Transcendentalism in the 19th Century

What is Transcendentalism?

Transcendentalism was a movement based on a set of idyllic principles that originated in Concord, Massachusetts and was highly popular from the 1830s to the 1850s. It focused on the beliefs that humans are essentially good, that intuition reigns over logic, that all things in nature are tied together, and that a person can come to understand universal truths through deep introspection and contemplation of the world. Transcendentalism was a part of the larger Romantic Movement in New England, and grew out of dissatisfaction with society and religion. The primary transcendentalists drew upon earlier writings and philosophies such as Chinese and Indian scripture, Platonism, and German Transcendentalism for their inspiration. These leaders later led other social reform movements such as suffrage for women, socialist, anarchist, or communist ways of life, and others.

Some of the major thinkers and their contributions to the philosophy of the Transcendentalist movement will be examined here.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was the son of a line of Unitarian clergymen in New England. However he distrusted Unitarianism and Christian tradition. He instead moved towards Liberal Christianity in his pastoral pursuits. In 1830, he became the minister of the Second Church at Boston, basing his theology on the authority of Jesus. Yet when he asked the Second Church to do away with the sacrament of using bread and wine during Communion, it was refused. As a result, Emerson resigned. Emerson then retreated to Europe, where he was inspired by Thomas Carlyle’s articles on German transcendentalism. In 1836, Emerson published his short book, Nature. In his book, Emerson emphasized nature’s self-sufficiency, calling for a break from the reliance upon Christian traditions in practice. He believed that by becoming more in touch with nature, one could become closer to God. Emerson believed that God lived through man, and could be seen through man’s actions. He even had an inclination towards mysticism. Emerson published “Self Reliance,” which called for man to defend his beliefs at all times, and essentially practice what he preached. He placed reliance upon intuition. Although he lived during a controversial time with slavery, he was never officially a part of the abolitionist movement, although he allowed anti-slavery speakers to preach at his church. In 1871, Emerson’s life began to fade, suffering from aphasia. Finally in April, 1882, he was diagnosed with pneumonia, which soon took his life. However his works and essays continued to live on throughout society.

Click here to hear a poetry reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Forbearance."

Margaret Fuller

Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) experienced Transcendentalism in the fullest. Growing up, her aspirations were that of the education of women. Her piece, Women in the Nineteenth Century became a precursor for feminist thought. This not only expressed her desires for women in society, but also made a statement about religion. She felt a calling to reform religion. The equality preached in Christianity would justify her views on the treatment of men and women in society. Fuller went on to say that all social injustices, including that of slaves, Indians, the poor, etc, would gradually disappear once true equality among sexes was practiced. Yet her primarily feminist values established her as a Transcendentalist icon. She held “Conversations” in which women were solely invited to attend and discuss current issues including religion, education, health, and women’s rights.

Henry David Thoreau

“I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect
for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation that I have a right to assume, is to do at any time
what I think right. It is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience, but a corporation of
conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by
means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common
and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain,
corporal, privates, power-monkeys and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars,
against their wills, aye, against their common sense and consciences, which makes very steep marching
indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart.” (Henry David Thoreau)

Henry David Thoreau was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts (the epicenter of the Transcendentalist movement) to a family of modest means. In 1828 Thoreau was sent to the Concord Academy where he was an impressive student whose teachers urged him to prepare himself for college. That he did, and Thoreau entered Harvard University in 1833. Thoreau continued to be a good student, but he was not particularly eager to conform or try to please his professors. After Thoreau graduated (somewhere in the middle of his class), he attempted to become a school teacher. His methods were unconventional as he chose not to regularly discipline his students, and he resigned after two weeks. He changed occupations a few more times before a canoe trip in 1839 convinced him that his calling in life was to be a nature poet. He had always been inspired by the beauty of his surroundings, so it seemed natural that he would be able to translate that into his writing.

At first Thoreau was not particularly successful, however a friendship he had developed in his college years that would aid Thoreau in becoming one of the most influential writers of all time. Ralph Waldo Emerson could see the potential in Thoreau and helped to cultivate him as a writer. Though it is fair to say that Thoreau was influenced by Emerson, it must be made clear that Thoreau was his own man. Together these two men led the Transcendentalist movement from Concord through their writing and also by the example of their lives.

Though Thoreau went through a series of terrible events in his life in the late 1830s and early 1840s (his brother died, he proposed to a woman who accepted and then broke off the engagement, he failed to conquer the New York City Literary scene, and almost gave up his writing career), perhaps this was exactly what he needed to catapult him to success. At the prompting of a friend, Thoreau went out to Walden Pond and built himself a little hut, where he lived quite simply for a time. His goal was not to be a recluse, but to discover essential truths about life. He spent much of his time contemplating his philosophy and writing journal entries about his surroundings. Out of this experiment came Walden, a book of 18 essays on Thoreau’s perspective. What made the book such an important piece of literature, was the fact that Thoreau had actually lived out the principles he wrote about. He had become self-sufficient, introspective, and one with nature.

Another one of Thoreau’s most important works was his essay “Civil Disobedience.” This piece of work also was lent credibility by the fact that Thoreau lived by his philosophy. Thoreau believed that social reform began with the individual, and that the individual’s first responsibility was to one’s conscience, rather than the government or society (see quote above). Thoreau refused to pay an outstanding tax he owed on the principle that he would not support a government that allowed and even promoted slavery, and that would willingly engage in an imperialist war with Mexico. Thoreau was thrown in jail for this civil disobedience. (His aunt paid the tax so he was released the next day, which he used to pen his essay.) Thoreau was not anti-government, but he believed that it was the individual’s job was to question its authority, and when one’s rights were threatened, passive resistance should be used (though he was not against more aggressive resistance.) Thoreau ultimately believed that the best government was the one that did very little.

Henry David Thoreau is to be most commended for the simple fact that he lived what he believed, whether or not one agrees with his philosophy. His ideas about government, passive resistance, and nature later influenced revolutionaries such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

Click here to watch a video that takes an in depth look at Thoreau's experience on Walden Pond.

​ Baylor Students and Transcendentalism

Question 1

Yes 32%

No 68%

Queston 2

Intuition 26%

Logic 74%

Question 3

Yes 40%

No 60%

Question 4

Yes 88%

No 12%

Question 5

Yes 38%

No 62%

This poll was submitted to fifty Baylor students on Thursday, April 1st 2010 in the Bill Daniels Student Center (SUB).
Question 1. Do you believe that humans are essentially good?

Question 2. When making decisions, do you usually rely on your intuition (that "gut feeling") or do you try to think very logically?

Question 3. Are you familiar with the term Transcendentalism and do you know what it means?

Question 4. Do you believe that American society needs a major overhaul (i.e. social reform)?

Question 5. Do you spend time contemplating the world around you and attempting to make sense of it?

AnalysisTranscendentalism transformed not only American poetry and literature, but thought, education, and religion. Thinkers like Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau called for society to embrace reform. Transcendentalists restored thought to its basic underlying themes found in nature. They attempted to bring their societies closer to God in order to achieve the ideal. This movement bared the beginnings of social reform that can be traced throughout history.


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Thoreau, Henry David. ( 2010). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved April 7, 2010, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online:
Ding, Zhaoguo. "From Self-Reform to Social Reform: a Study of Thoreau's Social and Political Thoughts." Canadian Social Science 4, no. 4 (August 31, 2008): 37-44. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 8, 2010).
Koster, Donald Nelson. Transcendentalism in America. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975.
Rose, Anne C. Transcendentalism as a social movement. 1830-1850. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950.