History Smiths
Because history matters. Including yours.


Your Subtitle text

Margaret Fuller:

"What Were We Born to Do and How Shall We Do it?"

I hope you enjoy Margaret Fuller's inspiring story!

This is a sermon I delivered, preceded by two readings at several churches in the Boston area during her Bicentennial in 2010.

A Unitarian Universalist Service on

Margaret Fuller




From Memoirs, by Margaret Fuller

I remember how, a little child, I had stopped myself one day on the stairs, and asked, how came I here? How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it?


I saw how long it must be before the soul can learn to act under these limitations of time and space, and human nature; but I saw, also, that it MUST do it — that it must make all this false true — and sow new and immortal plants in the garden of God, before it could return again.


I saw there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the ALL, and all was mine. This truth came to me, and I received it unhesitatingly; so that I was for that hour taken up into God. In that true ray most of the relations of earth seemed mere films, phenomena.


My earthly pain at not being recognized never went deep after this hour. I had passed the extreme of passionate sorrow; and all check, all failure, all ignorance have seemed temporary ever since … Since then I have suffered, as I must suffer again, till all the complex be made simple, but I have never been in discord with the grand harmony.



From Woman in the Nineteenth Century,
by Margaret Fuller

Whether much or little has been done or will be done, whether women will add to the talent of narration, the power of systematizing, whether they will carve marble, as well as draw and paint, is not important. But that it should be acknowledged that they have an intellect which needs developing, that they should not be considered complete, is important.


So much is said of women being better educated, that they may become better companions and mothers for men. They should be fit for such companionship. Earth knows no fairer, holier relation than that of a mother. It is one which, rightly understood, must both promote and require the highest attainments. But a being of infinite scope must not be treated with an exclusive view to any one relation.


Give the soul free course, let the organization, both of body and mind, be freely developed, and the being will be fit for any and every relation to which it may be called.


The intellect, no more than the sense of hearing, is not to be cultivated merely that woman may be a more valuable companion to man, but because the Power who gave a power, signifies that the intellect must be brought out towards perfection.


Sermon: “What Were We Born to Do,
and How Shall We do It?”


What were we born to do, and how shall we do it?


These are tough questions.


These are THE questions.


I love the passage from Fuller’s memoirs when she writes, “I remember how, a little child, I had stopped myself one day on the stairs, and asked, how came I here? How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it?”


Amazing. This little girl.


Imagine growing up in a world, in the 1810s, when the message for girls was, “It really doesn’t matter. Getting married and raising children are your sole purpose. You exist to serve others and nothing more.”


Luckily for THIS little girl she had a very unusual father. Together, they would blow up these limitations.




Sarah Margaret Fuller, born on May 23, 1810 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the oldest child of Timothy Fuller, a Harvard-educated attorney, and Margarett Crane Fuller. With the death of an infant sister, young Margaret was an only child for several years and the center of her father's attention in particular.


Timothy Fuller planned a rigorous course of study for his daughter. "To excel in all things should be your constant aim," he told her. "Mediocrity is obscurity."


No pressure there!


By the time Margaret was 3 1/2 years old, Timothy was teaching her how to read and write; at 4 1/2, he taught her arithmetic; just before the age of 5, she learned English and Latin grammar. Even when Timothy Fuller was elected to Congress and spent many months in Washington, D.C., he directed Margaret's studies by mail. Margaret also read voraciously: political philosophy, great European authors and playwrights, ancient and recent history, travel, biography, and even novels — much to her father's consternation.


When Timothy Fuller was at home, father and daughter conversed in the evenings about what she was learning. "In the process," biographer Joan von Mehren explains, "Margaret developed a well-stored mind, a remarkable facility with the spoken word and foreign languages, and the exhilarating sense that she was very alive under tension."


Margaret's father stressed analytical skills, logic, and "the correct use of language," according to von Mehren. Timothy Fuller's goal was to have his daughter develop "a secure and favored place in an ordered republican society" that was consistent with his Enlightenment values.


At age 9, Margaret attended the Cambridge Port Private Grammar School ("The Port School") whose master was a Harvard graduate. By age 10, she had command of the standard classics in translation and was beginning to learn French.


She was known as the "smart one," according to classmate Oliver Wendell Holmes. The following year, Margaret attended Dr. Park's Boston Lyceum for Young Ladies where she was ridiculed for her "country ways." She was now studying Italian, French, and geography, and attending dancing school.


Fearing their daughter's potential "unmarriageability," the Fullers sent Margaret for a brief time to Susan Prescott's more traditional Young Ladies' Seminary in rural Groton, Massachusetts. But she soon returned to The Port School to study Greek and Latin. Eventually, at the age of 15 and with her father's assistance, Margaret Fuller created her own course of self-study, which included lessons with the author Lydia Maria Francis (later, Child).


At the same time, Margaret became friends with a group of young Harvard students who were caught up in a heady time of intellectual, literary, and theological activity at the college. German philosophy, literature, and poetry were the "craze," and many of these young men (James Freeman Clarke, Frederic Henry Hedge, William Henry Channing) were preparing for leadership roles in the Unitarian church. Margaret borrowed books from them, and invited them home for lively exchanges of ideas.


Like her Harvard friends, Margaret discovered the German philosopher and literary giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was regarded as a leading thinker by American Transcendentalists. In 1833, when the Fuller family moved to a farm in Groton, Massachusetts, Margaret felt terribly isolated from Cambridge and Boston, but she viewed her time there as her "graduate school" and began to study German in earnest.


Teaching and Self-education


Margaret Fuller's teaching career really began at home, where she was responsible for the early education of her younger siblings. But it was in Groton that she began earning money for the first time by adding neighborhood children to her home-based classroom.


While in Groton, Fuller also began writing for publications. Her first article of literary criticism (an emerging field in America), appeared in 1834 in her friend George Bancroft's Boston Daily Advertiser. She wrote literary and dramatic criticism, and translated Goethe for her friend James Freeman Clarke's Western Messenger.


Fuller now began to understand that teaching young people and publishing articles were part of her larger role in life as a public educator. As Joan von Mehren explains, "Teaching was natural to her, and she would, in fact, never cease being a teacher in one guise or another."


In 1835, when her father died suddenly, Margaret wrote to her brother Richard, "Nothing sustains me now but the thought that God ... must have some good for me to do."


She was considered the de facto head of her family now, and their finances were meager. Fuller needed paid work, and an opportunity surfaced the following year in Concord, Massachusetts. There, during her first visit to Ralph Waldo Emerson's home, she met Bronson Alcott whose innovative Temple School in Boston would soon be without a teacher due to Elizabeth Peabody's resignation. 


While Fuller waited for Alcott's job offer, she decided to move to Boston to start language and literature classes for women in German, Italian, and French. Before she left Concord, Emerson "kindly" identified "lapses" in her education. He steered Fuller toward the German and British philosophers and writers she would have studied if she had been able to attend college.


Fuller's time at the Temple School was short due to Alcott's controversial methods and the eventual closing of his school, but while there, she taught Latin, French, Italian, and kept records of the students' "conversation classes" in which they were encouraged to really explore subjects intellectually and engage in intelligent dialog.


In 1837, once again in need of work, Fuller accepted a well-paid position at Hiram Fuller's Greene Street School in Providence, Rhode Island, where she was put in charge of 60 students. There, she taught Latin, composition, elocution, history, natural philosophy, ethics, and the New Testament of the Bible.


Fuller's students described her as "strict and demanding, witty and authoritarian, at times unreasonable but always formidable, challenging, and impressive." In fact, students were drawn to the school because of Fuller's reputation.


In the evenings, Fuller taught German language classes for women and men and worked on a biography of Goethe. She joined the intellectual Coliseum Club where she delivered her first public speech on "the sorry relation of women to society." Earlier, during a visit to Concord, Fuller participated in gatherings of the "Transcendentalist Club" — the first time women were allowed as members in a "major male intellectual society,” according to biographer Charles Capper.


Before leaving Providence due to her failing health, Fuller observed, "I am not without my dreams and hopes as to the education of women."


She was only getting started!


Returning to Boston, Fuller made plans to hold what she called "Conversations" for women at Elizabeth Peabody's bookstore on West Street. Her initial purpose was not at all political, believe it or not. Instead, Fuller was interested in exploring the two fundamental questions we have already asked: “What were we born to do? How shall we do it?”


These were questions "which so few ever propose to themselves 'til their best years are gone by," Fuller explained. At the very least, she hoped to provide "a point of union to well-educated and thinking women" where they could satisfy their "wish for some such means of stimulus and cheer, and ... for a place where they could state their doubts and difficulties with hope of gaining aid from the experience or aspirations of others."  


Margaret Fuller's lucrative Conversations continued for five years and attracted approximately 200 students. Among them were some of the most prominent women intellects, authors, and reformers in New England including Julia Ward Howe, Lydia Maria Child, Ednah Dow Cheney, and Lidian Emerson. Eventually, given the heightened political activity in Boston on the subjects of slavery and women's rights, Fuller's Conversations took a decidedly political turn.


Emerging Voice


In 1840, when Margaret Fuller agreed to serve as the first editor of the Dial at Ralph Waldo Emerson's request, she propelled herself even further into the public eye. While Fuller shunned the "Transcendentalist" label for herself (which is interesting!), the Dial provided a vehicle for Transcendentalists to explain and defend themselves from criticism and misinterpretation. The Dial served as a forum for new authors and new ideas. Fuller saw the publication as "a perfectly free organ ... for the expression of individual thought and character, [one that would] not aim at leading public opinion, but at stimulating each man to think for himself."


Fuller solicited work from such writers (and friends) as Bronson Alcott, Frederic Henry Hedge, Caroline Sturgis, Ellery Channing, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Peabody, George and Sophia Ripley, and, of course, Emerson. She also provided her own articles on literary and cultural criticism and biography. Fuller's 1841 article on Goethe brought her acclaim as a leader in American cultural thought, and perhaps prompted her first visit to Brook Farm, the Utopian Transcendentalist community in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, founded by the Ripleys.


One of the key areas where Transcendentalists and other reformers clashed was on the subject of social and political change. Should reform happen within the individual or by tackling institutions and taking radical action? At the time, Fuller shied away from joining any particular group, preferring to examine many sides. But her two-year stint as editor of the Dial set her on a path toward radicalism and shaping public opinion.


Due to the financial instability of the publication Fuller never received her promised payment for being editor, so in 1842 she resigned. Emerson told her, "You have played martyr a little too long alone: let there be rotation in martyrdom!" and she gratefully turned over the editorship of the Dial to him.


Fuller spent time that summer traveling with generous friends in New England who paid her expenses. In Boston, she continued her language classes and Conversations, which became increasingly political.


In an 1843 edition of the Dial, Emerson published the essay that would initiate the next phase of Fuller's public life.  In "The Great Lawsuit: Man vs. Men and Woman vs. Women," she held up the egalitarian ideals of the American Revolution. Fuller pointed out that while these ideals did not yet apply to women, African Americans, and Native Americans, Americans had a "special mission" to strive toward a just social system — and to assist others in the world who were initiating their own revolutions. Human freedom was a right, she asserted.


Fuller also threw out the ideology of "separate spheres" for women and men, instead addressing the conflicts between what was "male" and what was "female" within each person. She looked at gender roles in male and female friendships, and the laws and customs associated with marriage (subjects she also examined in her personal life as a single woman with male friends and married friends). She boldly exposed patriarchy and its effects.


Fuller's groundbreaking essay caught the attention of another outspoken literary reformer — Horace Greeley, the publisher of the progressive New-York Tribune. He printed an excerpt of "The Great Lawsuit" in his newspaper in 1843.


Her audience was expanding.


Meanwhile, Fuller traveled to what was then considered the "western frontier" (Illinois and Wisconsin) with James Freeman Clarke, his sister, Sarah, an artist, and their mother, Rebecca, where she wanted to experience the American wilderness for herself. She hoped to find instances of socially progressive communities far away from the more rigid East. Instead, what caught her attention were the consequences of the displacement of Native peoples and the struggles of the settlers, especially the women, to survive difficult conditions.


Fuller saw the disparity between the promise of America and the reality of America, and the result was her 1844 book Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 — an honest, first-hand account of conditions out west and a condemnation of U.S. policy. Biographer Charles Capper explains that she "[put] the region on the national literary and intellectual map and attract[ed] a national audience."


Summer on the Lakes was the first time Fuller used her own name in her work; the research she completed at Harvard made her the first woman to use Harvard's library. According to Capper, Thomas Wentworth Higginson remembered seeing her “sitting, day after day, under the covert gaze of undergraduates who had never before looked upon a woman reading within those sacred precincts.”


Once again, Margaret's boldness caught the attention of Horace Greeley. He offered her a job in New York.


Public Voice


Horace Greeley put Margaret Fuller's essays on Page One of his reform-minded newspaper, the New-York Tribune. She signed them with the symbol of a star, or an asterisk. Greeley paid Fuller the same salary as a man's, gave her a place to live when she first arrived, and encouraged her to write with "force." Fuller thus became the first woman in America to head the literary department of a major newspaper.


Fuller reviewed books (American and foreign), periodicals, musical events, concerts, lectures, and art exhibits. She visited and wrote about New York's "benevolent" institutions — prisons, hospitals, almshouses, insane asylums, homes for the blind and deaf. Now in a position to influence popular culture and social policy through first-hand observations, her urge to tell the truth and exceptional writing talent brought her fully into the public arena.


Greeley saw her as "a philanthropist, preeminently a critic, a relentless destroyer of shams and outward traditions."


(I just love Horace Greeley!)


Fuller's social commentary included condemnations of the approaching war with Mexico, the annexation of Texas, and the expansion of slavery. As historians Judith Mattson Bean and Joel Myerson explain, "She realizes that a war would drastically reconfigure the nation's population and landscape, leaving a legacy of dispossession and ethnic conflict. Fuller's essays actively resist American imperialism with attempts to subvert racist American expansionist rhetoric ... [her] participation in this debate was significant for another reason: the war with Mexico played a critical role in her disillusionment with America ... she began to equate U.S. national policy with European despotism and imperialism."


America's national identity was in crisis in the 1840s. There were questions about American literary independence from Europe and the United States' responsibility to foreign revolutionaries. Bean and Myerson point out:


"In reviewing contemporary American literature, Fuller practices a democratic criticism that challenges writers to uphold ideals of liberty and equality. Her political essays also argue that America's principles of liberty and equality are endangered by American materialism, greed, and the desire for continental domination. She directs attention to the relation of dominant American society to the other, contending that American society is founded upon tolerance and upon recognition of universal human rights rather than domination by force."


In 1846, learning that her friends Marcus and Rebecca Spring would be traveling to Europe to observe new and effective social institutions, Fuller and Horace Greeley decided she should go as well and send dispatches to the Tribune from the cities, towns, and countries she visited.


Before she left New York, Margaret wrote to her brother Richard, "I have now a position when if I can devot[e] myself entirely to use its occasions, a noble career is yet before me ... I want that my friends should wish me now to act in my public career."




In Europe, where industrialization was more advanced than in the U.S., Fuller hoped to find successful models of communities and institutions to prevent the expansion of poverty back home. During this time of steamships, railroads, telegraphs, and booming emigration to American cities, Bean and Myerson explain, “She envisions American culture as receiving not only people but seeds of thought and expression from other nations.” These “thoughts” could be cultural as well as social and political.


In Liverpool and Manchester, England, Fuller went to Mechanics Institutes where anyone (male or female) with 5 shillings could attend lectures, take courses, or see art exhibitions. In London, she reported on cultural and literary goings-on. In Paris, when she visited homes, hospitals, and day care centers for the sick children of the poor, she observed evening schools where boys were taught a trade. In her dispatches to the Tribune, she recommended that America immediately adopt such measures.


But it was the urban poverty of the slums that affected Fuller most of all, and the clear need for reform. In a dispatch from France she wrote, “The need of some radical measures of reform is not less strongly felt in France than elsewhere, and the time will come before long when such will be imperatively demanded.” 


She also wrote, “To themselves be woe, who have eyes and see not, ears and hear not, the convulsions and sobs of injured Humanity.”


Two questions plagued Fuller’s mind: What was her role in what she was witnessing? What was America’s role?


As Joan von Mehren points out, after visiting Paris, “Every one of her columns now made some plea on behalf of its ‘injured Humanity.’” While the initial purpose of Fuller’s journey to Europe was “to seek useful ideas to transplant to the new world,” she was transformed by her experience into “a radical vocation to communicate the monstrous suffering and human waste of the historical movement.”


If there was any doubt in Fuller’s mind about her stature as an international voice, there was no doubt in the minds of her new European friends. Fuller’s reputation preceded her. They seemed to know she was destined to bridge the two continents and promote the reforms that were in their mutual interest. They embraced her.


In England, she renewed her acquaintance with social commentator Harriet Martineau, met the poet William Wordsworth, and the co-editors of the People’s Journal Mary and William Howitt, whose modern marriage she had described in Woman in the Nineteenth Century. She also met Giuseppe Mazzini, the legendary exiled Italian revolutionary about whom Fuller had written for the Tribune. She was drawn to his cause and became his confidante and secret messenger.


In Paris, Fuller met George Sand and Pierre Leroux, who invited her to publish work in their periodical La Revue Indépendante. She was introduced to the exiled Polish revolutionary and poet Adam Mickiewicz, who became a kind of spiritual guide.


Fuller was in her element, filled with a sense of purpose and armed with the skills and mechanism (the Tribune) to make a difference. But the best was yet to come — Italy.




Margaret Fuller arrived in Italy in March 1847, carrying secret letters from Mazzini and knowing she was heading into a turbulent political situation. What Mazzini and his supporters hoped to forge was a united Italian Republic starting with Rome, where the new Pope, Pius IX, seemed open to reform.


The revolutionaries wanted to limit the Pope’s power to spiritual matters; secular matters, like governance, should be left to democratically elected officials. With Rome as the head of a new republic, the rest of the independent states comprising Italy could join and form one democratic nation. Austrian and French forces, in particular, had other ideas. So did the Pope, whom Fuller took on in one of her more gutsy dispatches to the Tribune.


Among Mazzini’s supporters was the Marchese Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, the youngest son of an aristocratic Catholic family with ties to the Pope. Fuller fell in love with him, and gave birth to their child, Angelo Eugene Phillip Ossoli (“Nino”) in 1848 in Rieti where she had temporarily relocated for their safety.


She returned to Rome as soon as she found caretakers for Nino, and resumed her work as the first woman foreign correspondent for a major newspaper to serve in wartime.


Fuller observed the Roman Revolution first-hand, managed a hospital, assisted her husband on the front lines, and began to write a modern history of the movement. In one of her last dispatches from Rome she wrote, “The New Era is no longer an embryo; it is born; it begins to walk — this very year sees its first giant steps, and can no longer mistake its features. Men have long been talking of a transition state — it is over — the power of positive, determinate efforts is begun.”


However, Fuller did not believe republican forms of government would take hold in Europe until the next century, and she was right.


The Ossolis (Fuller began to refer to herself as the Countess Ossoli and assured her friends they had married) escaped from Rome in 1850 as the revolution fell apart. Although she had a nightmare about the voyage and wrote to friends that she had a terrible sense of foreboding, the family eventually sailed for New York where Fuller knew she could find a publisher for her history.


It was a dismal journey. The captain died of cholera on the way which Nino, her baby, also contracted. Before the steamer Elizabeth could reach its destination, and under the direction of a less experienced captain, a storm crossed its path, the ship ran aground, and eventually capsized just off Fire Island, New York. Some passengers were rescued, while others waited for help. Onlookers looted the items that washed ashore.


All three Ossolis perished at sea, along with Margaret’s manuscript of the Roman Revolution. Only Nino’s body was recovered, and he was buried in the Fuller family plot at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where a cenotaph in Margaret Fuller Ossoli’s memory now stands.


In a plea to her American audience from Rome, Fuller had written, “I pray you do something; let [the revolution] not end in a mere cry of sentiment … Do you owe no tithe to heaven for the privileges it has showered on you, for whose achievements so many here suffer and perish daily? Deserve to retain them by helping your fellow-men to acquire them … Friends, countrymen, and lovers of virtue, lovers of freedom, lovers of truth! — be on the alert; rest not supine in your easier lives, but remember


‘Mankind is one

And beats with one great heart’”




In a prophetic letter she wrote before embarking for New York, Fuller stated:


“I have wished to be natural and true, but the world was not in harmony with me — nothing came right for me. I think the spirit that governs the Universe must have in reserve for me a sphere where I can develop more freely, and be happier.”


Margaret Fuller did have a very difficult life, in many respects, and I hope she IS in a happier place.


But while she was with us, she managed to ask and answer THE questions: What were we born to do? How shall we do it?


She truly lived the Transcendentalist statement, “the Power who gave a power, signifies that the intellect must be brought out towards perfection.”


What was she born to do? She was born to improve the lives of women, and hold all Americans accountable to the ideals of equality and justice put forth in our founding documents.


How did she do it? Through her writing — by witnessing, asking questions, applying her massive intellect and compassionate heart to finding solutions — and, again, by having the boldness to publish.


I hope, in her last moments, as the remnants of the ship she clung to slowly sank and Margaret knew she was dying … I HOPE, that she was able to say to herself, “I did what I was supposed to do.”


I hope that gave her some comfort.


It fills me with gratitude.


Let us all ask ourselves, What we were born to do and how shall we do it? before our years are gone by. If the answers are unclear, seek truth. If there are obstacles, seek help. There is joy to be had in knowing, and doing. Like Margaret Fuller did, let us all be able to look back on a life well lived -- with purpose, and in service.


FREE AUDIO of our special report 3 Ways Your Business Can Benefit from Supporting Local History ($197 value) just by subscribing to our weekly ezine, Connections, featuring:

• Marketing ideas, using history, you can use 
   now to attract customers and their loyalty.

• Ways you can use history to boost your
   business's reputation as a local hero.

• Proven examples of how it all works.

• Inspiring stories from history

We promise to never sell, rent, trade, or share
your email with any other organization.

First Name:

Margaret Fuller