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Peaceful Resistance: a Transcendental Response to Abolitionism

By Tinsel1 Jan 13, 2013 1924 Words
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 states that a law should be just and righteous, otherwise it should not be a law at all, thus it ought not be followed. The essay itself is a response to Thoreau's arrest, due to non-payment of taxes. The money taxes collected at the time went towards the support of slavery, something Thoreau was vehemently against. Industry was moving forward and the Southeastern United States had an agricultural economy. In the South, plantation owners came to rely on slave labor. Other countries throughout the world had already freed their slaves, renouncing the practice as something not within the Christian faith. As the North was not reliant on slave labor and many religious groups in the area opposed slavery, there were already communities of freed African slaves living in the area. Thoreau was a Northeastern native and was becoming more involved in the Transcendental movement. In the essay, Thoreau felt that the Southern states' political involvement to ambitiously push slaver into the west. While writing Walden, Thoreau came back to a place that he questioned the lawmakers on where they felt money should be allocated. Walden is an account of time Thoreau spent in the woods (in a cabin owned by friend and mentor, Ralph Emerson) where he felt the necessity of removing himself from civilization to focus on living simply and spiritually.

After returning to “normal society”, Thoreau felt that many of the laws, taxes, and practices actually went against his conscience and general sensibilities. He starts the essay with the quote, “That government is best which governs least”, and even goes so far to say that government ought not govern at all. He felt that blind compliance hindered people from living as honestly as his own beliefs dictated. He also believed that following laws just because they were laws was immoral. He compares military men to mindless machines lacking scruples and going “against their common sense” to carry out libertine tasks. In the essay he also states, “Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?”, meaning he felt mankind was capable of making moral decisions on their own, harkening back to Emerson's idea of self-reliance. Why have a government prescribe medicine when humanity already has the cure?
“I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also”, states Thoreau, based on the patriotic ideal that all men really are created equal. The idea that a man could live in a government that could treat its citizens like cattle was something that Thoreau was writing to battle against, and thus the essay itself is a slap in the face to government officials that allowed taxes to go towards something Thoreau felt was so immoral. He writes, “There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing”, noting the complacency and lack of backbone he saw around him. For Thoreau, this essay was a call to arms for like-minded people to actually rally against laws and taxes that he felt were unjust. He was calling for peaceful revolution.

Thoreau wanted to band together the people that believed like him and genuinely wanted to make a change. He instructed his readers that the “minority is powerless”, and that sitting back doing nothing would never make the abolition of slavery happen. Aware that the government was trying to spread slavery into the unexplored western territories, he believed that it even more important to get the message of equality out amongst citizens to give them courage to stand up for their convictions. He urged citizens to join him in the non-payment of these degenerate taxes, however knew that not everyone would be able to follow his example. He does not expect every one to rise up in complete revolt. Unlike Thoreau, many people had wives and children, making imprisonment impractical for them. His request was that people not financially back governments that favor commerce over civility.

The message is that a government needs money to put any legislation into action. He believed putting economic pressure on the law-makers demanding taxes that it could work to relieve the nation from the dependency of the money brought in by war and slavery. He writes, “the rich man - not to make any invidious comparison - is always sold to the institution which makes him rich. Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue”, thus expressing his message of non-materialism and how greed can misguide one's innate goodness.

Overall, Thoreau wanted to respect his government but until the activities that he was so vehemently against ceased, he felt like supporting it was something he was not obliged to do. His aim was to not just live what America promised, i.e. freedom and the pursuit of happiness, the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, but to live it and see it in action. The problem was not the government, however. Thoreau writes:

“The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense.”

To him, the politicians and officials were slaves owned by the government, simply interested in social and financial gain. By being so involved, they had blinders on their eyes, preventing them from truly being able to make moral decisions against the government. The fact that these men chose to enact and carry out these laws made them even more despicable. In all, Thoreau's response to his imprisonment eventually became an inspiration to activists and civil rights leaders worldwide. He and Emerson played a vital role in the abolitionist movement at the time, in their activism and writing.

Emerson's “Self-Reliance” helped to usher in a new era of free-thinking individuals that valued themselves and their freedom. Thoreau, empowered by Emerson's philosophy, tried to embody the transcendental ideal. He took a stand in his essay “Civil Disobedience”, pointing out the lack of moral fortitude, greed, and intolerance amongst the politicians of the time and rebelled against supporting laws that he felt went against his conscience. He stood against bureaucracy and feeble minded people that had no backbone to really act on what they believed. His focus was using conscience to guide decisions as opposed to allowing an unjust government to make decisions for the collective. As Thoreau put it:

“... when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer. In other words, 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 subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.”

Due to the actions of the anti-slavery movement and the people involved, slavery was declared illegal after the Civil War. While Thoreau's brand of civil disobedience was one that could land people in jail if they followed his example, his non-violent revolutionary actions would be repeated by great leaders and fellow activists. It was the beginning of peaceful protest.

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