Transcendental Movement Arises in New England

Transcendentalism the belief that some truths transcend proof reflected both a reaction to growing American materialism and a confidence in humankind that led to social experiments and reform movements and continued to influence social movements through the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

The Transcendental movement emerged among a small group of intellectuals living in New England who were led by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In lectures and writings, at meetings of the Transcendental Club, which became active in Boston and environs in 1836, and in periodicals such as The Dial and The Western Messenger, these intellectuals advanced what Emerson called the “new views”: a synthesis of imported and homegrown notions that produced the distinctive configuration of ideas known as American Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism
Emerson, Ralph Waldo
Thoreau, Henry David
Alcott, Bronson
[kw]Transcendental Movement Arises in New England (1836)
[kw]Movement Arises in New England, Transcendental (1836)
[kw]Arises in New England, Transcendental Movement (1836)
[kw]New England, Transcendental Movement Arises in (1836)
Emerson, Ralph Waldo
Thoreau, Henry David
Alcott, Bronson
[g]United States;1836: Transcendental Movement Arises in New England[1960]
[c]Philosophy;1836: Transcendental Movement Arises in New England[1960]
[c]Religion and theology;1836: Transcendental Movement Arises in New England[1960]
Brownson, Orestes Augustus
Ripley, George

Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Thoreau.

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

To the Transcendentalists themselves, the term Transcendentalism meant simply that truths exist that go beyond, or transcend, proof. Such truths are known to the heart rather than to the mind; they are felt emotionally, even though they cannot be proved Logic;and Transcendentalism[Transcendentalism] logically. For example, a doctor can determine whether a person is alive but cannot determine whether it is good to be alive. The Transcendentalists held that most human values lie outside the limits of reason and belong to the realm of instinct or intuition; they are matters of private experience, faith, and conviction.

The Transcendentalists drew on a wide variety of earlier systems of thought, including Platonism and Neoplatonism, German philosophical idealism, Swedenborgianism, the ideas of the French Eclectic school and the English Romantics, and, somewhat later, Confucius’s and Buddha’s writings. There was no unanimity among Transcendentalists, but most of them subscribed to an intuitive idealism, the concept of an organic universe, and a belief in the divinity of the human being. They were antiformalists in religion and literature, and they protested the commercial materialism of nineteenth century America. Although small in number and confined primarily to New England, they represented a significant influence in the history of American thought. Not only did they question prevailing notions about the universe, humankind, and God, but they also challenged neoclassical artistic standards and introduced a new aesthetic theory based on the use of symbolism.

Philosophically, American Transcendentalism represented a repudiation of the Lockean philosophy of sensationalism and materialism that had dominated American thought during the eighteenth century and which survived, although in a somewhat modified form, in the Scottish commonsense philosophy of the early nineteenth century. The Transcendentalists elevated intuition over sense experience as a source of knowledge, and they emphasized the superiority of the faculty of “reason” over that of “understanding.” The Transcendentalist George Ripley Ripley, George explained that Transcendentalists believe in a truth that transcends the sphere of the external sense. In Emerson’s words, they “respect the intuitions and . . . give them . . . all authority over our experience.”

American Transcendentalism was not primarily a philosophical movement. Although the Transcendentalists argued their case against the dominant culture in the language of philosophy and literature rather than that of theology, they were engaged in a religious demonstration. Just as they repudiated Lockean philosophy, they also rejected its religious equivalent what Emerson called “the corpse-cold Unitarianism of Brattle Street and Harvard College. Harvard College;and Unitarianism[Unitarianism] ” The Transcendental movement emerged out of the Unitarian Controversy of the 1830’s a theological debate among Boston Unitarians that focused on the question of miracles Miracles;and Christianity[Christianity] but ultimately extended to such issues as the divinity of Christ, the supernatural interpretation of Christianity, and the organization of the church.

The essence of what opponents called “the latest form of infidelity” may be seen in Emerson’s Divinity School Address of 1838. First, himself a former Unitarian minister, Emerson attacked the Unitarian concept of miracles Miracles as an interruption of the natural order. “The word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the falling rain.” For Emerson, as for other Transcendentalists, belief in an immanent God eliminated the traditionalism between the natural and the supernatural. Emerson also condemned “historical Christianity,” including Unitarianism, because it did not preach the “infinitude of man” and because “the soul is not preached.” Christ’s message, that God had incarnated himself in humanity, was distorted by later ages, Emerson declared. So was Christ’s emphasis on “the eternal revelation in the heart.” These two beliefs that people have divinity within, and that humans have the capacity to apprehend spiritual truth at first hand, by intuition, not mediated by any external authority formed the heart of Transcendental religion. The immanence of God and the humanity of Jesus Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ
[p]Jesus Christ;and Transcendalism[Transcendalism] also formed a part of the Transcendentalists’ creed.

The social philosophy of the Transcendental movement embodied two contrasting outlooks. Some Transcendentalists were led by their belief in the divinity of humankind to espouse an uncompromising individualism. Repudiating the tyranny of the majority, they preached self-culture and self-reliance. Rejecting the demand for conformity to social norms, they argued that each individual must be true to the moral law within. Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (1841) and Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” (1849) are the classic expositions of Transcendental individualism and its political and social implications. Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” after he had been jailed for refusing to pay his poll tax, which he claimed would be used to finance the Mexican War.

Other Transcendentalists emphasized the unity of humankind and stressed cooperation rather than individualism as the key to social improvement. For example, Orestes Augustus Brownson, Brownson, Orestes Augustus the editor of the Boston Quarterly Review, represented this side of Transcendentalism. The communitarian experiments at Brook Farm, founded in 1841, and Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands reflected the unifying side of Transcendentalism. The issue between the two wings of the Transcendental movement was clearly drawn in Emerson’s response to an invitation to join the Brook Farm community: “It seems to me a circuitous . . . way of relieving myself of any irksome circumstances, to put on your community the task of my emancipation which I ought to take on myself.”


Despite their disagreements as to the proper means of reform, Transcendentalists were united in protesting against such things as slavery, war, and the evils of capitalism. Thus, in its social philosophy, as in its religious and philosophical outlook, the Transcendental movement represented a trenchant critique of the dominant ideology and culture of the antebellum United States.

Since Emerson and Thoreau’s time, Transcendentalism has continued to influence American thought. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, many Transcendentalist ideas were reflected in antiwar protests and the Civil Rights movement. Thoreau’s doctrine of passive resistance also greatly influenced such social reformers as the Indian nationalist leader Mohandas K. Gandhi Gandhi, Mohandas K. and the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Further Reading

  • Baker, Carlos. Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait. London: Viking Press, 1996. Indispensable overview of the complex and shifting intellectual community of Transcendentalists; includes individual portraits of Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and others.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Emerson: Collected Poems and Translations. New York: Library of America, 1994. This lightly edited collection of notes and poems includes a detailed chronology and index of Emerson’s titles and first lines.
  • Frothingham, Octavius B. Transcendentalism in New England: A History. 1959. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1965. First published in 1876, an account of the Transcendental movement by an insider who converted to Transcendentalism under the influence of preacher Theodore Parker, the editor of the Massachusetts Quarterly Review. This edition includes a new introduction by Sydney E. Ahlstrom.
  • Grodzins, Dean. American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Focuses on the early career of the Massachusetts Quarterly Review, when Parker rose from poverty to become a major Transcendentalist prophet. Explores the religious roots of Transcendentalism and the ideas of Parker and Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott.
  • Hutchinson, William R. The Transcendentalist Ministers: Church Reform in the New England Renaissance. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959. Discusses the major differences among Unitarian ministers during the Transcendental movement. Seventeen Unitarian ministers were in the twenty-six-member Transcendental Club.
  • Miller, James E., Jr., et al. “Background American Classic 1840-1870.” In The United States in Literature. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1985. Background information in a U.S. literature anthology. Details how Transcendental thought affected the women’s rights and abolitionist movements during the nineteenth century.
  • Miller, Perry, ed. The Transcendentalists: An Anthology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950. Writings of the lesser-known Transcendentalists. The author elaborates on his thesis as to the inherently religious character of the movement.
  • Porte, Joel. Consciousness and Culture: Emerson and Thoreau Reviewed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. A study of Thoreau and Emerson as writers, whom Porte regards as complementary literary geniuses whose ideas moved provincial New England readers into a broader international culture.
  • Whicher, Stephen E. Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953. Attempt to reconstruct the inner life of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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Emerson, Ralph Waldo
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