Transcendental Ideas--Social and Political Reform
"In the history of the world the doctrine of Reform had never such scope as the present hour," Emerson in the Dial.
To understand transcendental attitudes toward reform, it's necessary to have a grasp of just what was going on, politically and socially, at the time. Jacksonian Democrats, with some populist excesses, were in conflict with the Whig party conservatives, but both seemed primarily interested in keeping the status quo and adding as much territory to the country as possible. Confrontation of the rights of slaves, women, and Indians was definitely NOT on the agenda for either party and differences between classes (and financial resources) grew, especially as more and more immigrants poured in from a starving Ireland and industry grew as farming diminished, turning independent farmers into factory operatives. It was an age of endless (and ineffectual) compromises to keep political power relatively equal between north and south, free and slave states. No wonder it was also an age of multiple reform movements, usually by small groups of people indignant at social and political inequalities but unable to make their voices heard effectively in Congress. How was one to act effectively, then? Small but vocal reforms were generally the path; speeches were made, essays were written, and some people even totally rearranged their lives, establishing small communities to correct problems in education, family and class structures, including sexual and gender norms. Another solution was to go west, looking for freedoms that seemed to be denied in the east, but anarchic lawlessness often replaced the traditional forms of government. Small inroads were made here and there, but certainly not enough to make the sort of changes that would prevent the Civil War.
Social and Political Context
Politics and Political Reform
Social Reform: Communities
Transcendentalists called for the moral reform of the individual. While the major transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau, strongly believed in individuality, some of the less known transcendentalists came together in groups that varied from eight to over a hundred members and formed communities in which they tried to live and work cooperatively. It is interesting that the most well known transcendentalists never showed interest in the communities. Thoreau did not speak of Brook Farm, and Emerson wished the Brook Farmers well but declined membership. The communities linked to transcendentalism are Brook Farm, which succumbed to Fourierism, and Alcott's Fruitlands. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a famous writer and friend to transcendentalists, wrote The Blithedale Romance, a novel based partially on his experience at Brook Farm--and one which was quite skeptical about the possible success of such experiments. In a letter to his sister, Louisa, on May 3, 1841, Hawthorne described Brook Farm as "one of the most beautiful places I ever saw in my life, and as secluded as if it were a hundred miles from any city or village." Many other communities were formed during this era, including the earlier Nashoba, a socialistic model for Brook Farm and Fruitlands.
Social Reform: Abolition
Although Transcendentalists generally asserted that reforms of society must begin within the individual conscience, they also realized that the entrenched institution of slavery called for immediate action, especially when it directly affected Massachusetts. Their actions were varied and in the form of words. Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government" was energized by the Mexican war as an effort to add more slave states; Thoreau was radicalized by the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act and his encounter with John Brown. Other transcendentalists also raised their voices for abolition of slavery.
Henry David Thoreau.
Dr. William Ellery Channing.
Ralph Waldo Emerson