Some of the dominant historical themes in the first half of the nineteenth century were territorial exploration and expansion, growing tension around the issue of slavery (exacerbated by the annexation of new territory), and industrialization and technological development, including progress in transportation and communication. The New England Transcendentalists were keenly aware of these historical currents.
The country grew rapidly, sanctioned by the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, in which President James Monroe had declared North America no longer open to European acquisition and meddling, and by the concept of "manifest destiny," articulated in the 1840s, proclaiming America's mission to spread its culture and government across North America. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 added most of the area between the Mississippi and the Rockies. Between 1804 and 1806, Lewis and Clark explored the Northwest from the Mississippi to the Pacific. In 1806, Zebulon Pike traveled through the Southwest, to New Mexico and Mexico City. During the 1820s, traders hauled goods over the Santa Fe Trail. The first American settlement in Texas, which was then under Mexican control, was established in 1821. Americans subsequently flocked to Texas until 1830, when Mexico passed more restrictive immigration laws. California and Oregon were explored in the 1820s. Jedediah Strong Smith led an expedition to Mexican-held California in 1826. Oregon Country, jointly controlled by the United States and Great Britain, was explored in the late 1820s, settled in the 1840s and 1850s. Gold drew thousands westward, to California (beginning in 1848), to Colorado and Nevada (beginning in 1859), to Idaho (beginning in 1860) and Montana (beginning in 1862).
John C. Frémont undertook a series of expeditions in the 1840s, to track the headwaters of the Des Moines River (1841), to explore the route to Oregon (1842 and 1843–1844), and to California, to survey the Rockies and the area around the Great Salt Lake (1845–1846). Under the leadership of Brigham Young, the beleaguered Mormons began their migration from Illinois in 1846, arriving at the Great Salt Lake in 1847.
In terms of their impact on the Transcendentalists, exploration and settlement were significant primarily in relation to slavery. As the possibility of statehood arose for a territory, the question of whether it would be a slave state or a free state became an issue that drew national attention and heated debate.
In 1819, Missouri requested admission to the Union as a slave state. The country at the time contained an equal number of slave and free states (twenty-two total — eleven free and eleven slave). Congress hammered out the Missouri Compromise of 1820 in order to preserve this balance and to prevent further rancor and division between slavery and antislavery interests. Under the Missouri Compromise, Missouri was admitted as a slave state, Maine was admitted as a free state, and slavery was prohibited in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase north of the southern boundary of Missouri. This arrangement satisfied neither the South, which resented any attempt by the federal government to control slavery, nor the North, which was angered by government complicity in expanding slave territory.
Texas, spurred on by defeat at the Alamo, won its freedom from Mexico in 1836. Its annexation to the United States in 1845 was opposed by antislavery forces because of the likelihood that it would become a slave state and because it also made war with Mexico, which had refused to recognize the independence of Texas, impossible to avoid. War was declared in 1846, further polarizing the nation. Southerners supported the war, Northerners opposed it. At the war's end in 1848, Mexico recognized Texas as part of the United States and surrendered additional territory (California, Nevada, and Utah, most of New Mexico and Arizona, parts of Colorado and Wyoming).
The addition of territory through war with Mexico inflamed slavery/antislavery tensions, resulting in the Compromise of 1850, which was an attempt to delay impending national crisis. By the Compromise, California was admitted as a free state, the territories of New Mexico and Utah would decide the slavery question for themselves upon admission to the Union, the boundary between Texas and New Mexico was established, and the slave trade was abolished in Washington, D.C. The Compromise of 1850 also included the Fugitive Slave Law, which required the return of runaway slaves to their owners. Many Northerners were furious over and unwilling to obey the Fugitive Slave Law.
Kansas was a hotbed of conflict following the Compromise of 1850. For a time, it had two governments, one that permitted and one that outlawed slavery. In this unsettled atmosphere, lives and property were lost. John Brown moved to Kansas in 1855. He became captain of a company formed to maintain Kansas as a free state, employing radically militant methods of achieving this end. (Brown led the ill-fated raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859, for which he was executed.) In 1857, Kansas elected a free state legislature. It was not admitted to the Union until 1861.
The 1857 Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case further divided North and South. In deciding the slave Dred Scott's claim to freedom, the Supreme Court ruled that slaves could not sue because they were not citizens, and further pronounced that Congress could not prohibit slavery in territories, thereby declaring the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional. Northerners were once again outraged. This long series of conflicts led to and was finally resolved by the Civil War (1861–1865).
Thoreau was able to view the exploits of the great explorers of the continent metaphorically, as parallel to the exploration by the individual of the world within himself. He wrote in the conclusion to Walden:
What does Africa, — what does the West stand for? . . . Is it the source of the Nile, or the Niger, or the Mississippi, or a North-West Passage around this continent, that we would find? . . . Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes. . . .
Though it might be considered metaphorically, however, through its consequences, expansion presented moral difficulties that the Transcendentalists could not ignore.
Most of the New England Transcendentalists — Thoreau and Emerson among them — supported the abolition of slavery. They were, for several reasons, predisposed to take up this cause. Dr. William Ellery Channing, the "father of Unitarianism" and a source of inspiration, wrote a treatise titled Slavery (1835) and frequently wrote and spoke in favor of abolition. Moreover, Boston was a center of antislavery activity. Radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison established the periodical The Liberator in Boston in 1831, and was a founder of the New England Anti-Slavery Society there in 1832.
But the Transcendentalists also felt some ambivalence about ardent abolitionists and others who sought to reform society through political and legal action. Transcendentalism stressed the reform of society through perfection of the individual from within, not through external social means. At times, both Emerson and Thoreau wrote disparagingly of reformers.
Despite their reservations, however, Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Theodore Parker, and others were important in the antislavery movement. Emerson delivered his first antislavery address in Concord in 1837, in response to the murder of abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois. Emerson delivered his passionate An Address . . . on the Anniversary of the Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies in 1844, in the Concord courthouse. During the 1840s and 1850s, he spoke out frequently against slavery, appearing with Garrison and other leaders of the movement. The Fugitive Slave Law enraged Emerson, and he advocated disobeying it.
In the 1840s, Alcott and Thoreau refused to pay the poll tax in Concord in protest against slavery. Thoreau was jailed briefly in July of 1846 for this refusal. In 1848, he delivered a lyceum lecture on the subject of civil disobedience. In 1849, his "Resistance to Civil Government" — later known as Civil Disobedience — first appeared in the one and only issue of Elizabeth Peabody's Aesthetic Papers. He urged obedience to higher laws than the temporal laws of civil government. He wrote, "This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people."
Several attempts to enforce the hated Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 were highly publicized and drew the attention of the Transcendentalists. In February of 1851, Shadrach Minkins, a runaway slave rescued from the courthouse in Boston, spent a night in Concord en route to safety in Canada via the Underground Railroad. In 1851, the case of Thomas Sims prompted Emerson to take a more radical stand regarding the necessity of opposing the institutionalization of slavery through the Fugitive Slave Law. On July 4, 1854, Thoreau delivered his powerful address "Slavery in Massachusetts" in response to the case of Anthony Burns. Bronson Alcott participated in an unsuccessful attempt to free Burns.
Emerson and Thoreau were among the many in Concord and Boston who saw in John Brown a man of principle, action, and disregard for personal safety rather than a fanatic. They both helped to create the image of Brown as saint and martyr. Thoreau lectured on Brown ("A Plea for Captain John Brown") as Brown's execution approached late in 1859.
Industrialization, technological progress, and tremendous advances in transportation and communication also touched the lives of the Transcendentalists. As large-scale, mechanized factories multiplied throughout New England, where textile manufacture thrived, Emerson, Thoreau, and their comrades could not help but observe the changes wrought by this trend. Because Transcendental philosophy espoused the spiritual and moral and denigrated the material, the Transcendentalists mistrusted technological progress and its effect on the workforce. Thoreau, for instance, wrote in the chapter of Walden titled "Economy":
As with our colleges, so with a hundred "modern improvements"; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. . . . Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end. . . . We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. ,
The simplicity of his life at Walden Pond from 1845 to 1847 was Thoreau's proof that material progress was not necessary for a rich life.
Robert Fulton's steamboat the Clermont made a trial run from Albany to New York in 1807. In 1838, transatlantic steamship service began. Work on the Erie Canal began in 1817; the canal was opened in 1825. Other canals followed quickly. Movement westward necessitated the building of roads and bridges. The need for faster ships to accommodate trade led to the building of the first clipper ship in Baltimore in 1832. In the same year, the horsecar (the horse-drawn streetcar) was introduced in New York. Beginning in 1828, the railroad revolutionized travel in the United States. It spread rapidly and soon surpassed the canal in importance. The Fitchburg Railroad opened in Emerson's and Thoreau's Concord in 1844. The rate of railroad building was very rapid in the 1850s. The Pullman, or sleeper car, was introduced in 1859. Samuel F.B. Morse developed the telegraph in 1835 and patented it in 1840. The first successful transatlantic cable was laid in 1866.
Thoreau's mixed attitude toward progress is clearly illustrated in his views on the railroad. In the "Economy" chapter of Walden, he wrote:
Men have an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint stocks and spades long enough all will at length ride somewhere, in next to no time, and for nothing; but though a crowd rushes to the depot, and the conductor shouts "All aboard!" when the smoke is blown away and the vapor condensed, it will be perceived that a few are riding, but the rest are run over. . . .
On the other hand, he wrote lyrically of the railroad in the chapter titled "Sounds":
. . . when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils, . . . it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.
Thoreau was clearly moved by the raw power of mechanical invention.
Although Emerson had difficulty reconciling material progress with the Transcendental elevation of the individual, his successful lecture career would not have been possible without the railroad and the telegraph. For example, in 1871 Emerson crossed the country via railroad and lectured in California. Alcott, too, toured extensively as a lecturer from the 1850s until his stroke in 1882. Thoreau traveled by railroad and steamboat on his last and longest journey, to Minnesota in 1861. Despite the philosophical dilemma that technological advances raised for the Transcendentalists, they clearly displayed a certain degree of pragmatic acceptance of the fruits of progress.