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Who is Margaret Fuller?

Learning Activities for use by Schools, Libraries, and Community Groups

Table of Contents



  1. Setting the Stage for Understanding Margaret Fuller - Role and Status of Women in Early 19th Century America
  2. Margaret Fuller – in her own handwriting!
  3. Who was Margaret Fuller?  Part 1-Her Childhood
  4. Who was Margaret Fuller?  Part 2-Her Work and Reputation
  5. Margaret Fuller and New England Transcendentalism
  6. Margaret Fuller and Edgar Allan Poe
  7. Margaret Fuller in Her Own Words
  8. Conversations on the Writings of Margaret Fuller
  9. Margaret Fuller Remembered
  10. In Your Own Words


  1. Margaret Fuller Letter from the Boston Public Library Archives
  2. Stairs Story
  3. Images of Margaret Fuller
  4. Jenny Rankin, “A Writer, Thinker, and Trailblazer,Boston Globe 5/24/2010
  5. Bell Gale Chevigny, “Ahead of Her Time,” Boston Globe 7/17/2000
  6. Program from Margaret Fuller Memorial Service at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, July 18, 2010



Very early, I knew that the only object in life was to grow.

Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852)

The ten learning activities in this program have been developed as part of the Margaret Fuller Bicentennial, designed for use in high school history and literature classrooms and adult education settings.

Margaret Fuller, born on May 23, 1810, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was an author, critic, teacher, public intellectual, feminist, Transcendentalist, and revolutionary. She was the first women to blaze certain paths in a variety of endeavors. Her book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, was the first book-length appeal by an American woman for woman’s rights. She became the first woman editor of an intellectual publication when she served as the first editor of the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial. She contributed her own ideas of self-reliance that were representative of, and yet distinctive from, the ideas of the movement that is most commonly associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. She was the first woman to write about westward expansion, the first woman allowed to use the Harvard College Library for research, and became the first female literary critic and later, foreign correspondent when she joined the staff of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. She reported on the Italian revolution of 1848 from Rome, where she was also engaged in the revolution as director of a hospital.

During Margaret Fuller’s Bicentennial year (see www.margaretfuller.org), many events have occurred in greater Boston and Concord, Massachusetts, throughout the country, and in Italy to mark her contributions to the struggle for women’s rights and to the evolution of American literary and intellectual thought. The story of her life and contributions had been forgotten in the early 20th century, but beginning in the 1970s scholars have been rediscovering her and giving voice to her life and passion for ideas. As part of the Bicentennial celebration, this collection of educational activities has been assembled to encourage people to learn more about her life and thought.

The learning activities described in this program are not so much lesson plans as guides, adaptable to a variety of audiences. Most of the ten activities are designed for a one hour time slot, but could easily be extended to two hours depending on the time devoted to exploration and the background and experience of the group. Each activity comes with suggestions from the accompanying list of resources for teachers and facilitators to use in preparation to lead the activities and for participants to use for further study.

These materials were created for the Margaret Fuller Bicentennial by Elizabeth Kovacs and Linda Stern, and edited by Dorothy Emerson. Funding had been provided by Mass Humanities and the Fund for Unitarian Universalism.

Linda Stern has worked as a teacher and librarian in several different educational settings, from pre-school to community college. She has done extensive curriculum development with archives, primary sources, and historical documents. She is currently working as a research librarian in a curriculum project focusing on Jewish women in Boston history, in collaboration with the Boston Women's Heritage Trail.

Elizabeth Kovacs is an educator and researcher with a long-standing interest in Margaret Fuller. After writing a thesis on Fuller in college, she worked at the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House directing a project to bring Fuller and her ideas to a wider audience. She has taught history and English as a Second Language and worked in non-profit fundraising.

Dorothy Emerson, Unitarian Universalist minister and educator, has served as Coordinator of the Margaret Fuller Bicentennial. Her books include Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform 1776-1936; Glorious Women: Award-Winning Sermons about Women; and a new curriculum “Becoming Women of Wisdom: Marking the Passage into the Crone Years.”

We hope you enjoy using these activities and learning more about the amazing Margaret Fuller.


I. Setting the Stage for Understanding Margaret Fuller: Role and Status of Women in Early 19th Century America

To understand Margaret Fuller it is helpful to understand the position of women in the early 19th century.  The article "The Culture of Domesticity and True Womanhood" is an excellent place to start.  Other listed resources can be used to deepen understanding.

Preparation Suggestions, details on Resource List:

  • Introduction and chapters on Work and Education from Bonds of Womanhood: Women’s Sphere in New England, 1780-1835, by Nancy Cott.
  • Chapter on “The Changing Population: Ethnic, Racial, and Sexual Minorities,” from Jacksonian America, by Edward Pessen.

Biographical Resources about Margaret Fuller:

Materials needed:


Introduce the activity by giving an overview of what life was like for many women in early 19th century America. Read sections of the article, “The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood,” as highlights.

A woman in early 19th century America grew up subservient to her father, and then, if and when she married, to her husband.  She had few rights and little power.  She had no legal existence to own property, write a will, make a contract, or vote.  Her name, estate, children, and any wages belonged to her husband. Her existence was restricted to the home and the domestic arena: raising children and educating them, making clothing and food from scratch, as well as candles, soap, etc.  She was invisible in politics, played no official role in the church, and was educated to the extent that she could teach her own children, not for her own intellectual development.

A single woman was expected to stay home and take care of any sick family members.  However, she was somewhat more advantaged in that she could own property and run a small business. A few occupations were opened to her: housework in another’s home, handicrafts, factory work, or school teaching; however her wages were ¼ to ½ what a man’s would be.  She did have greater mobility, independence, and a variety of people in her life.

Give a brief overview of Margaret Fuller’s life.

Now discuss Margaret Fuller’s life within the context of the times in which she lived.

  1. What role did her father play in her intellectual development?
  2. What kinds of work were open to her?
  3. How might she have benefited from being a single woman?
  4. Would she have met the societal expectations of a single woman?
  5. What kind of barriers did Margaret Fuller surmount?

II. Margaret Fuller – in her own handwriting!

This activity asks participants to examine a primary source, in this case, a copy of a letter written by Margaret Fuller.  This handwritten letter is from the archives at Boston Public Library.  We show what questions may be asked of a historical document.  It gives an upfront and personal view into Margaret Fuller and her life.  This exercise also asks participants to imagine what might have been written in the section of the letter that was literally cut out of the original.

Preparation Suggestions, details on Resource List:

  • Joseph Jay Deiss,  Roman Years of Margaret Fuller: A Biography
  • Meg McGavran Murray, Margaret Fuller: Wandering Pilgrim

Materials needed:

  • Copies of Margaret Fuller Letter from the Boston Public Library Archives (Appendix A - PDF, 2MB)


Distribute copies of the letter and introduce the activity:

This is a copy of an undated document written by Margaret Fuller: it is in her own handwriting.  It is an example of a primary source, written by her during her lifetime.

It is a copy; the original is in the Boston Public Library Rare Books and Manuscript Department where it is stored in a temperature controlled environment. This image is used Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library/Rare Books.

A primary source is evidence from the past.

These are some of the questions you might ask of any original document:

  1. What is it?
  2. Who wrote it?
  3. When and where was it written?
  4. Why was it written?
  5. Who was its intended audience?
  6. What is the meaning of this document?
  7. What other information do we have about the person?
  8. What other sources can help us understand the document?
  9. How does it fit with other material known about the person?

After gathering primary sources, the historian creates a secondary source by writing about the findings, analyzing them or putting them together into an account about the past, such as a biography of Margaret Fuller or an American history book.

Now for the activity:

Individually, or with a partner, try to decipher Fuller’s handwriting and meaning.  Some words may not immediately be clear; leave them blank and come back to them later.  In deciphering it, do you have any clues about the date, place, events, and people?

Try to find out:

  1. From where is Margaret Fuller writing?
  2. Is there any evidence that this is a journal or letter?
  3. Who is Giovanni Angelo Ossoli?
  4. State in your own words what Margaret is expressing about her relationship with Angelo (as she called him).
  5. What is the meaning of this document in the context of what you know about Margaret Fuller‘s life?
  6. At what point in her life was this written? How old was she?
  7. Did you notice the black band on page 2?

What you are seeing is the black base of the copy stand that was used in digitizing the image. It is an area where a section of the page was physically cut out.  It is an actual representation of the letter that remains.

This poses new questions for those studying history.

  1. How was this letter preserved?
  2. Who edited the first volume of her memoirs that was published in 1852?
  3. Who might have cut up her work and edited it, and why?

Margaret Fuller’s contemporaries who compiled her memoirs after her death were Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Henry Channing and James Freeman Clarke.  They created a collection of material and a version of Margaret Fuller with which they were most comfortable. In doing so, they manipulated her writings, cut and pasted material, eliminated passages, etc. Perhaps they were less comfortable with her fierce independence, quarrelsomeness, growing radicalism. They knew little of the time she spent in Europe.

Continue the discussion by inviting participants to use their imagination:

What words can you imagine would have been written in the blank space, consistent with what you have learned about Margaret Fuller?  Use your knowledge and imagination!

III. Who was Margaret Fuller? Part One: Her childhood

This exercise asks participants to look at Margaret Fuller's life by starting with an excerpt from a memory she had of her childhood in the Stairs Story. Then review her life story, focusing on her childhood, using one of the biographical passages listed below and found on the internet.

Biographical Resources about Margaret Fuller:

Materials needed:

  • Copy of the Stairs Story (Appendix B) to read aloud.


Give a brief overview of Margaret Fuller’s life, focusing on her childhood.

Read the Stairs Story aloud. (Appendix B) Explain that Margaret Fuller wrote these memories in a letter to a friend when Margaret was in her early 30s.

In her letter, Margaret writes about an experience she had at age 21, when she remembers asking herself some important questions when she was “a little child.”  Invite participants to write about Margaret’s experiences and share any similar experiences they may have had. Read the following questions aloud to help them think about what they might write.

  1. What does Margaret remember feeling on the stairs when she was a little child?
  2. What was she feeling at age 21 when she took her long walk in the country?
  3. Why do you think she writes about these past experiences in her letter to her friend years later?
  4. Do we have similar feelings at times in the 21st century?
  5. How have you come to know who you are and what you were meant to do?

After sufficient time for writing, invite volunteers to share what they have written.

IV. Who was Margaret Fuller?  Part Two: Her work and reputation

This is a three-part activity. The first part helps participants visualize a person from history. The second part involves the construction of a timeline highlighting Margaret Fuller’s work. The third part is an invitation to imagine what her life might have been like if she had lived longer.

Materials needed:


1. Images of Margaret Fuller

What images remain of Margaret Fuller for those looking at the past?  How was she seen by her contemporaries?  Although photography was introduced in the United States in 1840, its use was rare. The only image made of Margaret Fuller in person is a daguerreotype. This is the image she liked best. Does it surprise you to know that it is the image where she sits before a book with her hand on her forehead?  Other images are drawings and paintings done during her lifetime. As she was a controversial woman ahead of her time, these images show aspects of those various opinions.

Look at the images and compare them. Explain what each image is and who created it.

The first four images can be found in Appendix C. The last image is in color and can be found online.

  1. Pencil sketch of Margaret Fuller, by James Freeman Clarke (around 1830-32)
  2. Daguerreotype of Margaret Fuller, 1846
  3. “Portrait of a Distinguished Authoress.” Caricature by Boston artist Samuel E. Brown accompanying a lampoon of Fuller by Edgar Poe, published in the Broadway Journal (8 March 1845)
  4. Engraving of Margaret Fuller, made from Thomas Hicks’s painting
  5. “Margaret Fuller in Italy, 1948.” Photo of Thomas Hicks’s full color painting, available online at http://www.flickr.com/photos/maulleigh/5439265553/

Questions to Consider:

  1. Which picture do you like best?
  2. Which ones are sketches?
  3. What is a daguerreotype?
  4. One sketch was done by a close friend, the other sketch is a caricature; what did they think of her?
  5. There is also a commissioned portrait.  What can you tell about her by looking at the images?

2. Margaret Fuller’s Work

Read the Boston Globe article “A Writer, Thinker, Trailblazer,” published at the time of the Bicentennial of Margaret Fuller’s birth.

Review the chronology of her life from the Bicentennial website, www.margaretfuller.org.

Watch “Margaret Fuller” video with Laurie James on www.youtube.com.

Construct a timeline or make a list of Margaret Fuller’s lifetime achievements. Be sure to include the books she published, her teaching positions at Temple School and Green Street School, her editorship of the Dial, her work for the New York Tribune, and her travels to the Great Lakes and to Europe.

Discuss which events are most significant in the development of her ideas.

  1. Why should we know about Margaret Fuller?
  2. Was she forgotten?  If so, why?
  3. What is the importance of celebrating anniversaries of famous people?

3. What if scenarios

  • What part, if any, do you think would Margaret Fuller have played in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, if she had lived longer?
  • Imagine a different course of history: the shipwreck does not occur and Ralph Waldo Emerson invites the family of three, Margaret Fuller, Giovanni Ossoli, and Angelo, their two year old son, to tea.  How would it have played out?  Try writing a script.
  • What if Margaret Fuller had lived a longer life (at least “three score years” as she states in the handwritten letter)?  Who might she have become?  What might she have accomplished?  How might she have evolved in the context of 19th century historical events: Abolitionist Movement, Native Americans being pushed off their land, the Civil War, industrialization, labor unions, urbanization?

V. Margaret Fuller and New England Transcendentalism

Three of the Transcendentalist movement’s major contributors were Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. The DVD, The New England Transcendentalists, introduces their approaches to the ideas of Transcendentalism, which were new to people at the time. The following study questions introduce viewers to the specific contributions of Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau and allows for discussion of the relevancy of transcendentalist thought in today’s world.

Preparation Suggestions, details on Resource List:

  • Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution, by Paula Blanchard
  • Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller, by Joan von Mehren

Materials needed:

  • DVD The New England Transcendentalists, Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2004 (27minutes). This video is available from many local libraries and through interlibrary loan.


Present the brief introduction below on New England Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism was part of a movement of liberal thought in the nineteenth century described as “a New England Renaissance.” The Renaissance brought a change in philosophical outlook that was to defend the new emphasis on individual freedom. Conditions in New England were ripe for a reappraisal of man and woman’s status in the world. The era was one of immense conformity and the prevailing beliefs were that one looked without for knowledge rather than within for inspiration.

The Renaissance spirit became manifested in New England in the Transcendentalist movement. There was no strictly reasoned doctrine and, as such, this “New England Renaissance” could be opened to many interpretations by its initiators. In general, Transcendentalism supported the perfectibility of women and men through the virtue of self-reliance.  All progress relied on an individual’s seeking his/her own human potential. The philosophy maintained that individuals should seek their own truths and that no institutions stood between an individual and God. Each individual then determined by his/her beliefs and life’s work to what degree this new spirit was to have a significant effect on society.

View the DVD The New England Transcendentalists  (27 minutes).

The following questions can serve as a discussion guide.

  1. What definition of transcendentalism united Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson?
  2. According to the transcendentalists, how did one find truth?
  3. What did the Transcendentalists look to for authority?
  4. What questions did the transcendentalists ask themselves?
  5. What did they do to aid reform?

Ralph Waldo Emerson-

  1. What was his definition of self-reliance?
  2. How did he feel about consistency?
  3. Why did Emerson leave the church?
  4. What ideas did Emerson first express in Nature?
  5. How do these ideas change with experience?
  6. What do scholars see as the meaning of his life?

Margaret Fuller-

  1. What is Margaret Fuller most famous for writing?
  2. What debate did she begin?
  3. What did Margaret Fuller ask of women?
  4. What did she begin in “The Great Lawsuit”?
  5. What is her argument in Woman in the Nineteenth Century?
  6. What questions did Margaret Fuller address in her conversation series?
  7. How does she feel about divinity and nature?

Henry David Thoreau-

  1. What experience did Thoreau undertake?
  2. What did he hope to learn at Walden Pond?
  3. What change did he hope would occur in society?
  4. What difference is there between the politics of Emerson and those of Thoreau?
  5. What are Thoreau’s thoughts on government?
  6. What actions does he suggest for a peaceful revolution?
  7. What does he think is the contribution of nature to civilization?


  1. What is the appeal of transcendentalism for Thoreau, Emerson, and Fuller?
  2. Why are the transcendentalists relevant today?
  3. Whose views attract you the most and why?
  4. Who do you most agree/disagree with and why?

VI. Margaret Fuller and Edgar Allan Poe

While others were captive of their times, Margaret Fuller wrote about gender equality.  In this way, she played an important role in the community of intellectuals of which she was part.  Use a library biographical database or an encyclopedia to research information on her contemporaries. Some of the related material shows Margaret Fuller sparring with Edgar Poe.

Preparation Suggestions, details on Resource List:

  • Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century
  • Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, entries on women who were contemporaries of Margaret Fuller, plus bibliographical references for further research
  • Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography, entries on both women and men who were Unitarians, http://uudb.org

Materials needed

  • YouTube video: “A Conversation: Fuller and Poe,” especially parts 3, 4, and 5
  • Article by Bell Gale Chevigny, “Ahead of Her Time,” published in The Boston Globe on July 17, 2000, the 150th anniversary of Fuller's death (Appendix E)


Edgar Poe is said to have remarked: “Humanity comes in three forms…Men, Women, and Margaret Fuller.”  What do you think he meant by this remark?

Provide background on Edgar Allan Poe

Watch “A Conversation: Fuller and Poe,” especially parts 3, 4, and 5, on You Tube, and read the Boston Globe article by Bell Chevigny (Appendix E).

Discussion Questions

  1. What else could Margaret Fuller have said in response to Poe?
  2. What does she say about gender roles in her writing?
  3. What does she say about the abilities of women?
  4. Why would Poe say: “Humanity comes in three forms…Men, Women, and Margaret Fuller”?
  5. What do you think his view of women might have been?
  6. Would Fuller have considered this remark to be a compliment or insult?  Explain your answer.

Research other people Margaret Fuller knew: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, Caroline Healey Dall, Elizabeth Peabody, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, Julia Ward Howe, Lydia Maria Child, Caroline Sturgis Tappan.

VII. Margaret Fuller in Her Own Words

This exercise introduces participants to Margaret Fuller’s writings by sharing excerpts from her plea for women’s rights, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (originally published in 1845), her western trip, Summer on the Lakes in 1843 (originally published in 1844), and her reporting for the New York Tribune on social conditions in New York City institutions.

Preparation Suggestions, details on Resource List:

  • Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1997 edition)
  • Margaret Fuller, Summer On the Lakes in 1843 (1991 edition)
  • Eve Kornfield, Margaret Fuller: A Brief Biography with Documents
  • Edward Pessen, Jacksonian America
  • Jeffrey Steele, editor, The Essential Margaret Fuller

Materials needed:

  • Selection on women’s rights from Woman in the 19th Century (from Eve Kornfield, Margaret Fuller: A Brief Biography with Documents, pages 160-65)
  • Selection on the Mackinaw Indians from Summer on the Lakes in 1843 (from Eve Kornfield, Margaret Fuller: A Brief Biography with Documents, pages 146-152)
  • Margaret Fuller’s article “Visit to Belleview Alms House, To the Farm School, The Asylum for the Insane, and Penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island,” New York Daily Tribune, 19 March 1845. (from Jeffrey Steele, editor, The Essential Margaret Fuller, pages 385-391)


Margaret Fuller was a prolific writer who addressed many pressing problems in mid-nineteenth century American society in her books and articles. The following three examples are excerpts from her writings where she discusses the status of women, Native Americans, prisoners, orphans, and the mentally ill.

Woman’s Rights

Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century was published in 1845, making it the first book published in America on women’s rights. Responding to the reality of woman’s inferior status in nineteenth society, she argued for full equality with men. She based her extensive rationale for gender equality on history, literature, and religion. The book sold out almost immediately and was reprinted numerous times. It was hugely influential in the movement for women’s suffrage.

Now read the excerpt on woman’s rights from Woman in the Nineteenth Century (in Kornfield, pages 160-65).


  1. How are woman’s rights related to the abolitionist cause?
  2. What effect do men believe woman’s rights will have on the family?
  3. What possible problems does woman as “the heart of the house” face?
  4. If a husband dies, what are the legal rights of his wife?
  5. Without legal protection, what are possible situations that women and children may endure?
  6. What does Margaret see as similarities between slaves and women?
  7. What examples does Margaret give to counter the belief that women are too delicate?
  8. What does Margaret believe is a necessary ingredient for domestic life?
  9. Why does Margaret believe it is difficult for men to fairly represent women in public life?
  10. What rights is she demanding for women?
  11. What is your reaction to the status of women in the mid nineteenth century?
  12. Do you agree with her argument on the rights of women?

Native Americans

In 1843, Margaret Fuller traveled by train, steamboat, and on foot to the western most frontier in mid nineteenth century America to make a tour of the Great Lakes. In her book, Summer on the Lakes (1844), she reflects on the trip. The chapter titled “Mackinaw” makes observations about Native Americans.

Andrew Jackson, President of the United States from 1829-1837, established the government’s policy toward Native Americans. The following describes the prevailing views of the time towards Native Americans.

The Indian Policy of the Jackson Administration (adapted from Edward Pessen, Jacksonian America)

It was the policy of the Jackson administration to drive the southern tribes (Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, and Chickasaws) west of the Mississippi to open up the lands for white occupancy. President Jackson argued that the settlers were part of a march of progress and civilization and referred to the Native Americans as savages who must give up their lands. As long as they viewed the tribes as savages, they could justify their actions to take their land. Beginning in 1833, the first public auctions of Choctaw lands were held. Jackson believed that Indians were subjects of the United States and were merely hunters that were occupying lands. The administration forced the Choctaws to sign a treaty forcing them from their ancient homeland in Mississippi. They succeeded because of hypocrisy, bribes, lies, and intimidation. Jackson refused to enforce a decision by the Supreme Court that ruled that the state of Georgia had no right to extend its laws over the Cherokee nation and that Indian tribes were “domestic dependent nations.”

The federal government gave allotments or reservations to individual Indians who worked their lands and wanted to become citizens while urging the others to migrate beyond the Mississippi. Brute force and cruelty were used to execute the policy. The Choctaws were forced out of Mississippi in winter and were forced to cross the river with light clothes and no moccasins. Terror and fraud also drove the Seminoles from rich lands in Florida. The Cherokees suffered the worse fate. In 1838, their systematic removal was begun with more than 4,000 out of 15,000 dying during “the Trail of Tears.” In his last message to Congress, Andrew Jackson praised the states for removing “the evil” that had slowed their development.

Read Margaret Fuller’s commentary on Native Americans from Summer on the Lakes (in Kornfield, pages 146-152).


  1. How does Margaret describe the lives of Indian women?
  2. What observations did Margaret make about how whites viewed Indians?
  3. How does Margaret compare the morality of the white man with that of the Indian?
  4. How does Margaret describe the injustice of the European toward the Indian?
  5. What defense does she offer on behalf of the Indians?
  6. What actions does Margaret suggest for future behavior toward the Indians?
  7. How does her viewpoint compare with United States Indian policy at the time?

Poverty and Charities

In 1844, Horace Greeley hired Margaret Fuller as the paper’s first female staff member to be literary critic of the New York Tribune. She also became an investigative reporter, visiting such institutions as the alms (poor) house, farm school, prison, and insane asylum. In addition, she explored contemporary problems such as prostitution. The statement below gives background on some of the problems New York City faced at the time Margaret Fuller worked there.

Urban Conditions in Margaret Fuller’s New York (adapted from Edward Pessen, Jacksonian America)

New York City’s population increased from 200,000 to 300,000 in the decade between 1830 and 1840, making it the most populous city in the nation. Although the presidency of Andrew Jackson saw the rise of egalitarianism in America, there was grinding poverty in many of the nation’s cities. A growing gulf existed between those of the upper classes that came from established wealth and workers. They lived in two very separate worlds.

There were many destitute homeless under the sheds of the markets in New York. There were rising rates of pauperism and imprisonment for debt was the reason most men were in jail, mostly for owing debts of $20 or less. The numbers of poor were increasing so rapidly that charity couldn’t keep up with the problem. A depression followed the Panic of 1837 and one third of the working classes were unemployed for long periods in the early 1840s. Wages remained flat and most workers earned what they had at the beginning of the century.

Poverty and overcrowding turned many workers’ neighborhoods into slums, that in addition to filth, disease, and crime, lacked windows and toilet facilities. Many new immigrants were condemned for being the carriers of disease, especially cholera, typhoid, and typhus. Many of the city’s administrative facilities were not able to deal effectively with these rising problems due to a lack of finances and knowledge of how to respond.

Read Margaret Fuller’s article “Visit to Belleview Alms House, To the Farm School, The Asylum for the Insane, and Penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island,” New York Daily Tribune, 19 March 1845. (in Steele, pages 385-391).

Discussion Questions

  1. What suggestions does Margaret have for improving conditions for men and women at the Alms House?
  2. Describe conditions at the farm school. What does Margaret think is lacking?
  3. What does Margaret think are the advantages the children have at the Farm School?
  4. What is the main problem that Margaret shares with readers about the Asylum?
  5. What conditions need to be improved at the Penitentiary?
  6. What is her philosophy about how to approach reform at these institutions?
  7. According to Margaret, how does politics affect reform?
  8. How do you think her suggestions were received by the readers of the Tribune?
  9. Do you agree with her proposed solutions?

VIII. Conversations on the Writings of Margaret Fuller

By using Margaret Fuller’s teaching technique employed in her famous Conversations, this exercise encourages participants to think about and express their own ideas about issues of self and identity, much as Fuller did in the nineteenth century.

Preparation Suggestions, details on Resource List:

  • Barry Andrews, editor, The Spirit Leads: Margaret Fuller in Her Own Words
  • Margaret Fuller, Woman In the Nineteenth Century
  • Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, published 1852, edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and William Henry Channing
  • Joan von Mehren, Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller


In 1839, Margaret Fuller inaugurated a series of Conversations for women in Boston. The general subject the conversations explored was ethics with specific discussion in the areas of the family, school, the church, and society, with a special reference to the influence on women. In her own words, Margaret “wanted to give women the opportunity to build up the life of thought upon the life of action.”

The following three excerpts from her writings are taken from Barry Andrews, The Spirit Leads: Margaret Fuller in Her Own Words (2010). Take turns serving as the discussion leader. The discussion questions below can serve as a guide and you can also contribute your own.

1. The Self

It is true that I had less outward aid, in after years, than most women, but that is of little consequence. Religion was early awakened in my soul, a sense that what the soul is capable to ask it must attain, and that, though I might be aided and instructed by others, I must depend on myself as the only constant friend. This self-dependence, which was honored in me, is deprecated as a fault in most women. They are taught to learn their rule from without, not to unfold it from within.

Woman in the Nineteenth Century

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you believe that you can only depend on yourself in life?
  2. What are the advantages/disadvantages of just being ruled from within?
  3. Where do you think most people in contemporary society fall?

2. Education

I was now in the hands of teachers, who had not, since they came on earth, put to themselves one intelligent question as to their business here. Good dispositions and employment for the heart gave a tone to all they said, which was pleasing and not perverting. They, no doubt, injured those who accepted the husks they proffered for bread, and believed that exercise of memory was study, and to know what others knew, was the object of study. But to me this was all penetrable. I had known great living minds, ~ I had seen how they took their food and did their exercise, and what their objects were. Very early I knew that the only object in life was to grow. I was often false to this knowledge, in idolatries of particular objects, or impatient longings for happiness, but I have not lost sight of it, have always been controlled by it, and this first gift of thought has never been superseded by a later love.

Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, published 1852

Discussion Questions

  1. What is Margaret Fuller’s criticism of teachers?
  2. What is she suggesting as an alternative approach?
  3. Do you agree with her statement, “Very early I knew that the only object in life was to grow?”
  4. What characteristics define a good teacher?
  5. What do you believe is the main object of life?

3. Men and Women

The growth of man is two-fold, masculine and feminine.

As far as these two methods can be distinguished they are so as

Energy and Harmony.

Power and Beauty.

Intellect and Love.

Or by some such rude classification, for we have not language primitive and pure enough to express such ideas with precision.

These two sides are supposed to be expressed in man and woman, that is, as the more and less, for the faculties have not been given pure to either, but only in preponderance. There are also exceptions in great number, such as men of far more beauty than power, and the reverse. But as a general rule, it seems to have been the intention to give a preponderance on the one side, that is masculine, and on the other, one that is called feminine.

There cannot be a doubt that, if these two developments were in perfect harmony, they would correspond to and fulfill one another, like hemispheres, or the tenor and bass in music.

But there is no perfect harmony in human nature; and the two parts answer one another only now and then, or, if there be a persistent consonance, it can only be traced, at long intervals, instead of discoursing an obvious melody.

Woman in the Nineteenth Century

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree with the adjectives that Margaret Fuller uses to describe masculinity and femininity?
  2. Does one sex have more of these qualities than the other?
  3. Can they coexist within one person?
  4. Do you know any individuals that are close to the harmony of these two spheres? Describe him or her.

IX. Margaret Fuller Remembered

This activity is an opportunity for participants to enter the world of the 19th century as Margaret’s friends offer their personal reminiscences. It also allows them to think about Margaret’s contributions and what they may like to further explore about her life and work.

Preparation Suggestions, details on Resource List:

  • DVD-The New England Transcendentalists
  • Perry Miller, American Transcendentalists, Their Prose and Poetry

Materials needed

  • Program for the Memorial Service held for Margaret Fuller on July 18, 2010, with brief biographies of her friends (Appendix F)[*]
  • You Tube videos of the Memorial Service: Part 4-James Freeman Clarke, Elizabeth Peabody; Part 5- Henry David Thoreau, Julia Ward Howe; and Part 6- Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Freeman Clarke (Go to "http://www.youtube.com" and search for “margaret fuller bicentennial.” Choose Memorial Service for Margaret.)


There is a memorial marker for Margaret Fuller at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the Fuller family lot. Only her son’s remains were found, so he is buried there, along with other members of the extended family, including Buckminster Fuller, a descendant of her brother.

On Margaret’s memorial stone at Mt. Auburn Cemetery are the following words:

Born a child of New England,

By adoption a citizen of Rome,

By genius belonging to the World.

As far as we could determine, no memorial service was held at the time of her death, so the Margaret Fuller Bicentennial Committee decided to create one and held it for Margaret at Bigelow Chapel at the cemetery on July 18, 2010, with actors taking the role of her friends and paying tribute to her.

Read through the Memorial Service program with its brief biographies of her friends and then watch their presentations on YouTube. After listening to their eulogies, think about the following questions.

Discussion Questions

  1. Which of Margaret’s friends do you think described her best?
  2. Who do you think was the better friend?
  3. What is your reaction to the language and presentation of the actors portraying the friends?
  4. What would you say about Margaret if you were memorializing her today?

Role Play Activity

Imagine you knew Margaret Fuller. Create a character for yourself and tell who you are. Then present your remembrance of Margaret Fuller.

Margaret Fuller Bicentennial Song

As part of the Bicentennial Celebration of Margaret Fuller in 2010, there was a contest to write a song, specifically a hymn that could be sung in worship services. Laura Halfvarson Jump of Hendersonville, North Carolina, composed the music of the hymn that won the competition. Ed Johnson wrote the hymn text, “New Worlds Manifest,” based on the writings and ideas of Margaret Fuller.

Read the words of the song aloud, or better yet, sing it:

Discussion Questions

  1. Why are nature and art important in life?
  2. What is the nature and responsibility of every woman and man?
  3. How can we achieve justice?
  4. Which of the four verses can you relate to the most?
  5. How do the sentiments expressed in the hymn relate to Margaret Fuller’s writings and transcendental thought?
  6. How does this song compare to others that you may have heard or sung in honor of a person or an idea?

For further exploration

Do either a reading or a performance of the play Margaret Fuller’s Universe, by Sayre Sheldon and Agnes Butcher; dress up in period costumes (shawls, long skirt, props, bow tie).

X. In Your Own Words

This exercise gives participants an opportunity to explore through the experiences in their families and communities the ideas and observations expressed by Margaret Fuller in her writings.

Suggestions: Sources can be members of participants’ families, local newspaper and media outlets, and members of their community.


The issues that Margaret Fuller observed and analyzed are still relevant today. Women’s status in society can be investigated by using your own family tree and oral history to women’s journey through several generations.

Possible activities:

  • Design a family tree of your family. After you have your tree together, pick women of different generations to interview about the status of women and any changes that they have seen in their lifetime. You can also ask about stories they may have heard from other women in the family from older generations who are no longer living. Talk to the men too and compare opinions.
  • Investigate a social concern by doing research in a library or online or by visiting a state or local agency that offers support programs in your community (homeless shelter, community center, Headstart classroom, food pantry, an agency that serves new immigrants, etc.) and interview staff about their mission. Write an article based on the information gathered to share with your class and possibly local publications.
  • Interview women leaders in your community. Ask about their life histories and what inspires their work.

[*] Note: There is an error with the date listed on the front of the program, Sunday, June 18, 2010. The service was held on July 18, 2010, the date listed on the inside of the program.




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