious poverty. Bronson was deeply discouraged. Abby was disillusioned with her husband’s philosophy. “It is your life has been more to me than your doctrine or your theories,” she later wrote.

In 1842 Emerson, hoping to bring Alcott “one moment of pure success,” proposed and underwrote a trip by Alcott to England, where he could meet a group of his admirers with whom he had corresponded and who had embraced many of his educational ideas. These “Sacred Socialists” showed him their experimental school, “Alcott House,” in Surrey. After prolonged conversations Alcott and his English friends decided to plant a “second Eden,” a new Utopian community, in America. After six months absence, Alcott returned to New England, and to Abby’s warm welcome, bringing with him two of the Alcott House leaders, Henry Gardiner Wright and Charles Lane, and Lane’s little son William.

The newcomers joined the Alcott household, creating dissension. Lane added new restrictions to the Alcotts’ already strict vegetarian diet. Wright soon departed, claiming he was being pushed aside by Lane. Abby, feeling that Lane was taking over her home, invading her “rights as a woman and a mother,” and that she was “almost suffocated in this atmosphere of restriction and form,” wondered if “the experiment will not bereave me of my mind.” She fled Concord over Christmas. When she returned a new agreement was reached with Lane in which he conceded her “excellencies” and allowed that she had a right of “approval to whatever is done.”

With funds provided by Lane and Samuel J. May, in May 1843 the “Consociate Family” purchased a farm, which they called “Fruitlands,” near Harvard, Massachusetts. The six Alcotts and two Lanes were joined in their “new Eden” by five adult recruits, some of them quite eccentric. “All these together in one house,” Alcott reported years later, “were a company sufficiently singular and melodramatic for any stage.”

The Consociate Family worked through the summer, plowing, planting, repairing the house, and taking time to converse on transcendental subjects. The needs of the many curious visitors imposed an extra burden on Abby, who complained that she was forced to work “like a galley slave.” Despite their labor the soil proved too poor to produce a sufficient harvest, there was no fruit (despite its name Fruitlands had few fruit trees), and, to make matters worse, during the harvest season Alcott and Lane departed on a lecture tour. “Some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away,” Louisa later recalled in her autobiographical novel, Transcendental Wild Oats. “An easterly storm was coming up, and the yellow stacks were sure to be ruined.” According to Louisa’s account she, her mother, her sisters, and William Lane hastily hauled the grain inside to prevent it being destroyed.

Winter brought the Fruitland community to a crisis. By the time snow began to fall, only the Alcotts and Lanes remained. Alcott was torn between Lane’s celibate ideal and the claims of his family. Abby, increasingly suspicious of the nature of her husband’s close relationship with Lane, maneuvered to save her marriage. On Abby’s instigation Samuel J. May declined to pay the next installment on Fruitland’s debts. When Abby announced her intention to take the children and move out, Lane and his son departed for a Shaker community. Passing through a suicidal crisis, Alcott decided to choose his family over the dream of a utopia. “Mr. Alcott’s constancy to his wife and family and his inconstancy to the Spirit have blurred his life forever,” remarked Lane. Early in 1844 the family took refuge in the home of a compassionate neighboring farmer. The Fruitlands experiment was over.

The family remained in Harvard for a year, without work, deeply in debt, their prospects bleak. Emerson reported that “very sad indeed it was to see this halfgod driven to the wall.” In 1845 Abby’s inheritance was at last made available and, with Emerson’s help, the Alcotts bought an old house and moved back to Concord. At their new home, “Hillside,” Alcott farmed and, frequently visiting the famous cabin at Walden Pond, formed a lasting friendship with Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau called Alcott “the last of the philosophers” and “perhaps the sanest man . . . of any I chance to know.”

Abby and their daughters thrived in their new environment. It was at Hillside that Louisa started developing her writing skills. Little Women, which appeared two decades later and brought financial security to the family, was based partly on the family’s experience there. In 1847 the Alcotts, who had long maintained their interest in abolition, sheltered a fugitive slave.

The new home, however, proved expensive to maintain. It was rented and in 1848 the Alcotts relocated to Boston. There Abby found work to support her family as a “Missionary to the Poor,” paid first by a circle of subscribers then by the Friendly Society of the South Congregational Unitarian Church. She not only distributed such necessities as food and clothing, but sought to “communicate hope of energy to do and bear.” “Believe me,” she wrote in her first report, “it is more frequent that despair paralyzes the heart than that hunger starves the body.” Facing a torrent of impoverished immigrants, she concentrated on helping those whose lives could be turned around. “We do a good work when we clothe the Poor,” she wrote, “but a better one when we make the way easy for them to clothe themselves—the best when we so arrange Society as to have no Poor.”

Abby was criticized by some of her Unitarian sponsors for not being a churchgoer. She attended the lectures of Theodore Parker, who supported her mission. Between 1850 and 1852 Abby ran an employment agency to help young women find jobs in domestic service. As a woman serving women needing work, she joined the women’s movement and sent a petition to the Massachusetts State Constitutional Convention on behalf of woman suffrage. This period of activism ended in 1852 when the Alcotts sold their Hillside property to Nathaniel Hawthorne. The proceeds enabled Abby to retire from her demanding work. She remained an active advocate for women’s rights throughout the rest of her life.

Soon after arriving in Boston Bronson Alcott became absorbed in writing Tablets, a strange, introspective philosophical treatise, and began living, as he later recalled “tremulously near the lines of divinity.” On one occasion he appeared unannounced at the home of Orestes Brownson—once a Transcendentalist and Alcott champion; by this time a Roman Catholic—and told him, “I am greater than God.” On a day in the summer of 1849 Alcott suddenly rose from his desk and ran from the house. The breakdown marked the start of a crucial change that led him to the realization that by excessively turning inward he had isolated himself from the outer world and was courting madness. Thenceforth he began to re-engage himself with his family and with society. “Without wives, children, mothers, grandmothers, our houses were sepulchers,” he later wrote, “our metaphysics unsubstantial, our faiths void and unsatisfying as the images of a dream, the sense of immortality helpless and vague, like vapors and mists, fading, fugitive and perishable.”

Rejuvenated and with Emerson’s urging, Alcott began pursuing a career as a philosopher-conversationalist, not only in the Boston area but also on tours through upstate New York and Ohio. He encouraged his audiences to embrace Transcendentalist ideas through series of conversations on such topics as “Man—His History, Resources, and Expectations” and “Mysteries of Human Life” (Sleep, Silence, Health, Success, Civility, Friendship and Religion). In 1853 Alcott was invited to lead a course of “Conversations on Modern Life” at the Harvard Divinity School. From this began lasting friendships with two of his students, Moncure Conway and Franklin Benjamin Sanborn. Conway subsequently promoted Alcott’s thought on both sides of the Atlantic. Sanborn became his biographer and eulogist. Alcott continued offering his Conversations for the next thirty years, eventually touring as far west as Iowa.

Ever a militant abolitionist, Alcott had joined the Committee of Vigilance when he had returned to Boston in 1848. In 1854 when the Committee’s attempts failed to free the runaway slave Anthony Burns, Alcott made a dramatic solitary witness against slavery on the steps of Faneuil Hall. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who had appealed in vain for others to storm the hall, thought it a uniquely courageous act. Alcott later wrote, “It seemed the moment for a sacrifice to be laid on the altar for the rights of freemen and the salvation of the Republic. And I felt, I remember, ashamed to return, erect and breathing, to my house, as I had left it.”

In 1857 the Alcotts moved back to Concord. Alcott served as the town’s superintendent of schools, 1859-64. He encouraged teachers to share their methods with each other and to take children on field trips. Not as dogmatic about methods as he had been in his early teaching days, he encouraged teachers to develop their own individual effective teaching styles. He published his ideas on education as part of the 1860-61 School Report.

In the late 1860s Alcott became interested in the Free Religion movement led by Francis Ellingwood Abbot and Octavius Brooks Frothingham and in 1867 helped to organize the Free Religious Club (later the Radical Club) in Boston. The Club held structured Sunday meetings, followed by Alcott-led conversations. As he was moving toward a greater appreciation of the stabilizing influence of social institutions, including churches, he briefly considered becoming a religious missionary for this new form of religion. He eventually left the movement, however, as it appeared to him increasingly scientific and too little spiritual.

Bronson Alcott sketched by daughter MayAlcott revised and completed Tablets and published it in 1868. It was received more graciously than the “Orphic Sayings” decades before. “Mr. Emerson has been to Mr. Alcott as Plato to Socrates,” wrote the Chicago Tribune. Alcott reflected late that year, “I think I am not deceived in believing that I have lived true to my ideals and had their exceeding great rewards.” In 1875 he was elected to Harvard University’s Phi Beta Kappa society. When he doubted whether he belonged to a society of scholars, Emerson told him, “You are a member by right of genius.”

In 1875 Alcott led a series of 15 conversations in Concord on Sunday afternoons, even attracting two previous detractors, the Unitarian minister, Grindall Reynolds, and the conservative judge, Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar. Four years later Alcott and his friends established the Concord School of Philosophy and Literature. This met during the summers with considerable success, continuing throughout the rest of his life.

Abby died in 1877. Cyrus Bartol and William Lloyd Garrison spoke at her funeral. Bronson wrote, “Very sweet and fragrant is the memory of this life of sacrifices for the right, of good deeds, devotedness to the duties of the hour.”

In 1882 Bronson suffered a severe stroke, bringing to an end his career as a philosopher-conversationalist. He died in 1888 and was buried next to Abby in the family plot in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Their unwed daughters Elizabeth, who had died in 1858, and Louisa May, who died just two days after her father, were buried there as well. Among the eulogists at the memorial service were Franklin Sanborn, Ednah Littlehale Chaney, and Cyrus Bartol. Alcott and his life’s work, said Bartol, were “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” At the time of his death Bronson Alcott shared with Ralph Waldo Emerson the title of “Sage of Concord.”


Alcott’s letters and journals are at the Houghton Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Other papers can be found at the Concord Free Public Library in Concord, Massachusetts. Odell Shepard edited a selection from the journals, The Journals of Bronson Alcott (1938). Some of Alcott’s educational writings, including his reports for Concord, Massachusetts, are collected in Walter Harding, editor, Essays on Education, 1830-1862 (1960). Among his earlier educational works are “Primary Education,” (January 1828), “Elementary Instruction” (June 1828), and “Pestalozzi’s Principles and Methods of Instruction” (March-April 1829), all in the American Journal of Education. His books, beside those mentioned above, include Concord Days (1872), Table Talk (1877), Sonnets and Canzonets (1882), and New Connecticut (1887), the latter two a memoir and an autobiography in verse. For an early appreciation of Alcott, see Orestes Brownson, “Alcott on Human Culture,” Boston Quarterly Review (October, 1838). Among the biographies of Bronson Alcott are Odell Shepard, Pedlar’s Progress: The Life of Bronson Alcott (1937); Dorothy McCuskey, Bronson Alcott, Teacher (1940); Franklin B. Sanborn and William T. Harris, A. Bronson Alcott, His Life and Philosophy (1965); and Frederick Dahlstrand, Amos Bronson Alcott: An Intellectual Biography (1982). Dahlstrand also wrote the entry in American National Biography (1999). See also Charles Strickland, The Child Rearing Practices of Bronson Alcott (1969).

Letters and other material on Abigail May Alcott are located in the Alcott Family Papers at the Houghton Library, the Elizabeth Bancroft Schlesinger Papers at the Schlesinger Library, and the William Channing Gannett Papers at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, all in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For biographies of Abigail Alcott and her family as a whole, see Madelon Bedell, The Alcotts: Biography of a Family (1980); Sandford Salyer, Marmee: The Mother of Little Women (1949); Cynthia Barton, Transcendental Wife: The Life of Abigail May Alcott (1996); and the bibliography to the entry on Louisa May Alcott.

Article by Charles A. Howe and Peter Hughes
Posted September 18, 2004