Transcendentalism in 19th Century America

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

Transcendentalism represented a religion, philosophy, and way of life equated with Americanism and geared toward the perfectibility of society through reform.

Early 19th Century Transcendentalism represented the “religion” of the intelligentsia. Popular particularly among young men and women, Transcendentalism was a fusion of Enlightenment ideals, Gnosticism, and universalism. Often understood as a literary tradition focused on nature and individualism, it was also independently theological and Utopian in terms of social reforms, rejecting traditional orthodoxies and forging a link between a uniquely secularized society and its Protestant foundations. Ralph Waldo Emerson became the apostle of this new faith in individualism while Henry David Thoreau is often cited for his “primitive intimacy with nature.”

Rejection of Traditional Christian Ideology

Transcendentalists believe in the attainment of social perfectibility. Taking a cue from Deism, Transcendentalists like Emerson rejected the view of God found in traditional beliefs, notably Congregationalism and Methodism. They rejected the total depravity of man and preached man’s goodness as evidence within nature that God was imminent within his creation. According to Emerson, the world was a “living poem.”

The freeing of the soul meant embracing the “spirit,” experiencing and knowing the goodness of God in all things. Perhaps reflecting neo-Platonic idealism, Emerson wrote, “All men have sublime thoughts…all men love the few real hours of life…” Emerson ended his oration, The American Scholar, declaring that “A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.”

Transcendentalism and Social Justice

In the pursuit of perfection, Transcendentalists envisioned a society built upon justice and virtue. Such Utopianism fit into the overall reform attitudes that were tied to the Second Great Awakening. Many Transcendentalists opposed American slavery. Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay a tax funding the Mexican-American War; Thoreau opposed the expansion of slavery. Emerson, whose abolitionist views came late, championed John Brown in 1859 after the Harpers Ferry raid.

Although not the only ones to support equitable treatment for women – Quakers and the Shakers believed in gender equality, Transcendentalists called for the reappraisal of gender roles as well as ending prostitution. They opposed alcohol consumption and some of their number took on the cause of industrial workers. These Transcendentalists are often accused of fostering a form of Christian socialism before Karl Marx urged the workers of the world to unite in 1848.

Transcendentalists also warned that the ultimate perfectibility of a homogeneous American society might have to confront its own demons in the form of slavery, Native American injustices, and unbridled capitalism. This paralleled similar views by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin as well as Abraham Lincoln’s assessment of the horrors of the Civil War in his Second Inaugural Address. The “jeremiad,” so much a part of American theological rooting, became a more secular warning that without reform, tribulation would follow.

Triumph of Individualism

Perhaps it was inevitable that an expanding nation with a strong westward movement would develop a keen sense of individualism and self-reliance. In the next century, men like Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover credited “rugged individualism” with American greatness, manifested through Turner’s frontier thesis. In Self-Reliance, Emerson stated, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

This was the essence of the self-made man, so enshrined in the mythologies of Americanism that dangle the American Dream before every immigrant. In all things – whether religion, career, or other life choices, man was free to accept or reject. Predestination was dead. Social perfection rested on the notion that God was in man, God was in Nature, and in all things the goodness of God would triumph.

Sources:

  1. Brian J. L. Berry, America’s Utopian Experiments: Communal Havens From Long-Wave Crises (University Press of New England, Dartmouth College: 1992)
  2. Walter Blair, Theodore Hornberger, Randall Stewart, The Literature of the United States, Volume One (Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1953)
  3. Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981)