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Transcendental Ideas: Reform

Social and Political Changes in the Time of Emerson and Thoreau: The 19th Century at a Glance

Meg Brulatour, VCU

The revolutionaries who fought in 1776 and fathered the new Republic were dying off in the early 19th century, but their system of "gentry politics" lingered on a while longer. The demise of this system came about when Andrew Jackson lost his initial bid for the Presidency. One of four candidates chosen by congressional caucus, and running as a war hero after his victory in the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson led the other three in popular and electoral votes, but lacked a clear majority. The election went to the House of Representatives and John Quincy Adams became President in 1824. Jackson was incensed, as were most voters west of the Alleghenies; by this time, such "westerners" accounted for a third of the U.S. population. For the next four years, Jackson and his supporters decried the slippery politicians who stole his office. In 1828 he was elected, and the "era of the common man" began (Shannon, 185-6).

The two-party system began to take shape. Former Jeffersonian Republicans became Jacksonian Democrats. Henry Clay and Daniel Webster helped organize the Whigs to resist the power of "King Andrew." Eligible voter participation in the presidential races more than doubled, jumping from a mere 27% in 1824 to 58% in 1828, and 80% by 1840. It did not drop below 70% through the end of the century. Voter eligibility restrictions concerning property and tax payment were relaxed and people pressed for a more open political system. The first national nominating convention was held in 1831, and by 1844 both parties introduced their platforms at conventions. Party loyalty was repaid with jobs and other favors via the burgeoning "spoils system." The practice of burying issues under image was launched. Short, catchy slogans (predecessors to today's "sound-bites") became the norm: "Tippecanoe and Tyler too!" was the first of its kind, and despite the fact that the saying was rather inane and referred to a bit of history few knew about, it helped get William Henry Harrison elected in 1840. (Harrison fought against Indians in 1811 near the village of Tippecanoe, Ohio; John Tyler was his running mate). Mud slinging also became routine (186, 189).

A modern liberalism evolved during this 19th century period of increasing political involvement, resulting in the era of progressivism that opened the 20th century. This modern stance grew from Jeffersonian classical liberalism but had some distinct differences:

Regarding "natural law," Newtonian mechanics gave way to Darwinian biology (after the publication of Origin of Species in 1859). Truth was no longer necessarily a fixed entity but relative to various circumstances. Reason was not considered to be a "fundamental part of each human's nature" but was instead "defined by scientific method experts and organizations." The "rugged individual" was not so much admired as considered a problem; people ought to function as "cooperating cells" within the "social organism." Progress, once viewed as the "inevitable result of natural law and reason," was now credited to "scientific planning" and should be managed by "experts." In this light, the Jeffersonian ideal of limited, laissez-faire government as a method of securing individual freedom became suspect; preferably, a large, centralized government would take responsibility for regulating the appropriate conditions for freedom. Doubt was cast upon the concept that most people could improve themselves through education (Tozer, Violas and Senese, 105). The idea that capacity for improvement might be genetically limited was bolstered when Gregor Mendel's work on inherited traits was rediscovered in 1900. Mendel's studies were originally published in 1866; as is usually the case with great "break-through" discoveries, other people had been working along the same lines of thought as well (Raven and Johnson, 214). This particular belief regarding genes as fate helped support the increasingly racist immigration policies of the mid to late 1800s; it was also used as a means of limiting educational and employment opportunities for women, people of color, and the poor.

Obviously some of the centenary changes I've noted were brewing but did not come to fruition until long after the deaths of both Thoreau and Emerson. However, it's also obvious that during their lifetimes the political and social atmospheres were charged with at least the undercurrents of all I have mentioned. The War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War also contributed to the growing sense of nationalism that metastasized into jingoism by the close of the century. The desire to categorize precisely what qualified an individual as a "real" American grew proportionately. The general sway of change was not leaning in the direction of the self-reliant, freethinking, non-conforming individualist.

Not only are the traces of sexism, elitism, and racism found in the work of Thoreau and Emerson forgiveably understandable in light of the general cultural climate, it is to the authors' credit that such prejudices are not more pronounced. Furthermore, their unique ideas, expressed in bold and lyrical language, are rendered all the more remarkable when the loneliness of their position is clarified.

Works Cited:

Raven, Peter H., and Johnson, George B. Understanding Biology. St. Louis: Times Mirror / Mosby College Publishing, 1988.

Shannon, William V. "The People's Choice" in We Americans. Washington, D. C.: The National Geographic Society, 1975.

Tozer, Steven E., Violas, Paul C., and Senese, Guy B. School and Society: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1995

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