Self-Reliance Historical and Social Context
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

New England Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism took root in New England in the mid-1830s in reaction against the rationalism (emphasis on intellectual understanding) of the Unitarian Church. The philosophy centered around the premise that divine truth is present in all created things and that truth is known through intuition, not through the rational mind. From this core proceeded the belief that all of nature, including all humans, is one with God, whom the transcendentalists sometimes called the Over-Soul. In an essay with that title, Emerson defined God as "that great nature in which we rest . . . that Unity within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other.’’

The term transcendental was borrowed from German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who wrote in his well-known work Critique of Practical Reason, "I call all knowledge transcendental which is concerned, not with objects, but with our mode of knowing objects so far as this is possible a priori'' (meaning, independent of sensory experience). American transcendentalism was thus clearly linked to similar philosophies that existed in Europe, and it also shared important ideas with Eastern philosophies and religions, including Hinduism. The New England transcendentalists read the Bhagavadgita (sometimes called the Hindu Bible), the Upanishads (philosophical writings on the Hindu scriptures), and Confucius. In addition, Emerson in ‘‘Self-Reliance'' quotes both an Islamic caliph (religious person) and the founder of Zoroastrianism.

The New England transcendentalists did not confine themselves to literary pursuits but also experimented with putting their philosophy into practice. Some, such as Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Peabody, focused on educational reform. Peabody and Margaret Fuller applied the principles of transcendentalism to the crusade for women's rights. The group created two experimental communities, Fruitlands and Brook Farm.

But it is the writing of Emerson and Henry David Thoreau that has been the most enduring product of American transcendentalism. Thoreau's ideas about nonviolent resistance to oppressors, especially, were important both to Mahatma Gandhi's campaign against the British in India in the early 1900s and to the American civil rights movement of the 1960s.


During the three decades before the Civil War, the movement to abolish slavery in the United States steadily gained momentum. An abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, began publication in 1831, and the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in Philadelphia in 1833. By 1838, there were nearly fifteen hundred anti-slavery organizations in the United States, with nearly a quarter of a million members. The Liberty Party was formed in 1840 to make abolition a central issue in national politics.

Emerson and his fellow transcendentalists spoke out against slavery, as did John Greenleaf Whittier and other writers. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, the autobiography of escaped slave Frederick Douglass, was published in 1845 and became an immediate bestseller. Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, published serially in 1851-1852, gave a tremendous boost to the abolitionist cause. Both books movingly portray the brutal conditions and dehumanizing effects of slavery as it existed in the American South. In addition, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which legislated harsh penalties for escaped slaves who were recaptured, actually strengthened the anti-slavery movement.

Slavery, of course, became a central issue in the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, of whom the normally apolitical Emerson was a strong supporter, signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in 1863. The proclamation was symbolic, however; enforcement provisions did not back it. Slavery finally ended with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865.


During the nineteenth century,...

(The entire section is 1,081 words.)