Transcendental Ethos

A Study of Thoreau’s Social Philosophy and
Its Consistency in Relation to Antebellum Reform

© Michael J. Frederick, 1998

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II. Antebellum Reform

[1]        Thoreau lived during a period of unprecedented change, a time of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and geographic mobility. Slavery was expanding and becoming more profitable in the South.(23) The first factory systems were introduced in towns just outside his hometown of Concord. At Waltham, the Boston Manufacturing Company utilized a power loom, turning southern cotton into valuable products for sale in the North and abroad. In Boston, population estimates between 1790 and 1830 roughly tripled as renewed opportunities and prosperity after the Revolutionary War and the need for workers increased.

[2]        It was a time of great optimism. There was a renewed sense of confidence in the American system of government. By 1845, when Thoreau began his sojourn at Walden, the Republic had survived for nearly sixty years, a mark of its durability. The uncertainty of the early Republic diminished as states learned to legislate on local and national levels. New industrialization, along with internal improvements, the building of roads, canals, and railways, promised an expansive America.

[3]        The decades preceding the Revolutionary War marked a period of intense theological speculation that produced an ever-widening chasm within the Calvinist Orthodoxy. The period produced the first of two Great Awakenings in American history. No other figure had a more lasting influence than did Jonathan Edwards. He determined the future course of theology. Concerned with doctrinal heresies of Arminianism and apathy among the clergy, Edwards wrote a number of treatises directed at rejuvenating spiritual awareness in the colonies. The Freedom of the Will challenged the Arminian contention that Christ died on the cross for the redemption of all humanity, not for an exclusive elect. Edwards applied the philosophy of John Locke in rejecting the idea of distinct faculties such as the reason, the will, and the appetites.(24) This was also an area of speculation that would later engage New England Transcendentalism. By denying the existence of free will, Edwards wanted to undermine the Arminian heresy and preserve the doctrines of Determinism, the Elect, and Human Depravity.

[4]        He confronted apathy among New England clergymen by demonstrating the importance of emotion or "affections" in religious devotion and by reasserting the ideas of divine perfection and human depravity.(25) His work was instrumental in bringing about the first Great Awakening. Edwards’ clerical descendants, the New Calvinists, continued his debate. Gradually, with passage of time, and with America’s spirited victory over the British, Orthodox ideas lost some of their appeal. Doctrinal disputes continued as conservative and liberal strains within the clergy forced a gradual schism out of which Evangelical Protestantism and Unitarianism emerged.

[5]        The Cane Ridge revival in 1801 marked the beginning of the Second Great Awakening, and the first of a series of camp meetings that were to follow. These meetings have been noted for their vast displays of emotional and religious fervor, and for the extraordinary role they played in motivating Antebellum reformers. In 1818, Adin Ballou, then age 15, participated in a revival near his hometown in Rhode Island. Years later, he recorded his youthful conversion. "Whatever my folly or imperfection, I have never regretted the step I then took, but have been devoutly thankful to the author of all good that thus early in life I committed myself to His service under the leadership of Jesus Christ."(26) Ballou went on to found the community of Hopedale based on the principles of universal salvation, Christian socialism, and nonresistance and was the most persistent advocate of pacifism during the Antebellum period.

[6]        Evangelical ministers and theologians challenged the old Calvinist doctrines. New Haven’s Nathaniel Taylor, a theologian at Yale University, attacked the doctrines of Original Sin, Determinism, and Infant Damnation. Because he accepted the notion of free will, Taylor argued sin was voluntary not predetermined. Revivals, he believed, united people within the spiritual and ecumenical context of the Christian community and helped to lead the way to salvation. Congregationalism prevailed at Yale while its rival, Harvard College, embraced the more liberal doctrines of Unitarianism.

[7]        The paragon of frontier revivalism was the great evangelist Charles Grandison Finney. Without having had any formal theological training, he was ordained a Presbyterian minister and later was elected president of Ohio’s Oberlin College from 1851 to 1856. He was a fierce opponent of slavery, and Oberlin disseminated numerous amounts of anti-slavery propaganda throughout the region. Paul E. Johnson, an historian of Finney’s Rochester revival, argues convincingly that Finney’s 1831 revivals had an indelible effect on Antebellum reform.(27) Revivals propagated the ideas of moral perfection and the coming biblical age of human perfection — the millennium.

[8]        Rapid expansion and new problems associated with industrialization and slavery prompted concern for many Americans. New England became the center of Antebellum reform. The rich Puritan tradition of the region provided impetus for a reform impulse that was reinforced by current optimism and a belief in perfectibility. The temperance movement led by Lyman Beecher gained national attention. Drunkenness was often tolerated in an agrarian society, but an industrial one necessitated punctuality and sobriety. Horace Mann led the movement for educational reform, believing childhood education could prepare the young for responsible adulthood and citizenship. Of all reform movements, Abolitionism led by William Lloyd Garrison had the greatest sense of immediacy. Garrison called for nothing less than the immediate, non-compensatory, and complete abolition of slavery.

[9]        Lockean thought continued its influence during the Antebellum period with the opposite results of Edwards’ era. Most reformers believed human behavior was malleable. They believed temperate parents would raise temperate children. Early childhood development and education would mold law-abiding citizens. Abolition of slavery would lead to peace and equality. And benevolent institutions would encourage benevolence. Charles Dickens while visiting Boston in 1842 commented on the phenomenon of the city’s alms houses, prisons, juvenile facilities, and hospitals: "I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect, as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make them."(28) Reformers generally stressed the connection between the individual, the environment, the importance of collective involvement, and institutional reform.

[10]        The old Calvinist triangle was turned on its head. Alexis de Tocqueville while visiting America in 1831 wrote: "It is hard to realize how much follows naturally from this philosophic theory of the indefinite perfectibility of man and what a prodigious influence it has even on those who, concentrating solely on action to the exclusion of thought, act according to this theory of which they know nothing."(29) Most reform movements sought mass appeal. They appealed to the impetuosity of perspective converts. Religiosity they wanted, yes, but not a nation of philosophers. The old Calvinist notions of human depravity were superseded by a typical belief in human perfection.

[11]        Antebellum reformers generally relied on scriptural authority in support of their proposed projects. Abolitionists were no exception. Arthur Tappan, Lyman Beecher, and Charles Gradison Finney were all evangelicals and leading members of Abolitionism. Tappan controlled the movement’s programs in the southwesterly portion of the northern United States, disseminating pamphlets in that region and into the southern Border States. Finney conducted frontier revivals in the emerging West. Beecher served in the eastern portion of the country. The prevalence of evangelical thought within Abolitionism should not be denied, overlooked, or misjudged, for Transcendental thought follows its own distinct category.

[12]        In Boston, Beecher was a commanding figure appealing mostly to middling and lower classes. His Boston was not the Brahmin Boston of William Ellery Channing or Ralph Waldo Emerson. While at Yale, Beecher befriended Nathaniel Taylor whose pro-revival theology kindled the flames of Finney’s revivalism. Beecher’s Hanover Street congregation was also the site of several revivals, which never gained much favor among the city’s Unitarian population. In 1829, when Garrison first came to Boston, he was inspired by Beecher and not the Unitarians. He referred to Channing’s "icy system" and noted enthusiastically, "Beecher has no equal."(30) It was Beecher’s evangelical simplicity that moved young Garrison.

[13]        While it is true that his pertinacious insistence on immediacy and the disparaging and sensationalistic language of the Liberator led to an eventual cooling of relations between himself and many denominationalists including Beecher, Garrison’s commitment to the Gospels of Christ as the touchstone of his own moral philosophy persisted unabated. Nothing illustrates this more than his relationship with John Humphrey Noyes of Vermont, beginning in 1837 when the two men met for the first time. Noyes went beyond the perfectionism of Finney by proclaiming that he himself had reached perfection. Believing Christ to be the supreme authority in the world, he explained: "My hope of the millennium begins where Dr. Beecher’s expires — viz., AT THE TOTAL OVERTHROW OF THIS NATION."(31) Shortly after their meeting, Garrison wrote his devoted disciple Henry Wright, a Connecticut farmer, to proclaim the good news.

The remedy . . . will not be found in anything short of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Human governments will remain in violent existence as long as men are resolved not to bear the cross of Christ, and to be crucified unto the world. But in the kingdom of God’s dear Son, holiness and love are the only magistracy. It has no swords, for they are beaten into plough shares — no spears, for they are changed into pruning-hooks — no military academy, for the saints cannot learn war any more — no gibbet, for life is regarded as inviolate — no chains, for all are free. And that kingdom is to be established upon earth, for the time is predicted when the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of the Lord and of his Christ.(32)
[14]        Transcendentalists were also optimistic; however, their optimism was generally tempered by a sense of a gradual progressiveness and an unfolding of the ideal in history, which, as many of them well recognized, could be facilitated or hindered in its material manifestation. Maintaining the autonomy of the individual, Thoreau was inclined to assert the purity of the soul along with other Transcendentalists, agreeing that individuals should act in the moment according to their nature, without succumbing to the vogue of opinion. Garrison, on the other hand, asserting the fundamental importance of the Gospels, soon united Abolitionism to Ballou’s New England Nonresistance Society with absolute, albeit admirable, material designs in mind.

[15]        The two movements were united in common cause shortly after the 1837 slaying of Elijah P. Lovejoy. Lovejoy was gunned down by an angry pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois, while protecting his printing press. Garrison and Ballou were determined to keep Abolitionism free from violence. Their credo was the words spoken by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. "Ye resist not evil" and "turn the other cheek" became the watchwords of the united movement.

[16]        Garrison set the agenda for Abolitionism at the 1838 Peace Convention held in Boston. Desiring a peaceful solution to slavery, he delivered his "Declaration of Sentiments" address, a manifesto outlining the goals of the his movement.

The Prince of peace, under whose stainless banner we rally, came not to destroy, but to save, even the worst of enemies . . . We register our testimony, not only against all wars, whether offensive or defensive, but all preparations for war . . . We believe that the penal code of the old covenant, An eye for an eye, [sic] and a tooth for a tooth, has been abrogated by Jesus Christ; and that, under the new covenant, the forgiveness, instead of the punishment of enemies, enjoined upon all his disciples, in all cases whatsoever.
Clearly favoring nonviolence, Garrison goes on to explain: "We shall employ lecturers, circulate tracts and publications, form societies, and petition our state and national governments in relation to the subject of Universal Peace."(33) In the aftermath of the convention, Ballou published "Non-Resistance in Relation to Human Governments," another exemplary pacifist tract in addition to Garrison’s. Ballou wrote: "Non-Resistants are required by their principles not to resist any of the ordinances of these governments by physical force, however unjust and wicked; but to be subject to the powers that be, either actively or passively."(34)

[17]        Thoreau never joined Abolitionism or the Peace Society. The reason is simple: he never accepted their view of the Moral Law and was moved by a subtle, nonetheless distinct, difference in principle. Transcendentalism will be examined in the next chapter to discuss Thoreau’s connection with it, as indeed he was, and to distinguish him from other reformers of the time who fell outside the Transcendental fold. And there were differences. Ballou himself was incensed with Transcendentalism. Referring to its "pernicious" errors, he wrote:

I had to withstand . . . an incoherent Transcendentalism which made every individual his own prophet, priest, king, and God; a rabid anti-bibleism, which treated the scriptures of the two Testaments indiscriminately as a jargonic mass of pseudo-sacred rubbish, of no divine authority whatever; and a gross anti-Sabbatarianism, which left no use for any sort of Sabbath, even for the moral and religious improvement or physical comfort of needy humanity.(35)
[18]        Antebellum reform was an outgrowth of Enlightenment ideas. Calvinism gave way to a liberated theology after the Revolutionary War. Evangelical Protestantism was the birthchild of the Second Great Awakening. Unitarianism was distinct from Evangelical Protestantism, as we will see, in rejecting the Trinitarian nature of Christ and in embracing a far more speculative theology. It was limited geographically and scarcely embraced revivalism. Thoreau himself once noted that "a camp-meeting must be a singular combination of a prayer-meeting and a pic-nic."(36) Transcendentalism developed out of Unitarianism, while Abolitionism was essentially a product of Evangelical Protestantism.

[19]        Garrison embraced the doctrine of nonviolence based on his reading of the Gospel of Christ. His "Declaration of Sentiments" address, and his cooperation with Ballou clearly demonstrate his early commitment to the peace movement. Thoreau, who is often associated with pacificism, never attended the Peace Convention. He, and other Transcendentalists, essentially rejected revivalism, a fundamentalistic interpretation of scripture, and defined perfectionism and the Moral Law according to their own unique transcendental idealism.

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23.  Frederick Law Olmsted, The Cotton Kingdom (New York: Modern Library, 1984) 416. The price of cotton, land, and slaves increased during the 1850's. Exorbitant profits were made in speculation, especially in the southwest. Also see Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), esp. the chapter on "Profit and Loss" 383-418. Stampp writes: "In short, on both large and small estates, none but the most hopelessly inefficient masters failed to profit from the ownership of slaves." (Stamp, 414). (back)
24.  Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957) see editor’s introduction 49. (back)
25.  Edmund S. Morgan, "The American Revolution Considered as an Intellectual Movement," Paths of American Thought, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Morton White (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963) 18. (back)
26.  Adin Ballou, Autobiography (Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1975) 33. (back)
27. Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeepers Millennium (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978). (back)
28.  Charles Dickens, American Notes (New York: Modern Library, 1996) 37. (back)
29.  Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988) 453. (back)
30.  John L. Thomas, The Liberator (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963) 59. (back)
31.  Thomas 231. (back)
32.  Thomas 233. (back)
33.  William Lloyd Garrison, "Declaration of Sentiments," Selections from the Writings and Speeches of William Lloyd Garrison (Boston, 1852) 74. (back)
34.  Adin Ballou, Non-Resistance in Relation to Human Governments (Boston, 1839) 11. (back)
35.  Ballou, Autobiography 389. (back)
36.  Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod (1988; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) 37. (back)

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