How to Change the World:
Self and Society in American Transcendentalism
Philip F. Gura
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
In the months since publishing my recent work on Transcendentalism, I have had the pleasure of speaking on the topic at several venues in some way or other associated with my topic, most memorably at the Harvard Divinity School, which played so large a role in the movement’s emergence. But I must admit that even more moving is the opportunity to deliver this address at the General Convention of the UUA, for it presents a splendid opportunity to remind ourselves that we are indeed the direct inheritors of the Transcendentalists’ sponsorship of what we now term liberal religion. To be sure, today spiritual seekers often find their ways to UU through routes other than those charted by the Transcendentalists, but there is no denying that once we begin to probe the history of our movement, at some point or other we have to confront this remarkable group of nineteenth-century thinkers.
One other preliminary. I want to emphasize that in no way do I intend to imply that UU’s should now wrap themselves in the Transcendentalist mantle and leave behind other influences. We recall that old saw, that Unitarians believe in “the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God in the neighborhood of Boston.” Well, we certainly don’t want to return to that! I mean, look where we are now, for example, in the neighborhood of Ft. Lauderdale! But I do believe that the various ways in which the Transcendentalists responded to the demands of liberal religion continue to hold very important lessons for us, particularly as we think about how to reform what remains a very troubled world
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But to the matter at hand: who were the Transcendentalists and how did they try to change the world? And, equally important, what did they think was the matter with the United States, a beacon for democracy, only half a century after its founding?
Having just completed a book about the group’s evolution, I can testify that precisely who they were has always been a vexed question. There was no central creed that identified a Transcendentalist or any roll that certifiably recorded participants. Definition and boundaries are further vexed by the fact that, as with the word “Puritan” in seventeenth-century England, at first the movement’s detractors commonly used “Transcendentalism” as an epithet. Only in the 1840s were some advocates of what was known as the “New Thought” comfortable describing their beliefs with the label, “Transcendentalist.”
One of Emerson’s earliest biographers, James E. Cabot, takes us to the heart of the matter. He observed that the movement’s supporters comprised an ever-shifting and open-ended group. The “Transcendental Club” (so named, he claimed, by the public and not by its participants) comprised “the occasional meetings of a changing body of liberal thinkers, agreeing in nothing but their liberality,” a statement he qualified by quoting his friend, the Reverend James Freeman Clarke, a Unitarian clergyman and one of the group’s original members. Clarke had wittily noted that “they call themselves ‘the club of the like-minded,’ primarily because “no two . . . thought alike.”
But we can say a few things about them as a group. First, most were New Englanders, with ties to Harvard College and the Boston area. Second, at some point in their lives almost to a person they had been associated with Unitarianism and thus were considered “liberal Christians” whose reading of Scripture made them reject Calvinism’s harsh and, to them, unreasonable tenets. Finally, although a loosely knit group of thinkers and activists, they had a distinct philosophical bent toward German Idealism rather than British Empiricism, that is, toward the revolution wrought by Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and others who championed the inherent powers of the human mind, against the philosophy of John Locke and his followers, who believed that external circumstances primarily formed man’s consciousness. Representing this new thought, they were viewed suspiciously by many contemporaries.
The Transcendentalist Theodore Parker humorously provided an index to the fears the group engendered in the general public. In a periodical he offered a fictional account of a Boston layman who encountered the word “Transcendentalism” in the daily press and wondered what it meant. “I thought of Trans-sylvanian, and Trans-substantiation,” the fellow explained, “but found no light.” Neither did he find the novel term in any standard dictionary. Then he turned to a pamphlet recently published by some conservative clergy at Princeton who had weighed in on New England’s recent religious turmoil, from which he learned the truth. “Trans-cendentalism,” he said, is “a very naughty thing.” Indeed, what he read so upset him that he subsequently had an awful dream in which all the Transcendentalists “and countless others” were thrown together “in the greatest confusion, without regard to age, opinion or character.” The outcome was frightening.
Alas for churches in New England! We be all dead men, for the Transcendentalists have come! They say there is no Christ; no God; no soul; only ‘an absolute nothing,’ and Hegel is the Holy Ghost. Our churches will be pulled down; there will be no Sabbath; our wives will wear the breeches, and the Transcendentalists will ride over us rough shod.
To many people, the Transcendentalists were just this unsettling, and as often ridiculed or reviled as respected. On his famous trip to the United States at the height of the Transcendentalist ferment, for example, the English novelist Charles Dickens observed that when he inquired of some of his American friends what Transcendentalism signified, he was given to understand that “whatever was unintelligible would be certainly transcendental.” The Scottish writer and reformer Thomas Carlyle, following a visit from Transcendentalist George Ripley, who had resigned his ministry to start a socialist community at “Brook Farm” a few miles from Boston, was equally acerbic: he termed his recent New England guest a Unitarian minister, “who has left the pulpit to reform the world by cultivating onions.” Even fellow-travelers could not resist such humorous characterizations. In her old age Annie Russell Marble, who had lived at Ripley’s Brook Farm community, quipped that the Transcendentalists, for all their good will, were “a race who dove into the infinite, soared into the illimitable, and never paid cash.” The historian Henry Adams, no stranger to New England’s ways, concluded, they were “unutterably funny.”
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But who precisely were these shadowy figures associated with all things German? A large number were Unitarian clergymen—Orestes Brownson, William Henry Channing, James Freeman Clarke, Christopher Cranch, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederic Henry Hedge, Theodore Parker, and George Ripley, the most prominent. Some remained in the ministry as Unitarians, while others redefined the nature of the churches they led—Clarke and Parker, the most notable examples—, while still others left the church altogether. Brownson became an editor and social reformer, for example, John Sullivan Dwight the nation’s foremost music critic, Christopher Cranch a poet and painter, and Emerson a lecturer and writer.
There also were many in the cohort—among them, prominent women—who found their way to Transcendentalism through association with one or more of the just-named individuals. Such was the case with Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who served as amanuensis to the great Unitarian clergyman William Ellery Channing before joining the educational reformer Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father) as a teacher in his primary school based on Transcendentalist principles. George Ripley’s wife Sophia was at his side when he decided to begin a socialist commune; she oversaw its well-regarded school. Margaret Fuller’s closest teenage friend was James Freeman Clarke, with whom she studied German and prepared herself for a career as writer and women’s rights advocate. In turn, she influenced such younger women as Caroline Healey Dall, who gravitated in the Transcendentalist orbit. Still other fellow-travelers were Emerson’s protégés, Thoreau, the most famous, but with younger aspiring writers like Jones Very, Charles King Newcomb, and Charles Stearns Wheeler also taking inspiration from him. The poet William Ellery Channing, nephew of the Unitarian clergyman of the same name, owed much to his association with Thoreau.
So, there was no cohesive or identifiable movement but only “like-minded” people who for different reasons were critical of contemporary religious and philosophical thought and discovered in a novel body of European ideas a way to address this dissatisfaction. In 1842 Charles Mayo Ellis, a Massachusetts attorney active in the anti-slavery movement, provided a book-length account. He wrote that Transcendentalism maintains that men have ideas that do not come through the five senses or the powers of reasoning but are “the result of direct revelation from God, his immediate inspiration, or his immanent presence in the spiritual world.” The doctrine of Transcendentalism, he continued, is
the substantive, independent existence of the soul of man, the reality of conscience, the religious sense, the inner light, of man’s religious affections, his knowledge of right and truth, his sense of duty, . . . his love for beauty and holiness, his religious aspirations—with this it starts as something not dependent on education, custom, command, or anything beyond man himself.
Innately present in each individual, in other words, is a spiritual principle which, of itself, without any external stimuli, allows one to distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad, God and Satan, and that supersedes any outward laws or injunctions. The highest law comes from the promptings of the spirit, a potentially anarchic belief held in check by the universality of the religious sentiment. Running through it all, one participant continued, was a belief in “the living God in the Soul, faith in immediate inspiration, in boundless possibility, and in an unimaginable good.” Simply put, it was another American Revolution, spiritual in nature and remarkably varied in its practical implications.
But the potential effects of this heady premise, the spiritual equivalent of the democratic ideal that all men (and women) are created equal, was problematic, and particularly so in a nation that did little for the rights of women, labor, the indigent and infirm, and also still protected slavery. The Transcendentalists’ belief in a democracy of the Spirit thus made them call “for immediate application of ideas to life.” In this brave new world a thinker had “to justify himself on the spot by building an engine, and setting something in motion.” For this group, Frothingham concluded, the test of a truth was its “availability,” its potential to transform this into a better world. Let me now turn to how the Transcendentalists subsequently built their various “engines” and adjusted them to the evolving meaning of America.
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There is no doubt of the Transcendentalists’ enduring influence on American culture, and it is based in more than just Emerson’s essays or Thoreau’s Walden. In the nation’s centennial year Transcendentalism’s first historian summed it up well. The movement, “though local in activity, limited in scope, brief in duration, engaging but a comparatively small number of individuals,” left “a broad and deep trace on ideas and institutions.” It “affected thinkers, swayed politicians, guided moralists, inspired philanthropists, created reformers.” From their emergence in the early 1830s least through the early 1850s, they cultivated a vibrant openness to social and cultural ideals that directly challenged the materialism, insularity and increasing jingoism already hallmarks of American culture.
The Transcendentalists were split, however, over how to effect such reform, and here we come to the heart of my topic tonight, for they argued over whether the project was the reformation of self or society. Was it the individual who had to be redirected or the society that had to be reconstructed? One group, which Emerson epitomized, championed introspection and self-reliance—what a contemporary termed “self-culture”—as keys to the better life, an ethic of individualism that fit conveniently with the antebellum economic expansion known as the Market Revolution. Another group, centered on Ripley and Brownson, argued that reform was most effective when self was subsumed into work for humanity. They stressed the brotherhood of man and outer-directed behavior for the common good, an ethic inherited from the civic republicanism of the post-evolutionary generation as well as from contemporary European socialism. Friction between those who emphasized hyper-individualism and those who championed men’s and women’s irreducible equality in the commonwealth marked Transcendentalism from its initial coalescence as an identifiable movement.
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First consider Emerson, now the most well-known Transcendentalist. He believed that only after an individual experiences the paradise within should he join with others, similarly enlightened, to restore the outer paradise. Only then would institutions, comprised as they were of discrete individuals, change. Admittedly, men and women at work together appear to accomplish more. But reform does not consist merely in external covenant, he said, for those who band together in an imperfect state are, on all sides, “cramped and diminished” in proportion. “The union,” he concluded, “must be ideal,” that is, comprised of enlightened, self-realized individuals.
This belief in radical individualism, articulated so powerfully in Emerson’s essays of the early 1840s, is at the heart of his Transcendentalism. He believed that the new world that reformers sought would not arrive because “we drink water, we eat grass, we refuse the laws, we go to jail.” Such activities are in vain if the heart is not pure. The new world will not arrive until each obeys his or her genius, “the only liberating influence.”
Emerson’s insisted on the primacy of individual consciousness, that is, in the erection in every mind of “the standard of truth and right, and hence for every one to do what is right in his own eyes.” Emerson codified this version of the self in his first two books of essays. Coupled with his frequent lecture series in Boston as well as individual appearances in cities and towns throughout the Northeast, for many people Emerson typified American Transcendentalism, even as others in the group began to condemn the egotism to which his ideas led.
His pivotal essay is “Self-Reliance,” in which he praises the individual who learns “to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre [sic] of the firmament of bards and sages.” Self-reliance is nothing less than the willingness “to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men.” The trouble is, Emerson observed, that this inner voice grows “faint and inaudible” the more mankind is tied in social bonds. “Society,” he noted, “is nothing more than a “joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” Thus, “whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.”
Emerson understood the potential anarchy that such ideas implied but was supremely confident of their correctness. He recounted how one friend, on hearing him question, “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?”, observed, that “these impulses might be from below, not from above.” Emerson calmly replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil,” for no law was sacred to him but that of his own nature.
Even more problematic was his sense of what such beliefs implied for the nature of social reform. “Do not tell me,” he wrote, “as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations,” for “are they my poor?” As to “miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots, and the thousand-fold Relief Societies,” he confessed that he sometimes gave a “dollar” but did not really expect it to do any good.
Emerson maintained that greater self-reliance would “work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.” Reformers, he continued, might “summon conventions and vote and resolve in multitude,” but God will “enter and inhabit you” only by “a method precisely the reverse.” Man will be strong and prevail when he throws off all foreign support and stands alone. “Is not a man better than a town?” he asked rhetorically. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself,” he concluded. “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”
Emerson thus championed the empowered individual, the self-reliant genius for whom conscience is the highest law. But other Transcendentalists lamented how such self-regard impeded response to pressing social problems. The Unitarian patriarch, William Ellery Channing, for example, observed that if someone else other than Emerson had emerged to lead Transcendentalism, he or she might have introduced it in such a way that it was not so much identified with the “extreme Individualism” by then indelibly associated with it via Emerson. Channing also noted a constant danger that beset Transcendentalists: their too frequently mistaking “their individualities for the Transcendent.” Young Caroline Healey, Margaret Fuller’s protégé, found a part of Emerson’s thought problematic. Reading Essays: First Series shortly after the book appeared she found that what he had to say about self-reliance was “extravagant and unsafe.”
Elizabeth Peabody had another word for his philosophy, “egotheism,” which she used in characterizing her disappointment in the self-centered tendency of much Transcendentalist thought. The problem with viewing the world as Emerson did was that people “deified their own conceptions; that is, they say that their conception of God is all than men can ever know of God.” She recognized this as early as 1838, when she was at Emerson’s home as he revised his Divinity School address for publication. She noticed a passage that he had not delivered, as he explained, “merely for want of time.” In it he had warned, she wrote, “against making a new truth a fanaticism,” which, had he included the line, “would have saved many a weak brother and sister Transcendentalist from going into the extreme of ego-theism.” “Too soon,” she remembered Emerson writing, “we shall have the puppyism of pretension looking down on the head of all human culture; setting up against Jesus Christ every little self magnified.” Emerson obviously recognized that his ideas lent themselves to uses other than those that he wished.
A reviewer in Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune was even more severe. After hearing Emerson deliver a lecture on “The Transcendentalist,” the correspondent lamented Emerson’s insistence that a Transcendentalist should not labor “for small objects, such as Abolition, Temperance, Political Reforms, &c.” “So we would ask Mr. Emerson,” he wrote sarcastically, “whether the Poverty, Ignorance and Misery of the Human Race and the devastated and neglected conditions of the Globe are not objects great enough to arouse the Philosopher of the Transcendentalist School to action.” Emerson’s friend Henry James, Sr., baldly restated the criticism. “The curse of our present ties, which eliminates all their poetry,” he observed of his contemporaries’ resistance to socialism, is the “selfhood imposed on us by the evil world,” something to which Transcendentalist thought undeniably tended
Consider Emerson’s reaction to one of the noblest social experiments of his day, his cousin George Ripley’s Brook Farm outside Boston. After resigning from the ministry Ripley tried to drum up support among his friends for a socialist commune. In particular, he sought the commitment of those like Emerson, Fuller, and Alcott in hopes that their endorsement would generate widespread interest in his plan. These individuals, however, proved recalcitrant. Alcott had his own ideas for such an experimental community, “a simpler New Eden,” he termed it, where, after its members had surrendered their desires for selfish gratification, they would live in harmony with the universal spirit. He doubted that any reform could occur by merely changing social arrangements and later started his own community, Fruitlands. Fuller, too, resisted Ripley’s entreaties, for at this time she was swaying in Emerson’s orbit. She supported his plans but, like Alcott, wondered if they would bear lasting fruit. “I do not know what their scheme will ripen to,” she wrote a friend, for “it is only a little better way than others.” “I doubt,” she concluded, “they will get free from all they deprecate in society.”
Ripley’s siege of Emerson went on for over a month. Failing to convince him in person, Ripley sent his cousin a long letter in which for the first time he detailed his goals for the community. He sought “to insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists.” Toward that end, at his new community he would
Combine the thinker and the worker, as far a possible, in the same individual; to guarantee the highest mental freedom, by providing all with labor, adapted to their tastes and talents, and securing to them the fruits of their industry; to do away the necessity of menial services, by opening the benefits of education and the profits of labor to all; and thus to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions.
The site of this socialist paradise was in then-rural West Roxbury, where a large dairy farm formed the basis of their labor and where they also operated a school for the children of members, and of others by tuition.
With such ideas spinning through his mind, Ripley anxiously awaited Emerson’s reply. Finally, a month later, Emerson wrote that he could not join Ripley in his admittedly “noble & humane” enterprise.” The grounds of his decision, he said, were “almost purely personal.” He was content—we might say, comfortable—with his home, his neighborhood, and the institutions in Concord around which he had built his career. More tellingly, he explained that it seemed to him a circuitous and arduous 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.” Personal reform, he implied, was best accomplished in the privacy of one’s closet.
Emerson spared Ripley what he thought and said privately of his friend’s plans. Earlier in the negotiation, he wrote in his journal that he “wished to be thawed, to be made nobly mad by the kindlings [sic] before my eyes for a new dawn of human piety” but simply was not “inflamed” by Ripley’s plan. It was too much “arithmetic & comfort.” Given the participants’ fairly comfortable financial circumstances, he did not wish to have what amounted to “a room in the Astor House hired for the transcendentalists,” a reference to one of New York City’s most fashionable residences.
Indeed, Emerson had his own, admittedly narrow, conception of the plight of labor and his complicity in it, which he described in a way that reveals a certain naivety and even moral obliquity. “The principal particulars in which I wish to mend my domestic life,” he wrote, “are in acquiring habits of regular manual labor, and in ameliorating or abolishing in my house the condition of hired menial service.” In other words, while Ripley sought to model an entirely new way of relating labor to capital, Emerson was bothered by the fact that he did not chop enough wood and that his house servants did not dine with the family.
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But Emerson was not the only prominent Transcendentalist. Consider now how other Transcendentalists understood the relation between self and society. One of the most remarkable examples comes from Orestes Brownson when he addressed the relation between capital and labor in his electrifying essay of 1840, “The Laboring Classes.” In the western world’s industrial system, Brownson claimed, workers were worse off than those in chattel slavery, for the wage laborer had “all the disadvantages of freedom and none of its blessings.” As valuable property, slaves at least were properly housed, clothed, and fed, while laid-off or striking factory operatives and other workingmen had nothing, a fact which the “hard times” of a recent depression, the Panic pf 1837, brought home every day. Utterly reprehensible, then, were capitalists who perpetuated the wage system because it brought them great profit even as the true producers, the workers, suffered. “The man who employs them,” Brownson wrote,
is one of our city nabobs, reveling in luxury; or he is a member of our legislature, enacting laws to put money in his own pocket; or he is a member of Congress, contending for a high tariff to tax the poor for the benefit of the rich; or in these times he is shedding crocodile tears over the deplorable condition of the poor laborer, while he docks his wages twenty-five percent; building miniature log cabins, shouting Harrison and “hard cider.” (a reference to political slogans in the presidential campaign of 1840)
Wage labor, Brownson concluded, “is a cunning device of the devil, for the benefit of tender consciences, who would retain all the advantages of the slave system, without the expense, trouble, and odium of being slaveholders.”
The great work of the age thus was not indulgent self-culture, a la Emerson but the elevation of the laborer, “to realize in our social arrangements and in the actual conditions of all men that equality of man and man” which God had established but which the nation’s economic system had progressively destroyed. Brownson rejected outright the individualism Emerson preached. Self-improvement would not abolish inequality nor restore workers’ rights, and bore no relation to the whole-scale changes to the social structure that the times demanded. The entire economic system, not the reading habits of its managers, had to be changed.
Or listen to Theodore Parker, another Unitarian clergyman who had spun far from Emerson’s orbit. Several sermons which Parker preached on social conditions in Boston bear comparison to Brownson’s fiery essays. Most searching was his astute analysis of the part played by the wealthy in tearing the city’s frayed social fabric. He understood that the problems of the poor—their seemingly inexorable descent into crime, drunkenness, and prostitution—were caused as much by the complicity, and complacency, of the comfortable and well-off as to any personal faults. In other addresses he took up such subjects as the urban poor and the criminal element, and linked them to society’s general neglect of the conditions that spawned them. With a large body of statistics recently prepared by the city at his command, Parker painted a stark picture of the city’s steady decline into social chaos. To remove the causes of all this, Parker reminded his audience, one needed to apply Christianity to “social life.” “I look to you to do something in this matter,” he told his congregation. “I look to you to set an example of a noble life, human, clean, and Christian,” not debasing the poor but uplifting them.
Parker’s rage at his contemporaries’ acquisitiveness—a direct corollary to a concern for self—was unbounded. “Love of money,” he trumpeted in 1849, “is out of proportion to love of better things—to love of justice, of truth”; and wealth was “often made the end to live for; not the means to live by.” He implored his hearers to realize that “We are all brothers, rich and poor, American and foreign; put here by the same God, for the same end, and journeying towards the same heaven, and owing mutual help.” He urged his auditors to join in organized politics to stay the city’s decline.
The battles against intemperance, and for prison reform and universal education, would only be won after Christians took control of corrupt political parties. Pointing to the election of 1848, in which in a hard-fought contest Whig candidate Zachary Taylor had defeated Democratic nominee Lewis Cass and Free Soil aspirant, Martin Van Buren, Parker approvingly observed that this election had proved what resolute men could do. He cited the efforts of all the parties—“what meetings they held, what money they raised, what talent was employed, what speeches made, what ideas set forth,” toward the end that virtually everyone’s vote was solicited. When public-spirited men, Parker concluded, turned their attention “to reforming the evils of society, with such a determined soul, what evil can stand against mankind?” In his moral calculus, Emerson’s right-minded individual still mattered, as long as he worked through concerted group activity—even politics—to realize the good society.
Parker also inveighed against the war with Mexico, a boondoggle that eerily bears much comparison to our current situation in Iraq. In his Sermon on War Parker could not contain his outrage at politicians’ blatant instigation of armed conflict for their own self-serving ends. He lambasted his countrymen’s silence when President Polk declared war and was even more outraged when, after the governor of Massachusetts called for volunteers, the church and the press still did nothing. Hitting his fellow citizens where it hurt, Parker asked if they realized the toll war would take on their purses. He was speaking in a city, he bellowed, “whose most popular Idol is Mammon, the God of God; whose Trinity is a Trinity of Coin!” And even though the fighting was thousands of miles from Boston, the price of their stocks had fallen, the rates of their insurance were altered, and their commodities waited on the docks, unshipped. Add to this economic disruption the immense waste of goods and property, and the terrible loss of human life that accompanied the conflict, and they knew the true dogs of war were at their doors.
Parker spoke to them not only as Americans but as Christians. “Aggressive war is a sin,” he reminded them, “a corruption of the public morals.” It is a “practical denial of Christianity; a violation of God’s eternal law of love.” What blinded his countrymen to this evident truth? “The eyes of the North are full of cotton,” he told his audience, “they see nothing else, for a web is before them; their ears are full of cotton, and they hear nothing but the buzz of their mills; their mouth is full of cotton, and they can speak audibly but two words—Tariff, Tariff, Dividends, Dividends.” Northern Politicians closed their eyes, as long as more money was to be made. Finally, Parker reminded them that war, horrible as it was, was not the worst calamity that could befall a nation. “It is far worse to lose all reverence for right, for truth, all respect for man and God; to care more for the freedom of trade than the freedom of men; more for a tariff than millions of souls.” Look at your rulers, he told his audience, “and see your own likeness!”
When the conflict ended two years later, he sarcastically assessed his countrymen’s putative gains. When the war began, he recalled, “there was a good deal of talk about it here; talk against it.” But, Parker observed wryly, “as things often go in Boston,” it ended in talk, as many men “diligently set themselves to make money out of the war and the new turn it gave to national affairs.” He again mentioned the war’s cost in monetary and human terms, greater than he could have predicted two years earlier, when he had prayed that the conflict would be brief. Parker’s anger was palpable. “I wish,” he said,
all of this killing of 2000 Americans on the field of battle, and the 10,000 Mexicans; all this slashing of the bodies of 24,000 wounded men; all the agony of the other 18,000, that have died of disease, could have taken place in some spot where the President of the United Stats and his Cabinet, where all the Congress who voted for the war. . .the controlling men of both political parties, who care nothing for this bloodshed and misery they have idly caused, could have stood and seen it all; and then that the voice of the whole nation had come up to them and said, “This is your work, not ours . . . We have trusted you thus far, but please God we never will trust you again.”
Slavery is “the blight of this nation,” he told the assembled, “the curse of the North and the curse of the South,” and, whether they acknowledged it or not, the reason for which the war was fought. A good man had to speak out and vote against the slave power. How? By organized action, by voting corrupt politicians from power and putting in their placemen of character and conscience.
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There were other Transcendentalists who lined up on one side or the other of this divide between self and society. One of the most interesting, for example, was the pioneering feminist Margaret Fuller, who began as one of Emerson’s acolytes and called for recognition of every individual’s—male or female—equality in the spirit. But the more she studied woman’s plight, the more she realized that what held her back were large cultural and economic forces that had to be resisted and redirected through concerted, joint action. Moving to New York, she became an advocate of the imprisoned, the mentally disabled, and those locked in the shackles of vice. Upon a subsequent trip to Europe to report on the democratic revolutions of 1848, she was converted to the socialism that had so long attracted Ripley and his cohort. In contrast, Emerson, who himself witnessed some of the revolutions while on a trip to the Continent, continued to trumpet the solid middle-class virtues of the English and those who he saw as their children, his fellow-Americans.
But what happened next among the Transcendentalists as a group? Was this bifurcation healed? For a while, the movement held together, its members united by their opposition to the one overwhelming social problem of their time, slavery. Toward its abolition both sides united, speaking against it from their different viewpoints. Proponents of individual conscience believed they could convince Southern slaveholders to act as moral individuals to free their slaves; others worked tirelessly to sway politicians to legislate against the cursed form of labor. But, concomitantly, as the sectional crisis of the 1850s challenged Americans to confront the immense fact of chattel slavery, the larger, vital culture of social reform—that which had included agitation for the rights of women, labor, and the indigent, for example—was lost in the maelstrom, viewed as less significant than the horrors of the Southern plantation.
Further, it was decades before such issues again became front and center, for in the post-Civil War era the uneasy balance between the parties of self and of society tipped irrevocably in the direction of the former, whose philosophy supported individual rights and market capitalism, or what is now called democratic liberalism, rather than humanitarian socialism. Emerson’s appealing philosophy of self-reliance, an artifact of the early 1840s, was adopted—without it spiritual overtones—as a chief article of national belief. More and more, American Transcendentalism became identified with his vision of the imperial self, a process only accelerated after his death in 1882. What the nation remembered of Transcendentalism, in other words, was put to the use of embellishing the American dream of self-sufficiency so triumphant in the Gilded Age.
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So there is my history lesson. If I were a Puritan minister, I would say, you have heard my text and its explication. Now comes the most important part, the application. Is the project reformation of self or society? But I cannot answer that for you. I only wish to observe that this fissure is not something that arose with the Transcendentalists. It has its roots in this nation’s foundational documents and hence remains a volatile and divisive issue. Consider two of these uhr-texts, John Winthrop’s “Model of Chrstian Charity,” a sermon delivered to the Puritans as they were crossing the Atlantic in 1630, soon to found Massachusetts; and Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Both have been cited by generations of politicians who have striven to remind of us our country’s purpose. And yet both counsel an ethic diametrically opposed.
We all know the most famous line from the former: that “we shall be as a city on a hill, the eyes of the world will be upon us,” words that have proved fodder to those who claim America’s exceptionalism, its special place in world affairs. But there is much more to Winthrop’s words, for the very text of his sermon is that all men and women are not created equal but have different callings and different gifts. Listen to his words. “GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of’ mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission.” And why? So “that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knitt more nearly together in the Bonds of brotherly affection.” To succeed as a new colony the Puritans needed that ethic, and not follow it would lead to the failure of their experiment. Winthrop, again:
Now the onely way to avoyde this shipwracke, and to provide for our posterity, is to followe the counsell of Micah, to doe justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, wee must be knitt together, in this worke, as one man. Wee must entertaine each other in brotherly affection. Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities. Wee must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekeness, gentlenes, patience and liberality. Wee must delight in eache other; make other’s conditions our oune; rejoice together, mourne together, labour and suffer together, allwayes haueving before our eyes our commission and community in the worke, as members of the same body.
Now consider our other founding document, in which Jefferson declares that all men are created equal and have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. While Winthrop’s injunction counsels the need for love and cooperation, Jefferson’s codifies the sacred rights of the individual, the foundation for the modern liberal state, in which self is set against society and, I would argue, thus the general welfare. Winthrop and Edwards both place Americans on a starting line and urge them to run toward a goal. But while Winthrop’s Puritans—men, women, African Americans, Native Americans—are to join hands and walk toward that goal together, the strong helping the weak, Jefferson’s Americans—white men who held a certain amount of property—all start out together, some tripping and falling, some losing their way, others proceeding more slowly, and only some attaining the prize.
Of course, that, for all our invocation of the Puritans and their struggle for religious liberty, Jefferson’s way, modified in our Constitution so that the people left out now have the same guarantees, finally has prevailed in this country, even though periodically through American history there have been those who tried to direct the course of America’s progress more in line with an ethic of universal social obligation. I think here particularly of the great eighteenth-century theologian and revivalist Jonathan Edwards, who in his book The Nature of True Virtue declared the highest example of virtue as “benevolence to Being in general,” that is love for and embrace of all things. And in his Treatise of the Religious Affections, in which he strived for those things which most identified true religion, declared as its highest sign, that true religion has its fruits in Christian practice.
And so here is the greatest irony about the Transcendentalists, and perhaps their tragedy: a group who began from the premise that all men and women are equal in the spirit, a wonderfully democratic assertion, ended by being co-opted to the ethic of rapacious individualism that marked the Gilded Age in America. One after another of those who had been Emerson’s equals in the group dropped from sight. Margaret Fuller drowned in a shipwreck as she was returning from Europe. Thoreau lived as a bachelor of nature in his beloved Concord. After the debacle of Brook Farm, Ripley moved to New York to work for Greeley’s Tribune and became the literary editor of the paper. Brownson, twenty years a convert to Roman Catholicism, wrote endless polemics and book reviews for Brownson’s Quarterly Review, now essentially a Church organ. After the Civil War, Emerson thus reigned as America’s philosopher king. Though he personally would have deplored it, his philosophy, simplified for public consumption, as Benjamin Franklin’s had been for an earlier generation, empowered the Carnegies, Huntingtons and Vanderbilts as much as it did the man in the street.
In one sense Transcendentalism offered perhaps the last best chance to inculcate social responsibility on a larger level. Respect for the self should indeed lead to respect and care for any and all others. But we are far from that state now. The world is judging our place in history, and, however special you think it is, we are being judged on our ability to understand, and on our commitment to, others not as fortunate as we are.
Listen once more to Winthrop’s ringing words and see how you feel. Winthrop says, “Now the onely way to avoyde this shipwracke, and to provide for our posterity, is to followe the counsell of Micah, to doe justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.
For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. Wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God, and all professors for God’s sake. Wee shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are a goeing.
Finally, let me remind you that in recent times this dream has still been alive. Let me quote from a recent speech ( January 20, 1977) “Here before me,” this individual said, “is the Bible used in the inauguration of our first President, in 1789, and I have just taken the oath of office on the Bible my mother gave me a few years ago, opened to a timeless admonition from the ancient prophet Micah: “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” (Micah 6:8) This person goes on:
But we cannot dwell upon remembered glory. We cannot afford to drift. We reject the prospect of failure or mediocrity or an inferior quality of life for any person. Our Government must at the same time be both competent and compassionate. We have already found a high degree of personal liberty, and we are now struggling to enhance equality of opportunity. Our commitment to human rights must be absolute, our laws fair, our natural beauty preserved; the powerful must not persecute the weak, and human dignity must be enhanced. We have learned that “more” is not necessarily “better,” that even our great Nation has its recognized limits, and that we can neither answer all questions nor solve all problems. We cannot afford to do everything, nor can we afford to lack boldness as we meet the future. So, together, in a spirit of individual sacrifice for the common good, we must simply do our best.
This eloquent individual was President Jimmy Carter, at his inauguration, thirty years ago. The sad thing to me is that his, and the Transcendentalists’ deepest dream, goes unfulfilled. Self or society? I leave you with this: is it a rhetorical question?