Transcendentalism and Utopias

1800-1848 : By Mary Ann Enerson and Matthew Fastow

So, what is "transcendentalism"? And how does it relate to utopia?

The rapid industrialization and expansion of early America weakened traditional institutions that citizens had relied upon, promoting a new era of celebrated individualism. Several notable thinkers - such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller - led this prolific mid-nineteenth century "American Renaissance." Most notably, Emerson stood at the helm of the transcendentalist movement, which rejected all types of tradition and championed the "liberation of the individual." Furthermore, many local and religious leaders sought to create new social orders, or utopias, in reaction to the rampant economic and societal change at the time. Overall, transcendentalist and utopian movements revealed several notable divisions in early American society.

Stop 1: Brook Farm (Boston, MA)

Brook Farm is a utopian experiment in communal living based on Transcendentalist beliefs just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. The Farm is frequently visited and inhabited by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, all steadfast transcendentalists. Brook Farm follows Charles Fourier’s type of socialism and promises community members profits in exchange for doing an equal role in the Farm’s work. All community members, including women, are paid equal wages, showing the members’ reaction to their dissatisfaction with the inequality in industrialization. The community members also combat the inequalities of industrialization by practicing communal socialism, so every member owns a part of the land and gets equal pay. By practicing socialism and enforcing equal pay, the members of Brook Farm show how their views differ from industrialized society, thus creating regional differences
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Stop 2: Walden Pond (Concord, MA)

Walden Pond is a small pond located right outside the city of Concord, Massachusetts and inspired Henry David Thoreau’s book Life in the Woods. Life in the Woods is a reflection on man’s simple living in natural surroundings and is heavily influenced by Thoreau’s Transcendentalist beliefs. Henry David Thoreau lived in a small self built cabin near the pond on land owned by his Transcendentalist friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau believed in man’s individualism and stated that following social customs is a waste of life and to instead look towards the wildness and freedom in nature. The rejection of social customs shows how Thoreau and other transcendentalists’ beliefs differ from society’s, which is primarily focused on wealth, capitalism, and industrialization. Thoreau’s rejection of societal custom is reaction to the changing values of society and the decreasing morality of it and highlights regional differences between certain groups of people.

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Stop 3: The Shakers (Albany, NY)

The Shakers in Albany, NY are a utopian community that believes in sexual equality and socialism, the communal ownership of property, and abstains from alcohol, tobacco, politics, and war. The community members are devoted to living a simple life and developing one’s talents through hard work, while perfecting themselves and their communities in anticipation of Christ’s return. The Shakers’ emphasis on sexual equality makes the community very appealing to women. A majority of the Shaker population is in fact female and their founder was a woman, “Mother” Ann Lee. Emphasizing sexual equality shows how the Shakers differ from the rest of the United States, which is still a very patriarchal society. The Shakers also differentiate themselves by practicing socialism. The Shakers share all property and goods and both sexes lay ownership the community’s land. By practicing sexual equality and socialism, many significant regional differences are portrayed between the members in the Shaker community and the patriarchal and capitalistic peoples of the United States.
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Stop 4: The Oneida Community (Oneida, NY)

The Oneida community is a small town tucked away in central New York, only of several hundred inhabitants, mostly former industrial workers. All of the property in the town is owned communally, and the inhabitants own operate a very successful steel trap business, which supplies animal traps for many hunters in New England and Canada. The willingness of New England’s industrial workers to join the Oneida community elucidates social divisions within America. The community’s founder, John Humphrey Noyes, sought to emulate the simpler, localized, agrarian societies in pre-revolutionary America. Such action was reactionary in response to the political and social discontent which accompanied industrialization. A distinct difference emerges between those who profit from industrialism -- the Northern aristocracy -- and those who suffer from it -- the Northern working classes. Moreover, due to the slave-based, agrarian society of the south, virtually all Oneidans come from urban centers in New England. Another division emerges here, this time between agrarianism in the south and industrialism in the north.

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Stop 5: The Harmony Society (Harmony, PA)

The Harmony Society in Harmony, PA is a socialist Utopian community. The community members are millennialists, people who believe that Christ is returning to earth in their lifetime, so they strive to become “pure” by practicing nonviolence and unmarried celibacy. The Harmonites are very successful agricultural and industrial people due to their multitude of machines that they run in their factories and mills. The Harmonites believed that the only way to live holy lives was to share all belongings and to willingly live in communal “harmony”. Because of their many factories, the Harmonites are very export focused but try to limit their importations in order to maintain their “pure” ways of living. To ensure that the wellbeing of the community is placed in front of the greed of individuals, the Harmonites avoid capitalistic goods focus on being self sufficient and sharing everything. The Harmonites Socialist beliefs display the regional differences occurring between the small Harmonite community and mainstream capitalist United States.
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Stop 6: A Fourier Community (Utopia, OH)

There are almost 100 small Fourier communities in New York and the Midwest, inspired by the anti-capitalist French philosopher Charles Fourier. Following his teachings, property is owned communally within these towns, and inhabitants work in labor units called “phalanxes.” Most notably, these labor units defy gender stereotypes of the era; men and women work alongside each other to accomplish both domestic and agricultural work. Such equality makes Fourier communities appealing to women seeking equal rights as their male counterparts. By contrast, the phalanx unit demonstrates the perpetual gender inequality in the rest of the US, where men are expected to earn a wage through field or factory labor, and women are confined to the domestic sphere. In addition, these communities appeal especially to educated farmers and craftsmen with access to Fourier’s work, who are increasingly opposed to the unpredictability of mercantile capitalism. Similarly to the Oneida community, Fourierism demonstrates clear divisions between those in support of and opposed to industrialization.

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Stop 7: The Mormon Community (Nauvoo, IL)

Nauvoo is the second home of the Mormons, after being forced out of Jackson county by Protestants, who were wary of their polygamy practices. The town resembles other typical early American farming communities, centered around the newly built Nauvoo temple. The Mormons embody strongly conservative values, such as community coherence and patriarchy, as well as tenets of capitalism, such as frugality, hard work, and enterprise. The movement provides an outlet for those who were increasingly disenfranchised with the religious institutions of their day, but not quite radical enough to partake in fully communist utopias. Because of its origins in upstate New York, a rural environment, the successful and independent yeoman farmers were less opposed to capitalist values than urban industrial workers. This discrepancy points to ideological differences between rural farmers and industrial workers in early America.

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