Nature, Transcendentalism and Slavery In America
From Inside A Changing Society
Deep in the 19th century a philosophical movement took root within changing America. At the time industrialization was giving rise to cities built around factories, and the skills necessary for rural living were utilized by a diminishing number of families. The growing number of city-dwellers was spawning a "softer" society, as some would see it, increasingly ignorant of the value of self-reliance. Slavery was an institution that some saw as an affront to civilized America, but it wasn't to be abolished without the horrors of bloody war. Expansionism was debated in congress, in colleges and in literature of the day. Change was everywhere in American society, and none of it went unnoticed.
The growing philosophy known as transcendentalism gave voice to the objections that many intellectuals of the day had for the "softening American masses" and the government and church that were leading them like sheep. Most clearly exhibited in the writings and speech of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and Walt Whitman, the philosophy gave rise to a "movement" that may have ended by the close of the Civil War. Though the movement ended, the philosophy carried on in its influence.
The Thinking. The Speaking. The Writing
In a young nation born new from revolution a structure for proper American society was presented by the burgeoning government and the liberal Unitarian Church. There was little room for free-thinking individuals outside the colleges and universities. Poor immigrants were adding to a class struggle that was seemingly insurmountable under a stalled and ineffective political environment in which the status quo was sought while the country expanded.
With the resolve that people should come to their own understanding of the purpose of their existence, Ralph Waldo Emerson set out to live life as an example for other individuals. One of those influenced by his lifestyle and beliefs was Henry David Thoreau.
Thoreau found in Emerson's teaching some of the freedom of expression he had longed for himself. He could speak in philosophical terms and was not afraid to show his idealism. He could talk freely about the good and bad sides of humanity as he saw them. Through man's common experiences with others and with the natural world he lives in, Thoreau could show the spiritual bond between them that was rarely considered. He believed that human beings had the capacity to reach a higher level of existence if they looked at the world in a spiritual way. They could overcome and renounce their selfish over-indulgence. He believed that the soft life of excess being practiced in growing eastern cities was inferior to the self-reliance that was once so necessary. Only inferior individuals partook in "store-bought" lifestyles, and had their meals served and laundry done by slaves. In fact the enslavement of other men was the worst of the low behaviors man could demonstrate. It imposed brutality on other individuals, and devalued them spiritually, in a world where spirit is the glue that binds all people and races together.
Thoreau from Walden:
"Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.
Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. It is never too late to give up your prejudices."
Thoreau's great contributions include his chronicles of two years (and two months) he spent in a house he built for himself on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He lived as simple a life as possible, to prove that one could live comfortably without "luxury", and close to nature, planting and harvesting what he needed. He wrote and described the natural world thriving around him. In these two years and two months, Thoreau examined not only the natural world around him, but also the natural world inside of him. He described how man was possessed by his possessions.
In his dramatic Walden narrative "Brute Neighbors", Thoreau presents the peaceful shades of mankind in his reaction to a family of birds, its devoted protective adults, and its innocent and vulnerable young. He writes about the way it made him feel this way... "All intelligence seems reflected in them. They suggest not merely the purity of infancy, but a wisdom clarified by experience. Such an eye was not born when the bird was, but is coeval with the sky it reflects." This represents the pure spirit (and the best of it) common to all of us under the sky.
In stark contrast to this tranquil side, he exposes the violent side of humanity and nature in a shockingly-detailed description of a war between two races of ants. The life and death struggle between insect armies seemed to be nothing but pointless brutality similar to what Thoreau and others saw in the wars between nations and races that made possible American expansionism, as well as its racism and its slavery... "I have no doubt that it was a principle they fought for, as much as our ancestors, and not to avoid a three-penny tax on their tea; and the results of this battle will be as important and memorable to those whom it concerns as those of the battle of Bunker Hill, at least".
This violent side of humanity was most evident to Thoreau and his colleagues in human slavery. Transcendentalists saw the clear brutality of it and pledged themselves to its end. Advocating even violent opposition to slavery, Thoreau spoke to the citizens of Concord Massachusetts in support of abolition on October 30, 1859 in A Plea for Captain John Brown. He said "... A man such as the sun may not rise again in this benighted land. To whose making went the costliest material, the finest adamant; sent to be the redeemer of those in captivity; and the only use to which you can put him is to hang him at the end of a rope!"
As naturally as the abolition of slavery had found support from transcendental speakers, lecturers and writers, so too the women's rights movement dovetailed in thought and spirit with them. The impeding of a woman's educational and professional progress in order to keep her in the kitchen and nursery was viewed in the same light as holding a human in bondage. The practice of it was seen as the very over-indulgence and self-comfort that the lowest quality human participated in.
It was clear to Margaret Fuller and to those who knew her that education was the key to the fullest development of the human potential. She was an extremely well-educated woman and speaker; and became the most successfal journalist and editor of her time. Though she died in 1850, well before emancipation, she wrote, "As the Friend of the Negro assumes that one man cannot by right hold another in bondage, so should the Friend of Woman assume that Man cannot by right lay even well-meant restrictions on Woman."
The Decline of The Movement... The Continuing Spirit
As battles raged on American soil, the horrors of civil war and the brutality of slavery were glaringly evident to combatants and civilians. The progression of transcendentalism into an abolitionist movement had dissolved into the greater story of war, emancipation, assassination, re-unification and healing that would soon unfold in America.
After the war, and in the wake of the culmination of the successful fight against slavery, transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman mournfully called Abraham Lincoln the "Fallen Western Star" in his poem When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd ."
O powerful western star! O shades of night--O moody tearful night! O great star disappear'd--O the black murk that hides the star! O cruel hands that hold me powerless--O helpless soul of me! O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
Whitman said later of his subject "I remember where I was stopping at the time" (April 14, 1865, the night Abraham Lincoln was shot), "the season being advanced, there were many lilacs in full bloom. By one of those caprices that enter and give tinge to events without being at all a part of them, I find myself always reminded of the great tragedy of that day by the sight and odor of these blossoms." His vivid use of nature in describing feelings, experiences and emotions was common among his peers of the time. This is the joining of nature with the spirit and soul of man that transcendentalism is so deeply rooted in.
Transcendentalism the movement hadn't lost its thunder when the war ended, and after AbrahamLincoln died; it simply had lost its reason. It's "great commission" had seemingly been accomplished. Transcendentalism, the philosophy would go on to move and influence men and women in peaceful expression of the spiritual side of man's nature and his relationship with others and with the natural world. Human rights, civil rights and women's rights battles would go on to be fought for all generations in the future; and the influence of literature and education would be forever changed by the Transcendentalist Movement.
© 2011 Mr. Smith