Enlightened Romantics: The Origins of Liberal-Democratic Faith in America

Enlightened Romantics: The Origins of Liberal-Democratic Faith in America

In this country we are very vain of our political institutions, which are singular in this, that they sprung, within the memory of living men, from the character and condition of the people, which they still express with sufficient fidelity . . . We may be wise in asserting the advantage in modern times of the democratic form, but to other states of society, in which religion consecrated the monarchical, that and not this was expedient. Democracy is better for us, because the religious sentiment of the present time accords better with it. Born democrats, we are nowise qualified to judge of monarchy, which, to our fathers living in the monarchical idea, was also relatively right. –Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Politics”

Ralph Waldo Emerson transmuted the dry precepts of Enlightenment liberalism into a more personal faith, which has been dubbed the “American Religion.” The most distinctive characteristic of his thought was his “eager apprehension of the possibilities of American democracy.” Yet Emerson’s epistemology was identical to that which prompted Carlyle to reject the social contract, the doctrine of progress, and the entire social program of the Enlightenment. What is more important, Emerson was merely the most impressive — the “representative” — Transcendentalist; Theodore Parker, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, and a host of minor figures embraced the same Romantic faith that Emerson did. By contrast, Romantics across Europe habitually retreated into Catholicism, Orthodox Trinitarian Protestantism, or some other form of political conservatism, usually after a very brief period of radical free-thinking. How could these respective brands of idealism be so similar, and yield such different social philosophies? How does the doctrine “reverence thyself” metamorphose into: “every man has in him somewhat truly divine”? There is no necessary connection between the two statements.

That there was a striking contrast between the socio-political thought of the European and American Romantics is a commonplace of cultural history, although scholars have devoted little attention to the causes of the rift. This essay argues that the explanation lies in the extent to which the ideas of the Enlightenment became absorbed into their respective national traditions. The epistemological and aesthetic assumptions of European literature during the Romantic period also provided the spark which ignited Transcendentalism in New England, thirty years later. European Romanticism rejected the rationalism of the eighteenth-century, and the reactionary social thought of the period drew its sustenance from national traditions which antedated the cosmopolitan Enlightenment. Conversely, the Transcendentalists zealously embraced the democratization of American culture during the “Age of the Common Man”, although this does not mean that they agreed with all of its manifestations. The few important exceptions to this general tendency exhibit biographical quirks (specifically, a certain distance, geographical or psychological, from the cultural context into which they were born) that are extremely revealing. The importance of national tradition as the determinative factor of romantic enthusiasm is particularly manifest in the writings of Emerson’s “practical disciple,” the socially radicalized Theodore Parker.

Scholars have often viewed Parker’s zealous involvement in the Perfectionist reforms of the Antebellum period (most notably abolitionism) as incompatible with Transcendentalism, a doctrine of self-renovation. Certainly, his strident attacks upon the social ills of his day contrast sharply with the political aloofness of Emerson and Thoreau. Parker’s impassioned anti-slavery sermons, often delivered to hostile crowds in conservative Boston, had more of an immediate impact than the Sage of Concord’s noncomformist theorizing. However, in his adherence to a “higher law”, dependent upon intuitional access to eternal truth, Parker was at one with all Transcendentalists, as well as their European predecessors, the Romantics.

There is no simple definition for the term “Romanticism”. The main protagonists of the literary movement often disagreed upon the meaning of their endeavors, and scholars of the period have, if anything, complicated matters. In 1924, Arthur O. Lovejoy wrote: “the word romantic has come to mean so many things that, by itself, it means nothing. It has ceased to perform the function of a verbal sign.” This has become a familiar trope in Romantic criticism; still, Lovejoy may have overstated the case. Scholars point out that there are major disagreements among the canonized “big six” of English Romanticism (which, for the purposes of this essay, will be used as the representative European specimen)–Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. The most glaring opposition within the group is between Wordsworth and Byron. The latter poet actually admired Pope, and often wrote in Augustan heroic couplets; the former wrote almost exclusively in blank verse. Philosophically, Wordsworth’s pantheism is nowhere echoed in Byron’s contemptuous attitude toward nature (as well as human beings, and everything else). The younger generation of Romantics excoriated their predecessors for a “failure of nerve” after the disappointing results of the French Revolution.

Nevertheless, the literary innovators who began to achieve recognition in Europe in the 1790s, and somewhat later in America, did share certain preoccupations. In England, poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake were working in a mode that was directly antagonistic to the Augustan classicism of Pope. Similar revolutions occurred in French and German literature during this period. The debate over the coherence of the English Romantics, as a group, has been largely a semantic one. Certainly, they were unified in their devotion to the use of symbolism (as opposed to allegory), their belief in poetry as a form of divine revelation, and their preoccupation with the theme of alienation. René Wellek notes that all of the English Romantics wrote in a mode which was “quite distinct from anything that had been practiced by the eighteenth century, and which was felt by their contemporaries to be obscure and almost unintelligible.”

Perhaps more importantly, Hoxie Neale Fairchild has identified a very definite epistemological position informing the content of the works created by Wellek’s formal innovators:

The taproot of romanticism, then, is an eternal and universal and primary fact of consciousness: man’s desire for self-trust, self-expression, self-expansion. That is why the interfusion experience [of real and ideal] is so precious to the romanticist: by effacing all distinctions and boundaries it permits unlimited outward projection of personal energy.

In New England, in the mid-1830s, a group of intellectuals began thinking and writing in a roughly similar vein. The Transcendentalist movement was energized by a newfound faith in “Reason” (Kant’s term, first encountered by most of them in Coleridge’s Aids To Reflection), by which they meant an intuitive grasp of divine truth. They were reacting to Lockean sensationalism, which they found bankrupt as a means of explaining the human aspiration toward the Ideal, a realm of transcendent values invisible to the physical eye, but irresistibly present to the “inner eye” of the soul.

While the connection between the English Romantics and the Transcendentalists has been explored by scholars, most studies have emphasized the formal and epistemological continuities between the two. Perhaps the most important work of this kind is Leon Chai’s The Romantic Foundation of the American Renaissance, which examines the “history of the assimilation and transformation of the cultural legacy of European Romanticism from roughly 1780 to 1830 by a group of great American authors of the mid-nineteenth century.” Chai traces a similar progression, in both groups, from the use of allegory to the use of symbolism. Each exhibited an increased interest in scientific models and a tendency toward subjectivity verging on solipsism. Chai has much to say about the stylistic heritage shared by the various artists; but he ignores the radically different attitudes manifested by English and American Romantics toward the societies in which they lived.

Perry Miller addressed this subject, very cursorily, in “Emersonian Genius and the American Democracy.” In that essay, Miller observed:

[Emerson] might have mourned with Henry Adams and every disillusioned liberal . . . that there was no hope left . . . except in the great man, the political genius, the dictator. There was everything in Emerson’s philosophy to turn him like Carlyle into a prophet of reaction and the leader-principle. But he did not go with Carlyle, and he meant what he said, that he did not despair of the republic. Why not? Was it merely that he was stupid, or mild-mannered, or temperamentally sanguine? Was it dogmatic optimism for the sake of optimism? Miller goes on to examine the Sage of Concord as an individual case, ultimately concluding, somewhat unsatisfactorily, that Emerson saw, in the grand scheme of things, that the march of democracy was not “something that a gentleman could despise and then expect still to have the refuge of being a gentleman.”

The detached, reasonable Emerson, posited here by Miller, who weighed the evidence and consciously chose to trust the “self-operating force of moral law”, jars with the image of the man conjured by passages in his journal. There, Emerson wrote:

The root and seed of democracy is the doctrine, Judge for yourself, Reverence thyself. It is the inevitable effect of that doctrine, where it has any effect (which is rare), to insulate the partisan, to make each man a state.

The “democracy” here described sounds suspiciously like a succinct summary of Emersonian Transcendentalism itself — an intuitive faith which “chose” Emerson, rather than the other way around. Miller has correctly identified the doctrine of “genius” as problematic, and loaded with political implications; however, neither he, nor any other scholar, has explored the correlation between the radical liberalism of the American Romantics and the cultural symbols of the American past.

A great deal has been written about the political attitudes of the English Romantics, and the roots of their often reactionary doctrines in national myths and traditions. Herbert Marks writes: “Romantic literature is famous, or infamous, for its historically unprecedented emphasis on nationality.” Reacting against Enlightenment universalism, rationalism, and mechanism, Romantics in all the European countries took refuge in the pageantry, organicism and perceived spirituality of their medieval predecessors. The Romantics vaunted passion over logic, and celebrated diversity; they found sustenance in the cultural traditions of their respective nations. The poet became the prophet of Nature, and often chose the folkloric customs of rustics, presumed to be “closest to the soil,” for his/her subject.

Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake all looked favorably upon the French Revolution, in its early stages, and considered themselves champions of liberty. Disillusionment set in early however, as evidenced by the quietism of Wordsworth’s heavily ironic references to his revolutionary self in the Thirteen-Book Prelude, composed in 1804-1806:

[Godwinism]Was Flattering to the young ingenuous mind
Pleased with extremes. . .
Which makes human reason’s naked self
The object of its fervour. What delight!
How glorious, in self-knowledge and self-rule,
To look through all the frailties of the world!
And, with a resolute mastery shaking off
The accidents of nature, time and place.
That make up the weak being of the past.
Build social freedom on its only basis.
The freedom of the individual mind.

An even more stunning repudiation of the social radicalism Wordsworth cherished so briefly can be found in the panegyric to Burke (in the Fourteen-Book Prelude.)

Coleridge also turned his back on the adventurous speculation of his youth and embraced High Church Anglicanism, along with the social conservatism that was inseparable from it in the nineteenth-century. Emerson, during his European journey of the early 1830s, sought out Coleridge, whose distinction between the Reason and the Understanding (loosely borrowed from Kant) would provide the Transcendentalists with an indispensable conceptual tool. His meeting with the great poet was thoroughly disappointing. Coleridge felt impelled to make a speech against Emerson’s older New England contemporary, William Ellery Channing, whose greatest fault was that “he loved Christianity for what was lovely and excellent – he loved the good in it and not the true.” In the face of this assault upon Unitarianism, Emerson felt obliged to inform his host that he himself was an ordained minister of that denomination. “‘Yes,’ he [Coleridge] said, ‘I suppose so,’ and continued as before.”

English Romantic conservatism reached its apotheosis in the person of Thomas Carlyle, who, though he wrote well into the Victorian period, was born the same year as Keats, and shared all the epistemological concerns of his predecessors. Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History demonstrates just how politically volatile the Romantic cult of “genius” could be. This series of lectures is informed by the oft-repeated maxim that “the history of the world [is] the biography of great men.”

Carlyle introduces his subject with a paean to

Hero-worship, heartfelt, prostrate admiration, submission, burning, boundless, for a noblest godlike form of man — is that not the germ of Christianity itself?

The author seethes with contempt for the doctrines of the Enlightenment, which had led to a state of affairs in which the “thing I call hero-worship professes to have gone out and finally ceased. . . . An age that as it were denies the existence of great men.” The remainder of the work, in which he discusses the impact of “Mahomet”, Dante, Shakespeare, Luther, Knox, Johnson, Rousseau, Burns, Cromwell, and Napoleon upon their respective societies, is offered as proof that great men are indispensable to any self-respecting nation. The final chapter, on “The Hero as King,” is quite possibly the most reactionary piece of rhetoric produced in the English-speaking world during modern times:

The commander over men; he to whose will our wills are to be subordinated, and loyally surrender themselves, and find there [sic?] welfare in doing so, may be reckoned the most important of great men. . . .

He goes on to declare that the identification of a nation’s “ableman” and “getting him invested with the symbols of ability . . . is the business, well or ill accomplished, of all social procedure whatsoever in this world.” He contends that the “ballot-box, parliamentary eloquence, voting, constitution-building” and the entire democratic process is irrelevent; what matters is finding the ablest man, who “furnishes us with constant practical teaching, tells us for the day and the hour what we are to do.” In Carlyle’s exaggerated praise of Cromwell, the reader can detect a yearning on the author’s part to assume the mantle of leadership that fell from the Lord Protector’s corpse in 1658. Yet Carlyle, in his Romantic disdain for conformity, his anti-materialism, and his deification of the self, is virtually indistinguishable from his liberal American friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

From the moment it burst onto the quiet stage of eastern New England during the mid-1830s, Transcendentalism was perceived as a threat to the established order. Perry Miller has described the movement, pithily, as “the first of a succession of revolts by the youth of America against American Philistinism” ; but it was much more than that. Perhaps Albert Von Frank is closer to the mark in his description of Transcendentalism as a doctrine of “permanent revolution.” His book, The Trials of Anthony Burns, attempts to demonstrate the viability of Emerson’s attitude toward politics, which is described as:

The election of the private sphere as offering the best stance from which to oppose the conservative principle . . . [in the hope that] the revolution that would change the world would be not a matter of pistols and barricades, but of individual secessions into self-reliance. . . . The private road to truth has some advantages over the rutted public way, including the possibility that the future would be different from the past, that the world would be inhabited by free individuals and not merely by those who amiably took direction from the dead.

Von Frank’s interpretation is by no means the accepted one. A more common view of the Transcendentalists derives from Stanley Elkins’ celebrated characterization of them as “intellectuals without responsibility”, anti-institutionalists whose carping from society’s margins was ineffectual at best, dangerously divisive at worst. In Slavery, Elkins wrote that:

Almost without exception, they had no ties to the sources of wealth; there were no lawyers or jurists among them; none of them ever sat in a government post; none was a member of Congress; they took no part in politics at all . . . Not one of them wielded even the limited influence of a professor; they were scarcely on good terms with Harvard itself.

The consensus, prior to Von Frank’s groundbreaking reassessment (and probably still), has been that the Transcendentalists were of negligible importance in the political history of the Antebellum North. While there have been hundreds of studies of these thinkers in the twentieth century, almost all of them have focused upon the aesthetic or religious aspects of the movement. The few scholars who have attempted to force the Transcendentalists into the traditional role of front-line activists have produced notoriously unconvincing works.

The classic writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, popular in his era as well as our own, make their own case as indispensable documents of American political culture. That political historians have often ignored Transcendentalism is puzzling, and can only be attributed to a refusal by most scholars to accept the radically individualist Emerson–who was more concerned to protect the “negative” freedom of expression in the private sphere than the “positive” freedom to assert himself in the political arena–as, in many ways, the quintessential American. Elkins’ objection to Emerson and his associates derives from this very perception; he knows that American intellectuals have generally been isolates, and he disapproves profoundly. Whether one agrees with Elkins depends entirely upon whether one believes that cultural influence is more easily exercised from within or without institutional structures. There is, however, no denying the objective truth of his assertion that the Transcendentalists chose to “marginalize” themselves.

A theoretical defense of this voluntary assumption of the perspective of “outsider”, as an essential function in a liberal democracy, can be constructed from the speeches of the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, not a Transcendentalist per se, but a man who shared many of their ideas (and certainly, Elkins made no distinction between Transcendentalism and Garrisonian abolitionism):

Republics exist only on the tenure of being constantly agitated. The antislavery agitation is an important, nay, an essential part of the machinery of the state. . . . Every government is always growing corrupt. Every Secretary of State is an enemy to the people of necessity, because the moment he joins the government, he gravitates against that popular agitation which is the life of the republic. . . . The republic which sinks to sleep, trusting to constitutions and statesmen, for the safety of its liberties, never will have any.

Phillips is an extremely important figure, and the preceding comments show that he had a sophisticated understanding of his role in sustaining American democracy; however, in the minds of most of his contemporaries, he was simply a Garrisonian abolitionist. It was Emerson (and, to a lesser extent, Thoreau, because he was more stridently anti-social, and thus much less popular) who became the essential theorist of individual dissent in the Antebellum North; precisely because of his much-maligned aloofness, Emerson could be associated with no particular position, except for the doctrine of perpetual revolution–“Judge for Thyself.”

Emerson, like Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, and Carlyle, began with the primary fact of individual consciousness. In “Self-Reliance”, he wrote:

Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. . . . Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have suffrage of the world.

Anticipating objections, he remarked:

On my saying “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, – “But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I 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.”

In this essay, Emerson does indeed seem to be preaching the amoral gospel of “genius”:

Your goodness must have some edge to it — else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached, as the counteraction of the doctrine of love, when that pules and whines. I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim.

The “genius” in these passages is strikingly similar to Carlyle’s hero (not to mention Nietzsche’s Uebermensch–Nietzsche was a fervent admirer of Emerson), a fact which is disconcerting, to say the least, when one considers its author’s reputed benignity — the man who set the tempo for the “optative mood” of American philosophy. This seeming contradiction is the subject of Miller’s essay,”Emersonian Genius and the American Democracy,” which poses many of the right questions, and answers them plausibly:

[Emerson had to admit that] genius has methods of its own which to others may seem shocking or incoherent or pernicious. “Genius is a character of illimitable freedom.” It can make greatness out of trivial material: well, Jacksonian America was trivial enough; would genius make it great? . . . Year after year, Emerson would tell himself . . . “To Genius everything is permitted [a precursor of Nietzsche’s assassin’s motto?] . . .I pardon everything to it; everything is trifling before it” . . . He was always on the lookout for genius. . . . But who was this genius? If he wasn’t Andrew Jackson, was he then Walt Whitman? Was he, whichever he was, to be permitted everything?

The answer, of course, was no. He could not trespass upon the rights of others, regardless of his greatness. Emerson knew this instinctively, no matter how stridently he wrote against the idea in his early notebooks. He was not, after all, made of different stuff than the usual run of mankind. Once he reconciled himself to this fact, Emerson’s problem was to identify the proper role for his newly chastened Uebermensch.

His ingenious solution provided the germ for Representative Men. Written ten years after Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero-Worship, this work is best read as Emerson’s retort to his English friend. The first chapter of the book is titled “Uses of Great Men”; already, this is a departure from the “hero” — the “genius” no longer exists for his own sake, he provides a service to humanity. Emerson strikes several un-Carlylean notes in his discussion of how human beings can benefit from each other:

We have social strengths. Our affection towards others creates a sort of vantage or purchase which nothing will supply. I can say to you what I cannot say to myself. Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds. . . . It costs a beautiful person no exertion to paint her image on our eyes; yet how splendid is that benefit! It costs no more for a wise soul to convey his quality to other men. . . . He who is great is what he is from nature, and who never reminds us of others. But he must be related to us, and our life receive from him some promise of explanation. Men are representative; first of things, and secondly, of ideas.

Emerson’s conception of the relationship of “great men” to principles is an inversion of Carlyle’s formula. In the first chapter of On Heroes and Hero-Worship, Carlyle describes Norse mythology as a “recognition of the forces of nature as godlike, stupendous, personal agencies.” In this way, he sets the stage for all of his subsequent heroes, who are, likewise, more-than-human powers embodied in the form of men. For Emerson, by contrast:

The power which [Great Men] communicate is not theirs. When we are exalted by ideas, we do not owe this to Plato, but to the idea, to which, also, Plato was debtor.

Carlyle begins by contemplating supernatural forces such as lightning, fire, and frost, and incarnates them in a “hero”. Emerson begins with an empirical examination of a “great man”, and asks what useful principles might be deduced from his life. The “hero’s” personal greatness is rewarded by the adulation of the herd, and, if we are lucky, the “symbols of ability.” The “great man’s” greatness, however, entitles him to more responsibilities, rather than acclaim:

True genius seeks to defend us from itself. True genius will not impoverish, but will liberate, and add new senses. If a wise man should appear in our village, he would create, in those who conversed with him, a new consciousness of wealth, by opening their eyes to unobserved advantages; he would establish a sense of immovable equality, calm us with assurance that we could not be cheated; as every one of us would discern the checks and guaranties of condition.

Here we find a prescient response to Elkins’ thesis that the Transcendentalists were “intellectuals without responsibility”, or rather, a rebuttal to his definition of the term “responsibility.” For the Transcendentalists, this meant responsibility to the dictates of conscience; for Elkins, to an institution hallowed by time. Emerson’s “great man” is required to serve humanity in a most unorthodox way: he improves society, without taking control of it (in fact, by repelling the “symbols of ability”); he shines as brightly as he can, in the hope of illuminating the lives of those around him. He has no vested interest in the status quo, no “responsibility” to an ancient compromise. Brilliant as it is, Elkins’s book fails to explain how social progress is made in a society with “responsible” intellectuals (His comparison between American and British anti-slavery is chimerical; British abolitionists did not have to contend against a domestic pro-slavery constituency, only a pro-slavery lobby.) In the end, one must agree with Perry Miller, who contends that Representative Men goes as far “as clear sight can see, toward making genius democratic.”

Stanley Cavell, in dealing with the seeming contradiction between Emerson’s “Romantic perfectionism” and his commitment to democracy, has approached the same problem from a different, equally rewarding, angle:

Perfectionism . . . may be taken to serve an effort to escape the mediocrity or leveling, the vulgarity, of equal existence, for oneself and perhaps for a select circle of like-minded others. There are undeniably aristocratic or aesthetic Perfectionisms. But in Emerson it should be taken as training for democracy. . . . The training and character Emerson requires for democracy I understand as a preparation to withstand not its rigors but its failures, character to keep the democratic hope alive in the face of disappointment with it.

During the 1830s, Emerson suffered through a crisis of faith that mirrored the reaction of the English Romantics to the excesses of the French Revolution. He expressed his disappointment with American democracy (“an ill thing, vain and loud”) often enough. His personal papers are riddled with passages such as:

It is notorious that the Jacksonian party is the BAD party in the cities and in general in the country; except in secluded districts where a single newspaper has deceived a well-disposed community.


A most unfit person in the Presidency has been doing the worst things; and the worse he grew, the more popular.

Scholars have noted Emerson’s aversion to the Jacksonian Democrats. His dictum that “the Whigs have the best men, the Democrats the best cause” is open to interpretation. Certainly, Emerson’s metamorphosis into a “transparent eyeball”, while communing with nature, was facilitated by the fact that, “in the hush of the woods, [he found] no Jackson placards affixed to the trees.”

However, even in private, Emerson generally maintained the celebrated “Plotinus/Montaigne” tension in his thought, which enabled him to make cutting observations without ever becoming cynical:

Botany Bay grows up with a clear conscience. People think that in our license of constructing the Constitution and the despotism of Public Opinion we have no anchor, and one Frenchman [Tocqueville?] thinks he has found it in our love of Calvinism. But the fact of the two poles universal; the fact of two forces centripetal and centrifugal is universal, and each develops the others by its own activity. Wild liberty develops iron conscience; want of liberty strengthens decorous and convenient law, which supersedes in a measure the native conscience. Lynch law prevails only where there is a greater hardihood and self-subsistency in the leaders.


Democratic freedom has its root in the sacred truth that every man hath in him the divine reason . . . That is the equality and the only equality of all men. To this truth we look when we say, “reverence thyself. be true to thyself.” Because every man has within him somewhat really divine.

Ultimately, Emerson’s faith in human nature, and devotion to the principle of liberty, allowed him to deal with the sometimes “vulgar” by-products of democracy. He may have been provoked by the depressing antics of mobs, but he resisted the temptation to deny any American citizen’s claim to have “within him somewhat truly divine.” He came to believe that there could be no individual “self-reliance”, divorced from the wild “centrifugal force” represented by the Jacksonians.

An examination of two exceptions to the rule of culturally-determined Romantic politics sheds light upon the problem. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s untimely death in 1822 cut short a life of unswerving devotion to the principles of nonconformity and political equality. Orestes Brownson, born in Vermont, in 1803, was a zealot whose faith went through a staggering series of metamorphoses, over the course of twenty years, culminating in his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1844.

Shelley was perhaps the closest thing to a Transcendentalist on the eastern shores of the Atlantic. Only his outlandish views on the subject of marriage separated him from the likes of Emerson. He was expelled from Oxford in 1811 for composing (and distributing) a pamphlet entitled: “On the Necessity of Atheism.” Thus, a turbulent career was launched; at the age of eighteen, Shelley was in open rebellion against society. An early sonnet, To Wordsworth, expressed his regret that the great English Romantic had abandoned his early radicalism:

Thou wert as a lone star, whose light did shine
On some frail bark in winter’s midnight roar;
Thou hast like to a rock-built refuge stood
Above the blind and blazing multitude;
In honoured poverty thy voice did weave
Song consecrate to truth and liberty —
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou should cease to be.

Shelley composed stirring liberation anthems of his own. Unlike Wordsworth, many of his works have direct political implications, notably his twin reactions to the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, England in 1819 and The Mask of Anarchy (which he strove to have published in a London daily, although it was far too inflammatory, and found no outlet at the time):

[Walking toward England in a dream]
I met Murder on the way —
He had a face like Castlereagh[the foreign secretary]
Very smooth he looked, yet grim
Seven Bloodhounds followed him.

All were fat; and well they might
Be admirable plight,
For one by one and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew,
Which from his wide cloak he drew. . .

Let a vast assembly be,
And with great solemnity
Declare with measured words that ye
Are, as God has made ye, free.

Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry, published posthumously in 1840, contains the kernel of an idea which anticipates Emerson’s Representative Men. The essay contains the ubiquitous Romantic distinction between the synthesizing power of the mind (Reason) and the analytical power (understanding). Shelley’s quarrel with the sober-minded Utilitarians of England is somewhat analogous to Emerson’s dispute with “corpse-cold Boston Unitarianism.” Shelley admits that “the promoters of utility in the limited sense have their appointed office in society.” However, he objects to the idea of assigning to a group of human calculators the task of defining so important a word as “pleasure”. In his oft-quoted summary of the argument, Shelley states: “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (they give practical reasoners Heavenly targets to shoot for). Most significantly, Shelley’s conception of the Poet is very similar to the Emersonian Representative Man: “he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. . . . The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.”

Unlike most of the Romantics, Shelley never wrote an important poem about his native land (most were set in Italy, the Alps, or were embellishments upon classical mythology), and when he trumpets the emergence of his ideal society in the epic Revolt of Islam, it is not a purified England he describes, but America:

That land is like an Eagle, whose young gaze
Feeds on the noontide beam . . .
An epitaph for the glory of the tomb
Of murdered Europe may thy fame be made . . .
Thy growth is swift as morn, when the night must fade.

Shelley’s early self-exile to the continent may explain his persistent liberalism. Wordsworth and Coleridge both sojourned in Europe during their radical twenties; it was after they came home, and became mired in the deep contextual pool of English history, that each man entered his conservative phase. Perhaps the uprooted nature of Shelley’s entire adult life insulated him from the Romantic tendency to drape oneself in the mantle of national tradition, as protection against the howling gales of disillusionment.

Orestes Brownson was the wildcard among the Transcendentalists. His early life was characterized by a relentless search for a place to repose his considerable religious zeal. In 1822, he had a conversion experience and joined the local Presbyterian church. Two years later, he defected to the Universalists, and was ordained a minister by that loosely structured denomination. Soon, he lapsed into skepticism, and became an advocate of workingmen’s rights in New York City. In the early 1830s, he drifted into New England, and joined a Unitarian church, just in time to participate in the “Miracles Controversy”.

George Ripley, a young minister, had remarked, in an 1836 number of the Christian Examiner, that it was “hard to imagine a study more dry, more repulsive, more perplexing, more totally unsatisfactory to a scientific mind” than Unitarian theology, spawned by the Lockean sensationalism taught at Harvard. The debate concerned the issue of “natural supernatualism”, a doctrinal contortion, which made a final appeal to the historicity of the Gospel Miracles as a “proof” of the morality of Jesus’s teaching. The Unitarians were forced to assume this position because they rejected both the divinity of Jesus Christ, and the possibility of intuitive knowledge. Under the circumstances, the only scenario that could accommodate the denomination’s empiricism, and its need for a moral exemplar, was one in which Christ’s authority was “warranted” by the evidence of his “divine inspiration”; the Miracles, which were “witnessed” by credible observers — the authors of the Gospels.

Orestes Brownson, who had recently founded the Society for Christian Union and Progress (a working-class congregation), and proclaimed himself a disciple of French Eclecticism, entered the fray on Ripley’s side of the debate, which was becoming the talk of the town:

To reject human nature and declare it unworthy as the church did, and as all sects now do, is — whether we know it or not — to reject all grounds of certainty, and to declare that we have no means of distinguishing truth from falsehood. . . . If we may not trust the human mind, human nature, how can we ever be sure that a revelation has been made? or how distinguish a real revelation from a pretended one? By miracles? But how determine that what are alleged to be miracles, really are miracles? . . . Have we anything but our own nature with which to answer these and a hundred more questions like them and equally important?

Elsewhere in the same contentious pamphlet, Brownson proposed a dialectical vision of history that foreshadowed later developments in his turbulent life. Equating Catholicism with the principle of Spiritualism, and Protestantism with materialism; he asserted that the two were in perpetual conflict. Brownson identified the Reformation and the Enlightenment as the twin triumphs of materialism; notable for their “influence in promoting civil and political liberty.” Brownson feared that materialism “Saves the Son of Man, but sometimes loses the Son of God,” and believed that the Protestant principle had expended itself in the French Revolution. He foresaw a synthesis of the two principles on the horizon:

Unitarianism . . . is the last word of Protestantism, before Protestantism breaks entirely with the past . . . Every consistent Protestant must be a Unitarian. . . . [Therefore] it is from the Unitarians that must come out the doctrine of universal reconciliation . . .

Already, in 1836, Brownson served notice of a tendency in his thought that would ultimately cause him to break with the other Transcendentalists, in the most dramatic fashion possible — conversion to Catholicism. While others in the group believed that their society was not Protestant enough — in Emerson’s words: “why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the Universe?” — Brownson was proclaiming that Protestantism had run its course. This confusion in naming the sickness of the age — which could be construed as semantic — was premised upon a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of institutions in society. Not surprisingly then, Brownson differed from his contemporaries, when he discussed the aims of the Transcendental movement. In his “New Views”, he wrote:

Old institutions are examined, old opinion criticized, even the old Church is laid bare to its very foundations, and its holy vestments and symbols are exposed to the gaze of the multitude; new systems are proclaimed new institutions elaborated, new ideas are abroad, new experiments are made, and the whole world seems intent on the means by which it may accomplish its destiny.

There is a wide gulf between this position and the Emersonian call for each man to become an institution unto himself. Practically, the difference manifested itself in Brownson’s involvement in Jacksonian politics; a step that was unthinkable to the other Transcendentalists. Brownson’s writing is unusual in its preoccupation with economic and class issues; his thought fits much more easily into the European discourse of the period. His most important treatment of social issues, “The Laboring Classes”, anticipates Marx in its prediction of a terrible class-war, caused by the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie; however, in Antebellum America, a “proletariat” scarcely existed–propertyless workers (at least outside the South) formed a distinct minority of the population, and one imagines that their revolution would have been a feeble one indeed. Throughout his life, Brownson would prove more adept at swallowing consistent ideologies whole, than at digesting, and adapting them to the American cultural context, which he scarcely seems to have understood.

Brownson poured his soul into the 1840 Presidential election. A Democratic victory in the contest between Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison became, in his mind, the key to the achievement of social justice in America. It is unclear how he arrived at this conclusion. After all, Van Buren had done little for the cause during his first four years in the Presidential office. It may simply have been that the undeniably exciting rise of the “Second Party System” captured his imagination, and set it soaring. In any event, the Whig landslide at the polls, triggered by the clever electioneering of the “log cabin and hard cider” campaign, left Brownson grief-stricken. As far as he was concerned, the electorate had been duped by unscrupulous demagogues, and his faith in the democratic process ebbed. The 1840 election was Brownson’s French Revolution, and his subsequent conversion to a conservative ideology (in this case, Catholicism) is analogous to the transformations experienced by European Romantics earlier in the century.

The life of Theodore Parker more accurately represents the main thrust of Transcendental thought. His position, on theological/philosophical issues, was virtually inseparable from that of Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and the remainder of the group. However, Parker immersed himself in Antebellum Perfectionist reform, a step which few of his associates were willing to take. Nevertheless, it can be argued that radical reform, and abolitionism in particular, is implied by the Transcendentalist worldview — that Theodore Parker was Emerson’s “practical disciple.” Parker was also more “practical” than Emerson in the sense that he made explicit reference in his works to what he presumed was the source of all Transcendental faith in democracy, the Declaration of Independence.

Theodore Parker was born in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1810. He has been described as “one of the greatest, if not the last, of the excellent line of Puritan preachers.” Perhaps; certainly Parker preached with the zeal of an old-time Protestant Reformer. His theology, however, broke completely with New England’s Calvinist past. Quite simply, Parker did not believe in Original Sin. His conception of “absolute, pure morality; absolute pure religion,” outlined in The Transient and The Permanent in Christianity, proceeds from an epistemology identical to Emerson’s (and that of the European Romantics):

The only creed it lays down is the great truth which springs up spontaneous in the holy heart — there is a God. Its watchword is, Be perfect, as your father in Heaven. The only form it demands is a divine life, — doing the best thing in the best way, from the highest motives. . . . It allows perfect freedom. It does not demand all men to think alike, but to think uprightly. . . . not all men to live alike, but to live holy, and get as near as possible to a life perfectly divine.

Parker’s unflinching faith in the primacy of individual consciousness is manifest in everything he ever wrote. Debates on Transcendentalism, in the past, have focused upon ascertaining the source of this faith. There are, broadly, two positions on the issue. According to one view, which is rooted in O.B. Frothingham’s New England Transcendentalism, Emerson, Parker, et al. simply transplanted German Romantic philosophy (in an impure form — due to misinterpretation, and mediation through Coleridge) to America. The most recent contribution to this side of the argument has been made by Leon Chai, who finds it

. . . impossible to account for [the intuitional faith of Parker] by the theology of Unitarianism itself, the sermons of William Ellery Channing, or the professions of the Wares. By defining a form of consciousness in a fashion similar to the early Schleiermacher, Parker can ascribe to Jesus a divinity not based upon his nature or essence but upon the mind’s capacity for clear and pure apprehension of the divine.

Other scholars have treated Transcendentalism as an indigenous phenomenon, a fixed point in the gradual unfolding of the New England, or American “mind.” (For some, notably Perry Miller, these two terms are virtually interchangeable.) For Miller, Emerson was simply a latter-day Jonathan Edwards, “in whom the concept of original sin has evaporated.” There is a good deal of sense in this assertion; however, it begs the important question: how, exactly, does original sin, “evaporate”? Moreover, the Antinomian heritage of New England, which undeniably influenced the Transcendentalists, evinces no trace of their democratic idealism. Antinomians, such as Anne Hutchinson, trusted completely in their own intuitions, but only because they believed they had been elected to sainthood; certainly not because they were “human.” By contrast, Transcendentalism claimed “for all men as a natural endowment what Evangelical Christianity ascribes to the few as a special gift of the Spirit.” How did this happen?

The sermons of Theodore Parker offer a very plausible explanation. A committed radical, Parker offered living proof of Albert J. Von Frank’s assertion that Emersonian philosophy had a dramatic impact upon the “culture of anti-slavery”; he is the preeminent link between the Sage of Concord’s drawing room and the activist pulpit. Shunned by respectable Boston Unitarians after 1845, Parker began preaching his Perfectionist/Abolitionist message to a non-denominational congregation at Boston’s Melodeon auditorium. His opposition to the enslavement of human beings was based upon his perception that there is a “higher law” than the Constitution. He was strident in his insistence upon the moral paramountcy of the individual conscience:

There are certain and constant facts which occur in what may be called the spiritual world, the world of internal conscience. . . . These laws are the same everywhere and always, they do not change. . . . I am not a man who loves violence. I respect the sacredness of human life. But this I say, solemnly, that I will do all in my power to rescue any fugitive slave from the hands of any officer who attempts to return him to bondage. . . . What is a fine of a thousand dollars, and jailing for six months, to the liberty of a man? My money perish with me, if it stand between me and the eternal law of God!

The most damning argument against slavery was that the institution eliminated the possibility of “self-reliance” on the part of the slave. Parker believed, as did Emerson, that the highest duty of every person was to develop him/herself, and this opportunity was denied to three million inhabitants of the United States. This preoccupation with an ideal of “self-construction” is a familiar Romantic trope, but its universal application to all of humanity is peculiar to the American variant.

If Stanley Cavell and Perry Miller are right in asserting that the Transcendentalists resisted “Aristocratic Perfectionism”, despite experiencing a great deal of disappointment with Jacksonian democracy, scholars must ask: why? What impelled Emerson to train himself to withstand the “failures [of democracy], [to] keep the democratic hope alive” ? Perhaps Vernon Parrington was more insightful than is commonly supposed, when he commented that “Emerson and Jefferson were unlike enough, as their worlds were unlike . . . but their [respective] idealism[s] [were] only a different expression of a common spirit.” Certainly, there are problems with this statement: Jefferson was an Enlightenment rationalist, Emerson was an Antinomian mystic; however, Parrington’s often annoying habit of judging his subjects solely upon the social component of their thought here yields unexpected fruit. The debt of the Transcendentalists to the liberalism of the Revolutionary period has never been satisfactorily examined. One reason for this is that most of them never wrote about it; certainly, Emerson did not. However, we needn’t take Emerson’s belief that his ideas were completely unrelated to his social context at face value. Luckily, this surmise can be tested without recourse to an arcane theoretical model; again, the directness of Theodore Parker is useful in deciphering the ambiguities of Transcendentalism.

Parker, who kept his grandfather’s musket on his mantelpiece, made no secret of his admiration of the heroes of the Revolution, and the document which he believed served as the repository of the spirit of ’76 — The Declaration of Independence. Ultimately a much less interesting figure than Emerson, Parker shows no trace of ever having wavered in his democratic faith. Emerson, at least, entertained the idea that the Devil might exist as a positive force in the world (even admitting that he himself might possibly be a minion of Evil, although he was more likely to grant this title to Andrew Jackson ). Parker’s great value to the historian lies precisely in his single-minded, and very Romantic, devotion to a reified vision of America’s Revolutionary heritage. The key work for understanding this aspect of Parker’s Romanticism is “The Destination of America,” composed in the mid-1840s. He begins with a standard Romantic formula: “Every nation has a peculiar character, in which it differs from all others that have been, that are, and possibly all that are to come.” After running through all of the great nations in the recorded history of man, Parker alights upon the American scene, stating:

The most marked characteristic of the American nation is the love of freedom; of man’s natural rights. This is so plain to a student of American history, or of American politics, that the point requires no arguing. We have a genius for liberty: the American idea is freedom, natural rights. Accordingly, the work providentially laid out for us to do seems this, — to organize the rights of man.

He emphasizes the uniqueness of this situation:

Often enough attempts have been made to organize the powers of priests, kings, nobles, in a theocracy, monarchy, oligarchy, powers which had no foundation in human duties or human rights, but solely in the selfishness of strong men. Surely there has never been an attempt made on a national scale to organize the rights of man as man . . . [resting upon] rights that are derived straightway from God, the Author of duty, and the Source of Right, and which are secured in the great charter of our being.

He repeatedly points out the numerous failures on the part of the nation to perfectly incarnate this idea, citing the existence of slavery in the South as the most glaring problem. however, he couples these passages with reaffirmations of America’s ideal commitment to freedom and natural rights. Later, he delves into the specific elements which make up this national heritage of freedom:

It was a clear case to our fathers, in ’76, that all men were “created equal,” each with “unalienable rights.” That seemed so clear, that reasoning would not make it appear more reasonable; it was taken for granted, as a self-evident proposition.

This may have satisfied Jefferson, as a rationalist; but for Theodore Parker, a Romantic, the “self-evident proposition” becomes a statement of faith. The Democracy of the Declaration, for Parker, means: “You are as good as I, and let us help one another.” He goes on to claim that:

We are the most intuitive of modern nations. . . . Great truths — political, philosophical, religious — lie a-burning in many a young heart which cannot legitimate nor prove them true, but none the less feels, and feels them true.

The oration goes on at some length, making distinctions between “indigenous” American literature, which deals with the theme of liberty (newspapers, speeches political pamphlets), and affected copies of foreign models, such as most of the “permanent literature” written up to that point (novels, plays, poetry). Parker introduces the ominous word, “un-American”, in describing works that are destitute of the nation’s characteristic “ideas, contempt of authority, . . . hope, and fresh intuitive perceptions of truth.” He formulates the melting-pot idea of America as a place where “in two generations the wild Irishman becomes a decent citizen, orderly, temperate, and intelligent.” Parker’s romantic nationalism (focusing upon a cosmopolitan nation: America) generally trumps his romantic racialism (focusing upon the perceived characteristics of ethnic groups). Finally, Parker concluded with a very Romantic tribute to American geography, and the spirit he believed dwelt within it:

A nation born of this land that God reserved so long a virgin earth, in a high day married to the human race — rising, and swelling, and rolling on, strong and certain as the Atlantic tide; they come numerous as ocean waves when east winds blow, their destination commensurate with the continent, with ideas vast as the Mississippi, strong as the Alleghanies, and awful as Niagara; they come murmuring little of the past, but, moving in the brightness of their great idea, and casting its light far on to other lands and distant days — come to the world’s great work, to organize the rights of man.

For Parker, America is a great natural preserve in which the progress toward ideal human freedom can be realized without the interference of Old World fetters. His vision of America is both ultra-nationalistic and ultra-individualistic (reflecting the unique synthesis between Romantic epistemology and Enlightenment social thought that is manifest in Transcendentalism): the nation is conceived as a vast protective structure, which, hopefully, facilitates a continual evolution toward an ever more perfect union between its citizens. This seeming paradox has intrigued scholars, from Perry Miller to Sacvan Bercovitch, who has written of America as a “symbolic field . . . recurrently generating its own adversarial forms.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker (and other Transcendental theorists) made an enduring contribution to American political culture by enthroning dissent as the most important religious duty of the individual. Their claim was based upon the epistemological premise that the perceiving consciousness is the ultimate arbiter of reality. Ironically, this insight provided the basis for the democratic optimism of the Transcendentalists (directly related to the social activism of Theodore Parker), as well as the political cynicism of their counterparts, the European Romantics. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Orestes Brownson demonstrate, by their unusual estrangement from the cultural context into which they were born, the importance of that context in channeling the enthusiasm of their more typical contemporaries. The democratic faith of the Transcendentalists was the unlikely harvest of Romantic traditionalism, transplanted to a nation that had no hoary tradition to embrace, other than the Enlightenment universalism of the Declaration of Independence.

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