American Political Thought: Spread of Transcendentalism in Early American Society

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The three readings that I selected for my response paper are documents that strongly influenced early American politics. After reading the articles, it is evident that the policies and ideologies discussed not only impacted the time period in which they were written, but current political institutions. The first reading “The American Democrat” by James Fenimore Cooper, focuses on the dangers and emergence of social stations, along with, analyzing the similarities between aristocratic ideals and democratic ideals. The second readings “Self-Reliance & Politics” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, centered on the ideals of Transcendentalism and Self Sufficiently.

This pair of readings in particular, were distinctly different from the others. Mainly, due to the fact, that although democracy is celebrated as the key political system, Emerson equally denounces large government and group collectiveness. Finally, the third reading “Resistance to Civil Government” by Henry David Thoreau, also focused on the ideal of Transcendentalism and the importance of the individual on government. Thoreau’s approach to individualism seems more practical and has real-world applications. All the readings explored flaws in the American society that they were crafted in, making it more pertinent to addressing societal dilemmas which initially motivated the authors’ political philosophies.

In “The American Democrat” one of James Cooper’s main points was rejecting the idea that “one man is as good as another. He argued that the ideal was not factual, and that foundation of American political institutions could not be built on it. To disprove the theory, Cooper tested it against the state of nature and the times current political institutions. Cooper described the maxim as something that “ true in neither nature, revealed morals, nor political theory.' This quote highlighted that when we look at the nature of mankind, we know that all men are not equal. The examples that were the most compelling, centered on physical qualities e.g. some men being taller and more handsome than the others. Another major example used would be, when Cooper states “... would at once do away with the elections, since a lottery would be simpler, easier and cheaper than the present mode of selecting representatives. (pdf pages 466- 467 paragraph.1)”

This suggestion although exaggerated, brings to light the great point that we as social beings share a common understanding that all men are not equal. This flows succinctly with the moral qualities Cooper lists: such some men being wiser or braver than others. A separate aim of the reading was also to address the dangers of social stations. Which Cooper describes as “that in which one possesses in the ordinary associations and is dependent on birth, education, personal qualities, property, tastes, …. (pdf pg.465 para 3)” This means that being in a democracy has made it so there are advantages in every aspect of society. This is important to note because Cooper explains that democracies make it so all members of society can reach for the top, (attainable success) despite the fact they are not equal in either physical or moral ability. Being that these examples easily showed the primary flaw in the “one man is as good as another” it made the article more compelling than “Self-Reliance & Politics” which did not employ clear societal references. Utilizing a simple example allowed myself as the reader, to completely understand how Cooper’s arguing point of Democracy providing balance to society.

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The “Self-Reliance & Politics” by Ralph Emerson article is connected to the article “Resistance to Civil Government” by Henry David Thoreau in its application of the theory of transcendentalism. Which is defined as “a philosophical movement that stressed the individual's relation to nature (pg.396 para 1)” The reason I found Emerson’s work to be not as compelling as that of Thoreau’s is the fact that there was lack of practical application. Emerson did not clearly illustrate how self-government and the individual would impact society. Quotes such as “...the entire people to give their voices on every measure; or by a double choice to get representation of the whole; or by a selection of the best citizens... (pg.406 para 2)” fail to support the argument that individualism drives societies. Also, Emerson’s ideal of transcendentalism slightly differs from Thoreau, being that in “Self-Reliance & Politics” he states that “I do not call to mind a single human being who has steadily denied the authority of the laws, o the simple ground of his own moral nature (pg.409 para 1).” This is the completely contradictory of what Thoreau views the individuals' impact in society. Despite the delivery of this ideal being different in Emerson’s and Thoreau’s works, there is a common experience. That being, self-reliance and individuality are the essential building blocks for a strong society.

Specifically, in the Emerson piece, he makes several references to how important self-reliance is when stating that “High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others. If a man consider the present aspects of what is called by distinction society, he will see the need of these ethics. (pg.400 para 1)” This quote is relevant because it establishes the main argument the author is making, that self-reliance improves the individual in all aspects of life thus, in return, improving society. However, this is the same reason I believe the “Self-Reliance & Politics” was less compelling “Resistance to Civil Government”. There is no real-life application; Emerson only states that great individuals create unique ideals/perspectives but can not individual impose those ideals on the greater government. Thoreau in his work, had a more realistic application of transcendentalism in society and better defined the individual’s impact on society. This is evident when Thoreau states “But to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.(pg.410 para 3 )”

This ideal of better government is not only more practical but makes more sense when we understand that the governments we create come from things that we as society have agreed on. With this being the case, it is not hard to see that it would be simpler to change the government we currently have, rather than create a new one. Thoreau directly applies his individualist ideals when it comes to his views on abolition. In his work, he describes that allowing institutions like slavery have made us prisoners in our country. Adding that, throughout history, society has rejected ideals of individuals that challenge the status quo. Examples he used were, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the excommunication of Nicolaus Copernicus and Martin Luther, and the declaration of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin as rebels. Abolition was something that would aggressive challenge the foundation of American culture and development. This can not be disputed when we look back and analyze how dependent American society was on the slave labor. Another strong point of the piece is how Thoreau speaks to his refusal to participate in laws that contradict what he believes as an individual. This is highlighted in his imprisonment for breaking the law by not paying the poll tax. “I could not help being stuck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. This is compelling because it shows how individuality could be directly implemented in someone’s life. By disobeying a law that he deemed unjust, Thoreau showcased how one must be able to sacrifice themselves for their ideals. He affirms on this point by expressing that “When I meet a government which says to me, “Your money or your life” why should I be in haste to give it my money? (pg. 414 para 3)”

Overall, the readings covered pivotal political ideologies that setup how we participate in government today. In my opinion the most compelling reading was Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” mainly because of its practical application and real-world references. Thoreau made it, so his model of transcendentalism could be copied and served as a beacon for opposing social injustices. Cooper’s “The American Democrat” is the second most compelling, due to the fact, the main arguments were supported soundly and still hold reliance in today. Being that Cooper’s dissection of the “one man is as good as another” maxim provided myself with greater insight how nature has created such inequalities and it's up to us through our governments specifically democracies to correct these inequalities while not creating inequality. Stimulating the conversation around maintaining the balance between advantages created from nature and those stemming from democracies is something that affects our current governments. Despite finding “Self-Reliance & Politics” by Ralph Emerson the least compelling the author made unique points that challenged me to think differently about the Individual’s influence on government. If more the piece had more practical elements, I believe it would have not only been more compelling but more impactful on the spread of transcendentalism in early American society.

Work cited

  1. Kramnick, Isaac, and Theodore J. Lowi. American Political Thought: a Norton Anthology. W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.
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American Political Thought: Spread of Transcendentalism in Early American Society. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 22, 2024, from
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