​Transcendentalism/ Emerson/ Thoreau

Transcendentalism- Philosophy that emphasized the inner thoughts and emotions of individuals. Transcendentalists believed that humans should reject the restrictions and boundaries of society, and apply their thoughts and emotions to the world and their lives. Transcendentalists greatly favored a strong and sturdy relationship between souls and nature.

A work of art portraying the Transcendentalist emphasis on the natural world. à

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As romanticism and individualism spread throughout the United States, a new philosophy of Transcendentalism also gained ground. A group of revivalists arose in New England, and eventually became known as Transcendentalists. Transcendentalists used a comparison between "reason" and "understanding" for the basis of their philosophy. "Reason", they stated, was a human's greatest quality. They believed that reason was the ability of an individual to understand beauty and truth through emotions and instincts, without relying on rationality. "Understanding", however, was the repression of instincts and thinking only through imposed policies and learning; removing emotions and beauty from thought. Transcendentalism called for the rejection of understanding and the permanent establishment of reason in human lives. Transcendentalists emphasized that humans should establish their thoughts, emotions, and instincts as first priority. Along with this belief, Transcendentalism urged "souls" to establish a strong relationship with nature. Above all, they sought to bridge the gap between the world of intellect and science, and the world of nature, instinct, and emotions. Transcendentalist, virtually all from the North, strongly opposed slavery. Transcendentalism was also adopted by many female reformers, and used along side with Feminism, or the support and work for women's rights. In later years, a connection between Transcendentalism, Feminism, and Abolitionism was prominent.

Major Leaders

Transcendentalists were impressed by the cultures and philosophies of the European countries. They believed that even though Americans did not comprise such a culture, they could still obtain the truth through instinct. Although the Transcendentalist leaders did admire the European cultures, they still did not want to copy it. They wanted to create a new and improved pure American culture. There were two prominent Transcendentalists who were successful in gathering support for their philosophies, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

The leader of the Transcendentalist group in Concord, Massachusetts, Ralph Emerson was a minister who sacrificed his relation with the church to work for the success of Transcendentalism. Emerson was a great conversationalist and lecturer who was successful in gathering large crowds. He wrote numerous poems and essays; however his most famous writings were his essays, Nature and Self-Reliance, released in 1836 and 1841. In these works, he emphasized the search for self fulfillment through a relation with the natural world and individual exploration of inner capacities. Emerson was also an active nationalist who promoted American culture throughout the U.S. Ralph Emerson is known as perhaps the most significant Transcendentalist leader of this time period.

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Henry Thoreau, also from the Concord Transcendentalist group, was the other prominent Transcendentalist leader of the time. He was more extreme in his views of the repressive forces of society which repressed individual expression than Emerson. His most famous work was his influential book, Walden, which was written in 1854. He believed that the most important part of life should be self-realization, and resisting society's limitations and mandatory policies. He urged citizens not to cooperate with the society or government policies. He believed that humans should not change themselves in order to adapt to the society's or government's limitations. Thoreau himself, in 1846, went to jail for refusing to pay a poll tax. He opposed the expansion of trains, as he believed they were "intrusive and destructive" of nature, business, and slavery. His greatest belief was that a person's own morals were above the rules of the government and that if the government should try to force their own moral systems, the only proper response was "civil disobedience."

Margaret Fuller

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  • ​Margaret Fuller was an active Transcendentalist, however, based her efforts on Feminism, or the support and work for women's rights.
  • Fuller was a close friend of Ralph Emerson, perhaps the most significant Transcendentalist leader.
  • Not only did Margaret Fuller support the philosophies of Emerson and other Transcendentalists, she also emphasized gender roles.
  • She expressed her support for Feminism in her famous work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1844).
  • She worked for improving the life of women and their status in the society.
  • Fuller emphasized the relationship between Transcendentalism and Feminism
  • She believed that reforms focused on women's rights and gender roles should be initiated.
  • Margaret Fuller wanted to draw the attention of reformers and leaders towards Feminism.
  • Unfortunately, before she could accomplish her goals, Margaret Fuller died in a shipwreck in 1850.
  • Her support for Feminism was critical and significant because it helped the issues of women's rights and gender roles gain popularity and caused other women to step up for Feminism as well.
  • Many female reformers continued to work for the spread of Feminism.
  • Her work also led women to support other reform movements such as the Temperance movement and Abolitionism.
  • Many people were surprised by the level of female efforts and support for the reform movements.

Natural Defense

Transcendentalists believed that nature existed to inspire people, and without nature humans would lose their humanity. They said that nature should not be used for economic gain or to make profits. It should be left the way it is, natural and perfect. Transcendentalists were horrified by the industrial and economic boom that was taking place in the U.S. during this time frame. Thousands of people were moving West, and as a result, land was being occupied and cultivated for farming. Numerous factories were appearing in the East. There were still some poets and writers who emphasized nature, however this was not enough for the Transcendentalists. Transcendentalists believed that nature was not just there for being viewed or commented on. They favored a relation between humans and nature. They emphasized the idea that a bond between humans and nature was necessary for both. This connection between the two would help bring out one's inner emotions and qualities. Thus, the Transcendentalists strongly opposed the new industrial and economic boom, and made efforts to counterattack them.

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