Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement that developed in the 1830s and 1840s in the New England region of the United States as a protest to the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School.
New England Transcendentalism was the first intellectual movement in the history of the still-new nation to achieve a lasting impact on American thought and writing. Although its heyday was brief- a decade or so between the mid-1830s and the mid-1840s- it cast a long shadow stretching down to the present.
Transcendentalists were on the verge of becoming the first American youth movement, the nation's first counterculture. Transcendentalism was the first movement to argue vigorously for what mainstream popular culture today in the United States take almost for granted: that youthful vision and vigor should count for more than the stodgy so-called wisdom of the elders.
The concept of a higher Reason is the heart of what came to be called Transcendentalism. Those who recognized such a faculty sometimes called it by different names, such as "Spirit," "Mind," "Soul," and they also differed in the claims they made for it. For some it was simply an inner light or conscience; for others it was the voice of God; for still others it was literally God himself immanent in man.
As a self-conscious movement, Transcendentalism served as an expression of radical discontent within American Unitarianism, arising from objections to Unitarian epistemology and the Lockean psychology upon which it was based. To the young Unitarian radicals of the 1830's, man has a higher mental faculty, or "Reason," which enables him to perceive spiritual truth intuitively.
The extraordinary members of this informal movement provided intellectual and moral leadership for many social transformations: the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, freedom of religious thought and practice, educational reform, and more. The influence of their ideas continues today in many aspects of our culture, from efforts to preserve large tracts of wild nature to civil disobedience around the world.
Although the ideas that contributed to New England Transcendentalism had many roots, the strength of its impact came from the intellectual energy of two remarkable individuals: Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most important figure behind Transcendentalism in America, and Henry David Thoreau, his most influential disciple.
Although the Transcendentalist movement never produced a founding document or manifesto, Emerson's "Nature" essay (1836) sounded its inspirational keynote, while the Dial (a quarterly journal established in 1840 and edited by Fuller) served as its more or less official mouthpiece.
The movement began as an informal Boston discussion club. However, its influence gradually rippled outward to affect the values and beliefs not only of later U.S. writers (from Walt Whitman and John Muir to Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams) but of Americans in general.
Based on the foundational American assumption that the future can be better than the past through imagination and effort, the Transcendentalists envisioned a culture that would foster further acts of culture-making, a community that would also liberate the individual, a way of thinking that would also become a way of doing.
Thoreau is now the most famous of his "flock," but many others also contributed, including Margaret Fuller, James Freeman Clarke, Orestes Augustus Brownson, George Ripley, Jones Very, Frederic Henry Hedge, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, and Amos Bronson Alcott.