Peaceful Resistance: a Transcendental Response to Abolitionism

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Stacey Gaskin
American Transcendentalism

Peaceful Resistance: A Transcendental Response to Abolitionism

The ideals of Transcendentalism lent themselves to be ripe with social change. Transcendentalists believed the soul transcended form, shape, and color and stressed that on the inside, human beings are not simply male and female or black and white. To the transcendentalist, the soul was an androgynous, colorless entity. They believed truth is beyond the realms of human senses, but that man possesses the ability to find God through self-realization. Transcendentalists also held the belief that tradition should not dictate the feelings, spirituality, or actions of the individual. The Transcendentalist movement and writings inspired generations of Americans to think outside the norms of society, by balking against inhumane, unjust laws and fighting for the innate goodness they believed all human beings possessed. All people had the opportunity to reach truth and divine inspiration. Equality amongst all human beings, namely abolitionism, was a fight the Transcendentalists fought with pleasure.

The era in which the Transcendentalists were writing was already a time of immense reform. Romanticism was spreading throughout Europe in response to the analytical Enlightenment. Many were searching for spiritual identity. Intellectuals in both Europe and the new world were more open to asking questions that would have previously been considered blasphemous, as well as new interests in the exotic writings and religions of the East. New ideas were spreading. Post-revolutionary America was the emergence of brand new society, where Americans now had the freedom to create an identity differing from any other country in the world. Writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson would contribute to the forming of this new found individuality in his essays whose subjects ranged from questioning the norms to admiration of nature. One such essay is “Self-Reliance” written in 1841. In it, he discusses non-conformity and folly of worrying about what others think. He briefly touches on the idea of abolitionism as an example:

“If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, 'Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper; be good-natured and modest; have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.' Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love.”

In this quote, he is saying that wearing a mask to just gain approval causes one to no longer be true to themselves and that sometimes being bluntly honest is necessary. In the case of abolition, this meant being genuine about the cause. Although Emerson's activism for legislation against slavery was passive until later in the movement, by even mentioning abolition, he calls to attention the fact that this is a hot-button issue where people would hide their personal feelings just to maintain appearances. To Emerson, the abolitionists were overzealous and Emerson felt that many simply followed in the mob mentality. His philosophy was all about individuality, realization of truth, and finding man's innate divinity. As he wrote, “Trust thyself”. Despite its idealism, “Self-Reliance” encouraged free thought and challenged the youth of the time to not just blindly eat what society spoon-fed them. By drilling the idea of relying solely on one's own hard work, personal faith, and self-identity, Emerson ultimately inspired people to revolutionize their lives and embrace their individuality. One such person that was influenced was his friend and fellow writer, Henry David Thoreau.

Unlike Emerson's “Self-Reliance”, Thoreau made his opinion of slavery quite clear. In the essay, Thoreau...
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