In 1830, a movement known as Transcendentalism began to gain popularity in America. It represented an idealistic system of thought such as "strength, courage, self-confidence, and independence of mind". Transcendentalists opposed aspects of their government, where they felt "many unjust laws existed." Therefore, they became the leaders of a number of modern reform movements. Transcendentalists also had a major effect on their society and became a "powerful force for democracy."
Originating in the area in and around Concord, Massachusetts, Transcendentalism was recognized as having an "underlying relationship to the Romantic movement as a whole." Three of the most obvious or well known sources or origin of Transcendentalism are neo-platonism, German idealistic philosophy, and certain Eastern mystical writings which were introduced into the Boston area in the early nineteenth century."
Transcendental beliefs focused on "the importance of spirit over matter." Ralph Waldo Emerson, a well known Transcendentalist, felt that "all men aspire to the highest, and most of them spend their lives seeking money and power only because they see nothing higher." Followers also believed in a spiritual hunger, or the need to find themselves one with the world. In addition, they believed in "an ascending hierarchy of spiritual values rising to absolute good, truth, and beauty." Transcendentalists also believed in a supreme being, the Oversoul, and felt that "if the Oversoul is all powerful and at the same time good, then evil does not exist."
Transcendentalism "appealed to the best side of human nature, confident in the divine spark in all men, and it was a clarion call to throw off the shackles of custom and tradition, and go forward to the development of a new and distinct American culture." It was believed that human nature was basically good since "God was in every person." Therefore, "man, because he is the creature of God, necessarily partakes of the divine nature of his creator." Man's creator, the Oversoul, was conceived by Emerson as an "all pervading spiritual power from which all things emanate, and from which man derives the divine spark of his inner being." This Oversoul is "by definition good." The Oversoul "dwelt within human beings as well as in nature."
The Transcendentalists also supported many various reform movements such as the following: suffrage for women, better conditions for workers, temperance for all, modifications of dress and diet, the rise of free religion, educational innovation, and other various humanitarian causes. The Transcendentalists became leaders or spokesmen of reform movements in church, state, and society.
Transcendentalists are also known for contributing to the rise of free religion, aiding the abolitionist movement, supporting feminism, and promoting communitarian experiments. In the abolitionist movement, many reformers felt that "when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army and subject to military law, then it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize."
Transcendentalism's effect on society was tremendous. Because it led many reform movements and rejected the conventional ideas of the eighteenth century thought, a rift began to form between the old and new ideas in society. Transcendentalism represented a battle between the older and the younger generations. It also represented an emergence of a new national culture based on native materials. This began to influence a break in American culture. Transcendentalism encouraged "a complete break with tradition and custom, encouraged individualism and self-reliance and rejected a too-intellectual approach to life." It became a call for "young men to slough off their deadening enslavement to the past, to follow the God within, and to live every moment of life with a strenuousness that rivaled that of the Puritan fathers."
The main weakness of this seemingly perfect idea of Transcendentalism is that it had "borrowed from many sources and reconciled few of them." It was never united by a set program. Transcendentalism was comprised of the various interests and labors of many different personal concepts. Therefore, there were many conflicting values which made it an unsteady system to follow.
At the time of the Transcendentalism movement, "preached, practiced, an idealism that was greatly needed in a rapidly expanding economy." However, soon people began to find other, more comprehensible means of dealing within society. Therefore, they began to turn away from Transcendentalism. However, even though Transcendentalism is non-existent as a whole today, many of its ideas, values, and morals are still present in many of the religions and beliefs of today's society. In conclusion, Transcendentalism will always be present in the world, it just will not have as obvious a presence.