Transcendentalism in American History

Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau. Public Domain

Transcendentalism was an American literary movement that emphasized the importance and equality of the individual. It began in the 1830s in America and was heavily influenced by German philosophers including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Immanuel Kant, along with English writers like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  

Transcendentalists espoused four main philosophical points. Simply stated, these were the ideas of: 

  • Self Reliance
  • Individual Conscience
  • Intuition Over Reason
  • Unity of All Things in Nature

In other words, individual men and women can be their own authority on knowledge through the use of their own intuition and conscience. There was also a distrust of societal and governmental institutions and their corrupting effects on the individual. 

The Transcendentalist Movement was centered in New England and included a number of prominent individuals including Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Ripley, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, and Margaret Fuller. They formed a club called The Transcendental Club, which met to discuss a number of new ideas. In addition, they published a periodical that they called "The Dial" along with their individual writings.

Emerson and "The American Scholar"

Emerson was the unofficial leader of the transcendentalist movement. He gave an address at Cambridge in 1837 called "The American Scholar." During the address, he stated that:

"Americans] have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of the American freeman is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame....Young men of the fairest promise, who begin life upon our shores, inflated by the mountain winds, shined upon by all the stars of God, find the earth below not in unison with these, — but are hindered from action by the disgust which the principles on which business is managed inspire, and turn drudges, or die of disgust, — some of them suicides. What is the remedy? They did not yet see, and thousands of young men as hopeful now crowding to the barriers for the career, do not yet see, that, if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him."

Thoreau and Walden Pond

Henry David Thoreau decided to practice self-reliance by moving to Walden Pond, on land owned by Emerson, and build his own cabin where he lived for two years. At the end of this time, he published his book, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods. In this, he said, "I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

Transcendentalists and Progressive Reforms

Because of the beliefs in self-reliance and individualism, transcendentalists became huge proponents of progressive reforms. They wished to help individuals find their own voices and achieve to their fullest potential. Margaret Fuller, one of the leading transcendentalists, argued for women's rights. She argued that all sexes were and should be treated equally. In addition, they argued for the abolition of slavery. In fact, there was a crossover between women's rights and the abolitionist movement. Other progressive movements that they espoused included the rights of those in prison, help for the poor, and better treatment of those who were in mental institutions.

Transcendentalism, Religion, and God

As a philosophy, Transcendentalism is deeply rooted in faith and spirituality. Transcendentalists believed in the possibility of personal communication with God leading to an ultimate understanding of reality. Leaders of the movement were influenced by the elements of mysticism found in Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic religions, as well as the American Puritan and Quaker faiths. The transcendentalists equated their belief in a universal reality to the Quakers’ belief in a divine Inner Light as a gift of God’s grace.

Transcendentalism was greatly influenced by the doctrine of the Unitarian church as taught at Harvard Divinity School during the early 1800s. While Unitarians stressed a rather calm and rational relationship with God, transcendentalists sought a more personal and intense spiritual experience.

As expressed by Thoreau, transcendentalists found and communed with God in gentle breezes, dense forests, and other creations of nature. While Transcendentalism never evolved into its own organized religion; many of its followers remained in the Unitarian church.

Influences on American Literature and Art

Transcendentalism influenced a number of important American writers, who helped create a national literary identity. Three of these men were Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman. In addition, the movement also influenced American artists from the Hudson River School, who focused on the American landscape and the importance of communing with nature. 

Updated by Robert Longley

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Kelly, Martin. "Transcendentalism in American History." ThoughtCo, Nov. 22, 2017, thoughtco.com/transcendentalism-in-american-history-104287. Kelly, Martin. (2017, November 22). Transcendentalism in American History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/transcendentalism-in-american-history-104287 Kelly, Martin. "Transcendentalism in American History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/transcendentalism-in-american-history-104287 (accessed December 11, 2017).