a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media
the digital library of Unitarian Universalism
Home » BIOGRAPHIES--NEW » Alcott, Amos Bronson (1799-1888)

Alcott, Amos Bronson (1799-1888)

Harvard Square Library exists solely on the basis of donations.  If you have benefitted from any of our materials, and/or if making Unitarian Universalist intellectual heritage materials widely available and free is a value to you, please donate whatever you can–every little bit helps: Donate 

Below are two biographical perspectives on Amos Bronson Alcott, the first focused more on his spiritual philosophy and the second focused more on Alcott as educator.

The Spiritual Life of Amos Bronson Alcott

A. Bronson Alcott
A. Bronson Alcott

In Transcendentalism in New England, Octavius Brooks Frothingham affirms: “If among the representatives of spiritual philosophy, the first place belongs to Emerson, the second must be assigned to Mr. Amos Bronson Alcott”-whom he calls “the Mystic.”

Born on a rocky farm near Wolcott, Connecticut, Alcott essentially educated himself, developing a unique philosophy of self-culture. His Concord friend Thoreau declared that this frequently failing utopian educator was “the wisest man I ever knew.” Waldo Emerson invited him to join the Transcendental Club of New England intellectuals.

Married to Abigail May-the sister of a Unitarian minister-Alcott was the father of four daughters. Louisa May Alcott, author not only of Little Women but of many published manuscripts, provided necessary family support beyond the meager income from her father’s lecture tours and innovative short-lived school ventures. Temple School, “America’s first open school,” was founded jointly by him and Elizabeth Peabody. Margaret Fuller was a part-time teacher in this school, which introduced games, gym, stories, and creative writing. His self-declared divine mission was education and social transformation.

In addition to friends such as William Ellery Channing, Alcott’s abundant correspondents were Mary Baker Eddy, Julia Ward Howe, Frederic Henry Hedge, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Henry James, Sr., and Walt Whitman. In addition to the fifty-four volumes of his Journal, 1826-1882, his literary legacy includes “Orphic Sayings” in The Dial, Concord Days, “An Autobiographical Poem”, and Sonnets and Canzonets, as well as his early disputed reports on educating children.

Alcott’s advocacy of the abolition of slavery, as well as the advancement of women’s liberation, vegetarianism, and pacifism, were supplemented by his establishment in 1843 of Fruitlands, a Utopia on a ninety-acre farm near Harvard, Massachusetts. It failed after seven months. Nonetheless, from 1859 to 1865 Alcott-“the American Pestalozzi”-functioned as superintendent of schools in Concord. In 1879 he established the Concord Summer School of Philosophy and Literature.

Alcott grew increasingly conservative as he aged, opposing for example Darwinian evolution. After a stroke in 1882, he died. His exhausted daughter, Louisa, summoned her strength to visit him just before his death. She died two days later.

In 1893 the first extended biography, by F. B. Sanborn and W. T. Harris, was published: A. Bronson Alcott: His Life and Philosophy in two volumes.

Amos Bronson Alcott: The Life of an Educator

A. Bronson Alcott. Courtesy of the Concord Free Public Library.

A brilliant and progressive but misunderstood educator whose Temple School in Boston was among the most innovative education institutions of its times, Alcott was born in poverty near Wolcott, Connecticut, and had little formal schooling. His teaching career began in Cheshire, Connecticut after a stint as an itinerant peddler. He called his school the Cheshire Pestalozzi School after the great Swiss educator of his day whose theories Alcott embraced. His educational innovations in this classroom included a large library, decorations for the room and desks for each child. Every subject was taught in a different manner. For example, instead of studying maps for geography, the students made a map of their own schoolyard. Alcott’s central concern was teaching children how to learn, but his progressive ideas alienated the parents, and after a couple of years the school was closed.

After a brief period in Boston, his next teaching experience was in Germantown, Pennsylvania in a new private school, which again was closed when parents learned that Alcott wanted to treat the children with as much respect as the grown-ups. This school was conducted (1831-34) with his new wife, Abigail May, whom he had married in 1830. During his life, Alcott tried many other projects which never seemed to come to fruition. His family was always in financial difficulty, especially after the failure of the Temple School (named for the Masonic Temple it was housed in on Tremont Street in Boston), which lasted from 1834 until 1839 when Alcott admitted an African-American child, and all the white children except one were withdrawn by their parents. His philosophy and methods are seen in his Record of Conversations on the Gospels (1836). He assumed the spiritual integrity of young minds with an innate ability to embrace the divine in their own souls. Jesus was the great educator.

After the school’s failure, the Alcotts moved to Concord in 1840, where “conversations” became one of the few means of income for the Alcotts. He took whatever work he could find, but mostly survived by being a woodchopper. The family followed the nutritional philosophy of Sylvester Graham, a vegetarian. Alcott was devoted to his four daughters Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth and May, to whom he taught the alphabet by acting out the shapes of the letters. He worked on the manuscript about their development, “Psyche,” for years. Alcott visited England in 1842 to see the Alcott School, which followed his imaginative ideas of education. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who often lent his friendly support to Alcott, wanted to learn the latest philosophical news from England, and financed the trip to England. Alcott was a member of the Transcendental Club, and many of his writings were published in the Dial, including his “Orphic Sayings” (1840). Here he encouraged youth to believe that “your heart is an oracle.” In England Charles Lane taught him some utopian notions. Alcott returned to America with three companions including Lane who made up a crowded household in Concord. Vowing to live simply off the land, Alcott started the utopian community, Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts, but it foundered after less than six months in 1843.

The family moved around a great deal, and moved back to Boston where Alcott’s wife Abigail became one of America’s first social workers. Bronson made frequent appearances around the country as a lecturer. With Louisa’s success as a writer the family was finally able to settle in Concord permanently in 1857. After 1859 he was superintendent of the Concord public schools until 1865. In 1879 Alcott founded the Concord School of Philosophy, which remained a summer school of adult education until his death in 1888. Throughout his career he was befriended by the members of the Concord literary circle, and he left a great legacy as an educator and philosopher whose ideas were far in advance of his time.

The Poetry of Amos Bronson Alcott

Misfortune to have lived not knowing thee!
‘T were not high living, nor to noblest end,
Who, dwelling near, learned not sincerity,
Rich friendship’s ornament that still doth lend
To life its consequence and propriety.
Thy fellowship was my culture, noble friend:
By the hand thou took’st me, and did’st condescend
To bring me straightway into thy fair guild;
And life-long hath it been high compliment
By that to have been known, and thy friend styled,
Given to rare thought and to good learning bent:
Whilst in my straits an angel on me smiled.
Permit me, then, thus honored, still to be
A scholar in thy university.

Who nearer Nature’s life would truly come
Must nearest come to him of whom I speak;
He all kinds knew,-the vocal and the dumb;
Masterful in genius was he, and unique,
Patient, sagacious, tender, frolicsome.
This Concord Pan would oft his whistle take,
And forth from wood and fen, field, hill, and lake,
Trooping around him in their several guise,
The shy inhabitants their haunts forsake:
Then he, like Aesop, man would satirize,
Hold up the image wild to clearest view
Of undiscerning manhood’s puzzled eyes,
And mocking say, “Lo! mirrors here for you:
Be true as these, if ye would be more wise.”