During its short lifespan from the mid-1830s to the late 1840s, Transcendentalism seemed to pose no real threat to the social and political institutions it opposed. The Transcendental movement was composed of a small group of intellectuals, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. In hindsight, however, the Transcendentalists can be seen as forerunners of the enormous upheavals that were about to break out across the United States.

Human Equality and Abolition

The name Transcendentalism was borrowed from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who wrote of the innate ability of individuals to “transcend” the limits of their physical environments in order to perceive inherent truths. One of the implications of this belief is that every human being possesses the same innate potential regardless of race, gender or class, promoting the idea of universal equality. Such a belief system was what allowed the Transcendentalists to see the injustice in the current social institutions. Emerson and Thoreau spoke out against the displacement of Native Americans from their land and they fought, along with fellow Transcendentalist Theodore Parker, against the institution of slavery. Their belief in human equality shaped the abolitionist movement in later years .

Margaret Fuller- America's First True Feminist

Margaret Fuller is sometimes referred to as “America's first true feminist”. She worked to encourage women's participation in political, economic and educational institutions. Her own life was an example of these ideas; she was one of the only women to have attended Harvard University at the time of her enrollment, she became the editor of the Transcendental publication The Dial, and shortly before her death she participated in the Italian Liberation Movement in Rome. Her famous book, published in 1845, Woman in the 19th Century, expresses ideologies that were later embraced by the Women's Suffrage Movement.

The Far-reaching Influence of Civil Disobedience

Thoreau's work Civil Disobedience, based on his night in jail for tax evasion, states that it is a civic duty to resist a government if the laws of the government are against the common good. Such famous civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi used Thoreau's treatise on pacifist resistance in their struggles against injustice. South Africans fighting apartheid quoted its pages and it influenced Americans protesting against the Vietnam War in the 1970s.

Walden: An Environmentalist's Handbook

Thoreau was also a forerunner of the environmental movement and his book, Walden, about man's fundamental connection to nature, raised a new consciousness about nature's role in our spiritual and social lives. He championed the idea of public parks and nature reserves as important links to spirituality and lamented the destruction of the forests as the destruction of our earthly paradise when he declared “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” (see Source 6)