Transcendentalism was a philosophical movement that first arose in New England in the 1820s. Transcendentalists believed that society, especially organized religion, corrupted people and that people should remain independent and self-reliant. Transcendentalism was important because it extorted great influence on later movements, such as the New Thought movement and Unitarianism. Its members also had progressive views on abolition, education and women's rights.
Transcendentalists believed that a small portion of God was in each and every individual, and that moral and religious values transcended experiences and were always with inn he minds of the people. Transcendentalists also enjoyed nature and thought that all things important were wild and free.
"I heartily accept the motto, 'That government is best which governs leasts'; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe—'That government is best which governs not at all.'" —Henry David Thoreau, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
This quote from Thoreau illustrates the self-reliance and independence that was inherent in Transcendentalism. He, like other Transcendentalists, believed that humans did not need government and should be able to take care of themselves without it. Thoreau put this idea into practice himself when he lived alone in the woods for two years.
Causes: The Transcendentalism movement first began in New England, due to the liberalizing of Puritan beliefs, along with the foreign influences of German romantic philosophers and religions of Asia, such as Hinduism.
Effects: People became less reliant on the church for spiritual guidance, and instead interpreted the bible in their own way. Transcendentalism also led to various humanitarian reforms, including the women's rights movement, abolition, and education reforms.
Long-Range Significance: Americans became more self-reliant, especially in religion. Rather than following the words of preachers and other church officials, more people began to interpret the bible in their own way. Transcendentalists also believed mostly in the unity of God, rather than the trinity, which the churches were preaching.
Important People: Transcendentalism's main leader was Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Boston Unitarian minister. In his writings, Emerson encouraged the rejection of European traditions in favor of a more American culture. He supported the union and was against slavery, and outlined his ideas on Transcendentalism in a famous speech called The American Scholar. One of Emerson's close associates, Henry David Thoreau was also an important figure of the transcendentalist movement. Thoreau lived alone in the woods for two years to illustrate the benefits of reducing materialistic wants, and his views greatly influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.'s views on non-violence. Another main transcendentalist was Walt Whitman, who was known as the "Poet Laureate of Democracy." In his poems, Whitman wrote about emotional and unconventional topics. He supported rule by the masses and expansion of America, but detested old world traditions.
Connection to Earlier Time Period: Transcendentalism was very similar to the Enlightenment in some ways, but was also different in others. Enlightenment thinkers subscribed to the idea that logic was the most important quality to have. This was in direct contrast to Transcendentalists, who believed that creativity and emotion were more important than reason. However, they were both similar in that they disliked the church and felt that individuals should interpret the bible for themselves.
Henry David Thoreau lived in a house in the middle of the woods for two years. In doing so, he followed Transcendentalist beliefs by remaining independent and self-reliant. He later wrote a book on his experience, which, along with his other writings, encouraged people to put aside materialistic wants and pursue truth. He showed americans that life was wasted pursuing wealth.