What Is Transcendentalism and How Did It Change America?

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 

Henry David Thoreau moved into a cabin on Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, on property owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, to live out the ideals of transcendentalism. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Today, a lot of Americans feel strongly about issues such racial justice, women's rights and protecting the environment, and many believe in the power of nonviolent civil disobedience to achieve progress towards a better, fairer world. And while not all of them realize it, in many ways they take after a group of mid-19th century New England intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, among others, who espoused a philosophy known as transcendentalism.


What Is Transcendentalism?

The transcendentalist movement, which emerged in the mid-1830s, had a straightforward idea at its core. Its adherents argued that every person possessed the light of Divine truth and should look within himself or herself to find it, rather than simply conform to whatever the powers that be wanted them to think. But from that notion of spiritual self-reliance, a lot of other ideas blossomed, from reverence for nature to the view that everyone in America was entitled to freedom and equality. That led transcendentalists to become an important part of other activist movements in America that sought to abolish slavery and achieve women's suffrage.

And though it was inspired in part by thinkers on the other side of the Atlantic, "Transcendentalism became the first distinctly American philosophy, because it fused several different currents, all of which converged only here in the U.S.," Laura Dassow Walls explains in an email. She's the William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, and author of the acclaimed 2017 biography, "Henry David Thoreau: A Life."

"So, even though the underlying philosophy first emerged in Europe, it was in America that it took hold as a philosophy one could actually commit to and live by," she says.


Individualism and Equality For All

According to Walls, one of transcendentalism's key influences was the religious faith of New England's Puritans, who believed that every person stands before God and must read the Bible for himself or herself. "This gave us the bedrock notion of individualism," she says.

Another important ingredient was the American Revolution, which promoted equality as an American ideal — even if the new country didn't actually afford that status to a lot of its people, including women and Blacks. "The transcendentalists, whose parents had grown up fighting the Revolution, believed it was their turn to continue the Revolution, that is, to continue the political revolution by igniting it as an intellectual revolution," Walls says.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) in a photo by Mathew Brady, circa 1856.
Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)

Those ideas mixed together with another rising early 1880s influence — European Romanticism, a literary and artistic movement that emphasized feeling and emotion rather than the Enlightenment's emphasis on reason and order.

"All through the war years — the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812 — Americans found it virtually impossible to go to Europe or even to access European books," Walls says. "But after the Paris peace treaty of 1815, suddenly travel to Europe was wide open again. A whole generation of ambitious young American men sailed to Europe to continue their education at European universities, above all in Germany. The books and ideas and teachings they brought back with them — Kant, Goethe, the Humboldt brothers, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley, and on and on — infused American colleges and universities with an exciting new wave of European literature and philosophy." It was "a wave which swiftly spread into the popular imagination, inspiring a widespread confidence that a new age was born, an age in which the individual could intuit truth for him- or herself by an inward search for meaning."

A small group interested in these ideas began meeting together in the mid-1830s, first at a hotel and then in the Boston home of a minister named George Ripley, forming what became known as the Transcendental Club. The group eventually published a magazine, The Dial, which was edited by Fuller.

Later, some of the transcendentalists even created a short-lived utopian community in Boston based upon their ideas — Brook Farm, whose residents shared the agricultural work and operated a school.

While the transcendentalists were a rebellious fringe, a lot of their ideas eventually became an accepted part of the American mainstream. "As Emerson said, 'In self-trust, all the virtues are comprehended,'" Walls explains. "This notion of self-trust became the foundation for American self-reliance, another term coined by Emerson."


Henry David Thoreau and the Transcendental Life

Thoreau, former schoolmaster turned poet and philosopher, bought into these ideas and endeavored to live them. As this article from the Constitutional Rights Foundation details, in 1845, he built a cottage on Walden Pond, on property owned by Emerson, and spent several years living off the land, meditating and contemplating nature. Thoreau stopped paying his taxes in protest against legal slavery in the U.S. and the U.S. war against Mexico in 1846. That led to him being arrested by the local constable for tax delinquency. He spent a night in jail before a benefactor paid off his debt. The experience led Thoreau to publish his influential essay "Civil Disobedience," in which he argued that people should defy the government rather than support policies they saw as unjust.

"Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it," Thoreau wrote.

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), pictured here around 1855, was an American author and naturalist whose most famous and enduring work was "Walden, or a Life in the Woods."
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"Thoreau gave us the classic examples — first in his uniquely individualist form of social protest, civil disobedience, and then in pursuing his Utopian search for truth by living in solitude at Walden Pond — striking out alone to 'enjoy an original relation to the universe' as Emerson said," Walls says. "It's good to remember that this 'original relation' included the universe of human history — world literature, the world's religions, modern science, philosophy all the way back to the ancient Greeks, Plato above all — but also, famously, the universe of the outer world, or nature, which the transcendentalists regarded as the embodiment of divine reason, hence the key to universal meaning."

According to Walls, the transcendentalists "interpreted truth not as something that one could find, single and static, but as something one lived, dynamic and always evolving and changing."

That unending search for the truth also led the movement's members to become activists in big causes of their day. The transcendentalist belief that every person carries God within him or her meant that politics, economics, organized religion and the schools, with their tendency to sort people into hierarchical ranks, needed to be overhauled or at least reformed.

"The American educational system was their first target — education should be free to all, of all ages, men and women alike, and all ethnicities, races and creeds," Walls says. "Many of the transcendentalists were teachers, and several — Bronson Alcott, Elizabeth Peabody [and] Thoreau — founded innovative, progressive schools, which embraced literacy and education for everyone, including women and African Americans." Their ideas still influence education today.


Transcendentalism, Feminism and the Abolitionist Movement

Transcendentalists also took up the fight against slavery — "led, notably, by women, who took up the cause starting in the 1830s by founding anti-slavery societies at the local level and organizing anti-slavery activism at all levels, local, regional and national," Walls explains. Emerson and Thoreau gave speeches against slavery. Another transcendentalist minister, Theodore Parker, not only preached abolitionist sermons but actually formed a vigilance committee to protect free Blacks in Boston from southern slave-catchers. "Thoreau daringly acted as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and went on to inspire the northern movement in support of John Brown," Walls notes.

Members of the movement also were early advocates of equality for women. Margaret Fuller's 1845 book "Woman in the Nineteenth Century" contained what for the time was a daring proclamation: "What woman needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded, to unfold such powers as were given her when we left our common home." Fuller's influence was felt a few years later in the Seneca Falls Convention, the 1848 conference that's widely recognized as the beginning of the women's rights movement.

Margaret Fuller
Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) was a journalist, editor, critic, translator and women's rights advocate active in the American transcendentalist movement.
Library of Congress/Getty Images

The transcendentalist movement eventually began to fade in prominence, but its ideas never really went away. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, there was a resurgence of enthusiasm for Thoreau, as antiwar activists and hippies found that his ideas about resisting the power structure were relevant to them. Today, when climate activists argue that environmental protection and social justice for poor people and minority communities aren't separate issues but are actually inseparably linked, they're drawing upon Thoreau's belief that we need to get off the shoulders of others, Walls explains.

"Interest in Thoreau's ideas is stronger today than ever before; certainly students in my own classes resonate to his message more urgently than ever," Walls says. "They identify with Thoreau's fear that we're living lives of 'quiet desperation,' and many respond with intense hope to the solutions he offers. For one reason, his is an individualist form of hope; you can take on his ethical project by yourself, on your own, no matter who you are or where you live. In other words, he offers a sense that even today we can exert at least some control over our lives, learn to live by a higher ethical standard and so at the least make our own lives better — a place to start the ethical project of making all lives better."