The Transcendentalist movement occurred over 150 years ago but the philosophies that its’ leaders preached affect our world to this day. Transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson have had a profound effect on such historical figures as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi to Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. A thorough understanding of Transcendentalist dogma is necessary if you want to fully comprehend 20th century history.
The Transcendentalist movement originated in Concord, Massachusetts during the middle part of the 17th century; the group was formed by prominent intellectuals including George Putnam, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fredrick Henry Hedge, Orestes Brownson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau.
(vcu. edu/engweb/transcendentalism/) Emerson’s publication of the essay “Nature” in 1836 is considered to be the beginning of Transcendentalism as a major cultural movement.
The central ideas presented by the Transcendentalists include a questioning of society and culture, nonviolent resistance to oppressive forms of government, reliance on ones’ self, and a minimalistic life style.
The Transcendentalists beliefs of self reliance and nonviolent resistance for the good of the community as articulated in essays like “Self Reliance”, “Walden”, and “Civil Disobedience” directly informed Martin Luther King’s nonviolent tactics such as those used in Montgomery Alabama to end racial segregation in the U. S.
south in the 1960s and Barack Obama’s political philosophy which appears to be pragmatic, reflective, and peaceful. Perhaps the most important essays written by the Transcendentalists are Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and Emerson’s “Self Reliance”. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau outlines his belief in nonviolent resistance to unjust laws.
In his autobiography, Martin Luther King states, “Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance.
Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. ” (THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. , pg 00) This quote shows the full extent which Civil Disobedience influenced Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in general. We can say with almost complete certainty that Thoreau would have supported the Civil Rights movement. Thoreau was an avid abolitionist, and this hate for slavery would have easily carried over into a hatred of segregation.
Throughout his life, Thoreau preached that nonviolent resistance must be the answer to unjust laws. That belief has never been more fully realized than in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Martin Luther King and his followers used Thoreau’s own nonviolent tactics against the unjust laws which hampered society in the South. MLK makes it clear that his nonviolent tactics were directly influenced by Thoreau when he writes in his autobiography “As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest.
The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice. ” (THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
, pg 00) Actually citing Thoreau in his writing, we clearly see that Martin Luther King was truly a disciple of Henry David Thoreau. It is MLK’s use of Thoreau’s nonviolent tactics which set him apart from more violent civil rights leaders such as Malcolm X and makes Martin Luther King the most successful leader of the civil rights movement. If Thoreau was alive today would he approve of Barack Obama? Thoreau was in favor of an unobtrusive government that did not interfere with the lives of the American people.
“That government is best which governs least “(CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE, pg. 00). For better or worse, Obama seems to favor a hands-on approach to running the country and Thoreau might have been against that. On the other hand, Obama espouses a balanced political framework which Thoreau would have approved of. In addition to being balanced, Obama also appears to be very reflective which inspires the rest of the country to reflect on how our beliefs and actions affect our country, our communities, our families and ourselves.
Both Thoreau and Obama are for the most part against unrestrained greed-driven capitalism; the effects of which have exploded in and shattered our modern day economy. In Thoreau’s essay “Walden,” he suggests that people should live simply and according to the laws of nature. Thoreau is against fancy houses, fancy clothes, and other similar ostentatious and unnecessary excesses. Likewise Barack Obama has openly criticized those, such as money-mongering executives, who would greedily continue their hedonistic ways on the backs of everyday folks.
Obama wouldn’t disparage hard work that yields material rewards, however there is a point when too much is too much. We must ask ourselves what would Martin Luther King have to say about Barack Obama? King was firmly committed to equal rights for African Americans so he would have seen Obama’s inauguration as a historic moment in the fight against racism. The image of Capitol Mall overflowing with Americans of all races and backgrounds hailing a new era and a new president of African American descent was awe-inspiring.
Starting his epic speech with, “My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors”, (http://bulletin. aarp. org/yourworld/politics/articles/inaugural_2009. html) Obama begins to echo our respected thinkers of the past. Wasn’t that the embodiment of MLK’s “dream”? A black president in the white house with his beautiful family who he cherishes so much representing the ultimate in the American dream and calling for a new generation to uphold the ideals of the past?
This is illustrated well in this excerpt from Obama’s inaugural speech, “We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. ” (Presidential Inaugural Committee | January 20, 2009) Present day visionaries carry on the legacies from Transcendentalists of the past. We embraced the timeless philosophies of Thoreau and Emerson and have put our faith in modern leaders like Martin Luther King and Barrack Obama.
How would MLK have handled the pirate situation where an innocent hard-working ship’s captain was taken hostage by some hoodlum renegade Somalian pirates? How would Thoreau have handled this modern day pirate situation in the waters near Somalia? The outcome does embody the beliefs of good triumphing over evil. Even though Obama had to authorize force to triumph evil, good prevailed; the man who put his life on the line sacrificing himself for his crew, is alive and able to return to his family and New England community. Isn’t that what any of these leaders would’ve chosen to accomplish?
Obama wishes to move forward with issue, “I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region and to achieve that goal, we’re going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks,” Obama said at a Washington news conference. (By Elizabeth A. Kennedy and Pauline Jelinek, Associated Press Writers, April 13, 2009) Vowing to work with other countries, working to create peace and a humane place for all to live seems to be a noble way to carry on the messages of the Transcendentalists of the past. Work Cited AARP.
“Inauguration 2009. ” AARP Bulletin Today. 16 Nov. 2008. http://bulletin. aarp. org/yourworld/politics/articles/inaugural_2009. html. Civil Disobedience. Quill Pen Classics (October 21, 2008), 2008. Nature King, Martin L. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Grand Central Publishing, 2001. Nature. Shambhala (September 9, 2003), 2003. “the web of American Transcendentalism. ” vcu. edu. 4 Dec. 2008. http://www. vcu. edu/engweb/transcendentalism/. Self Reliance. Dover Publications; Unabridged edition (October 13, 1993), 1993. Walden. Digireads. com (January 1, 2005), 2005.