In the 1830s, the philosophy of Transcendentalism arose in New England. Some of its most famous adherents, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, are still regarded as leading American thinkers today. 

Overview

  • The philosophy of transcendentalism arose in the 1830s in the eastern United States as a reaction to intellectualism. Its adherents yearned for intense spiritual experiences and sought to transcend the purely material world of reason and rationality.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were two of the most famous and influential transcendentalists.
  • Some influential transcendentalists, such as Margaret Fuller, were early pioneers of feminism.

The philosophy of transcendentalism

The philosophy of transcendentalism originated in Unitarianism, the predominant religious movement in Boston in the early 19th century. Unitarianism was a liberal Christian sect that emphasized rationality, reason, and intellectualism; it was especially popular at Harvard.
The transcendentalists who established the Transcendental Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1836—mostly Unitarian clergy and Boston-area intellectuals—did not reject Unitarianism but yearned for a more spiritual experience to balance out the emphasis on pure reason. The very word transcendentalism refers to a spirituality that transcends the realm of rationality and the material world. Transcendentalists believed that humans were fundamentally good but corrupted by society and that they should therefore strive for independence and self-reliance.start superscript, 1, end superscript
Photos of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson
Left, Henry David Thoreau; right, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Image credits: left, Wikimedia Commons; right, Wikimedia Commons
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were two of the most famous transcendentalists. In 1845, Thoreau moved to a cabin that he built on Walden Pond in Massachusetts and lived there for two years, two months, and two days. He chronicled the experience in his book Walden, published in 1854, which explored the themes of nature, spirituality, self-reliance, and the simple life. Thoreau acknowledged the debt transcendentalism owed to Indian religious beliefs by paying homage to the Bhagavad Gita, a Sanskrit epic that is one of the foundational texts of Hinduism: “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.”start superscript, 2, end superscript
Black and white photograph of Walden Pond
Thoreau's view of Walden Pond. Image credit: Library of Congress
Emerson gained fame as an essayist and public lecturer; his 1836 essay “Nature” laid out many of the tenets of the transcendentalist philosophy. He suggested that God could be found in nature and that spending time in nature was the closest man could come to the divine. Another of Emerson’s most famous works was the 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” a defense of individualism, which emphasized nonconformity and personal responsibility. One of Emerson’s most famous quotes, a denunciation of mindless conformity, comes from this essay: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."start superscript, 3, end superscript

Women and transcendentalism

Other influential transcendentalists were feminist pioneers. Margaret Fuller, a journalist and women’s rights advocate, edited The Dial, which was first published in 1840 and served as the primary journal of the transcendentalists until 1844. She was a frequent contributor to the journal and in 1845 published Woman in the Nineteenth Century, an early feminist manifesto that may have inspired the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention—the first conference in America devoted to the issue of women’s rights.start superscript, 4, end superscript
Daguerreotype of Margaret Fuller
Daguerreotype of Margaret Fuller, 1846. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Other prominent female transcendentalists include Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who served as the business manager of The Dial and in 1860 established the first English-language kindergarten in the United States, and Louisa May Alcott, author of the classic novel Little Women.start superscript, 5, end superscript

Transcendentalism and reform

By the 1850s, many transcendentalists had become subsumed in the struggle to abolish slavery. As the incorporation of new territories into the Union exacerbated sectional tensions, the slavery issue dominated New England intellectual circles. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in keeping with his reverence for individual freedom, became a vocal abolitionist and spoke out against the Fugitive Slave Law—which provided for the return of runaway slaves—and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854—which held that settlers in Kansas and Nebraska would be the ones to decide whether those states would become slave states or free.start superscript, 6, end superscript
Because the leading transcendentalists began to focus their efforts on eliminating chattel slavery, transcendentalism faded from the scene by the 1850s. The ideas and writings of the transcendentalists, however, continued to inspire later reform movements, including the movement for women's suffrage, and the labor movement.

What do you think?

In your opinion, what were the most important components of the transcendentalist philosophy and worldview?
Why was the philosophy of transcendentalism influential in later reform movements, particularly the movement to abolish slavery?
Why do you think transcendentalism and feminism were linked?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. For more on the philosophy of transcendentalism, see Philip K. Gura, American Transcendentalism: A History (New York: Hill & Wang, 2008).
  2. Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience (New York: Penguin Classics reprint, 1986), 346.
  3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Brooks Atkinson (New York: Modern Library Classics, 2000), 138.
  4. For more on Seneca Falls, see Sally McMillen, Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  5. For more on the writings of the transcendentalists, see The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, ed. Lawrence Buell (New York: Modern Library Classics, 2006).
  6. For more on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, see Nicole Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004).