Antebellum America

Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism did not evolve or operate in a vacuum. It is essential to consider the ways in which members of both groups participated in and changed their culture, and, conversely, to assess how their social context provided both the ideas which they adopted or transformed and those which they actively rejected or resisted.2 As movements that came of age during the first half of the nineteenth century, Transcendentalism and Evangelical Protestantism can be understood most clearly in the political, economic, and religious contexts of post-revolutionary American society. Although each movement would come to effect profound changes in their respective spheres, both were very much of their time in the sense that the culture had grown ripe for their emergence. This tension between the movements' radicalism and centrism suggests that American society was still very much in transition from one epoch to another: the Revolution was not yet complete.

The fifty years following independence witnessed dramatic changes in the character of American society. As is the case with all periods of momentous social change, the early national period generated both optimism and unease. While the Revolution had succeeded in throwing off the British yoke, it by no means resolved the fledgling nation's infrastructural, political and racial problems. Rather, in the sudden absence of imperial control, Americans of all stations were confronted with the task of structuring and preserving a viable society in a time of great uncertainty and flux, when internal political discord, unstable international allegiances and the disorienting surge of capitalist enterprise shook the foundations of tradition and security that they had long relied upon. Particularly distressing was the realization that political union did not necessarily entail cultural harmony, and that conflicts between Americans could become vitriolic and even violent, as exampled by the hysterical party warfare of the 1790s, by such eruptions of economic discontent as Shay's Rebellion, by ethnic- and class-based urban disturbances, and by the seemingly insoluble dispute over slavery.3 In many ways, American society seemed to be growing more rather than less fragmented.

Several interwoven strands of social development contributed to this sense of anxiety. Most noticeably, the demography of the United States was changing rapidly under the pressures of both centripetal and centrifugal forces. In one direction, a burgeoning population, especially along the eastern seaboard, fed the growth of cities with all their attendant signs of disorder and social atomization. In the other direction, the treaty with Britain in 1783 and the Louisiana Purchase of 1804 had provided the United States with access to vast tracts of western land, drawing a steady stream of Americans into remote areas where the central government had trouble exerting authority.4 Either phenomenon in excess -- slovenly urbanization of the British type or a lawless existence on the savage frontier -- would represent the breakdown of social order and individual virtue, two concepts that still retained a central place in American civic discourse (and, as discussed below, acted as motive forces in a widespread religious revitalization in American culture).5

Compounding these unsettling epiphenomena of demographic change, and encompassing similar anxieties, the rise of a competitive capitalist economy posed difficult questions about the nature and direction of American society. The appeal of capitalism, of course, was that it promised, in theory, an egalitarian form of social mobility, in which the individual citizen could achieve his highest potential, acquire property, and exercise virtue in the best republican tradition. Again, however, the problem was one of excess: unrestrained self-interest and self-advancement would run counter to the ideal of social harmony and cooperation. On a practical level, many people began to find that they were not able to achieve stable independence and that the industrialization taking place around them proved as disturbing as it did exhilirating. Alexis de Tocqueville put his finger on a common feeling resulting from the scramble for advancement that social mobility implied:

[The Americans] have swept away the privileges of some of their fellow creatures which stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition; the barrier has changed its shape rather than its position .... This constant strife between the inclination springing from the equality of condition and the means it supplies to satisfy them harasses and wearies the mind.6

And the nation's first major economic crisis, the so-called Panic of 1819, brought home to many Americans the fragile nature of economic success. Andrew Cayton describes the effect of the depression on citizens of Ohio:

The Cincinnati Iron foundry closed its doors in early 1820, leaving more than a hundred men unemployed. Other commercial and industrial operations either closed or sharply reduced their operations. By early, 1820, much of the city's population was out of work. Even artisans and shopkeepers, who were dependent on the demand of other citizens for income, found it difficult to keep their businesses going .... As men scrambled to recoup their fortunes or to feed their families, they gave a good deal of thought to what had happened to them.7

The technological and capitalist revolution was gaining momentum throughout early nineteenth century, but not a few Americans feared that it might leave them behind.

In addition, the capitalist ideology of the North, with its characteristic praise and need of free soil and free labor, served to exacerbate the sectional conflict regarding slavery. A fundamental incompatibility separated the economic systems of North and South, resulting in a tension which westward expansion and the unsettled status of the territories rendered more hostile and ultimately unsustainable. The "slavery question" had long haunted the American imagination; it represented for many "the architectural flaw, the noxious weed in a garden, the hidden disease in an otherwise sound and growing body."8 The fact that neither the Revolution nor the Constitution had resolved the issue, and that economic expansion only made the regional conflict starker, tended to heighten misgivings about the direction of the young nation.

Closely tied to these demographic and economic changes was a growing fear that Americans had become more relaxed in their religious commitments. While concern over "infidelity" and religious declension had a long history in the United States, the evidence seemed particularly compelling in the post-Revolutionary decades. The paucity of churches on the frontier, the influx of Roman Catholics into the cities, and the intellectual influences of the Enlightenment, particularly the rationalism of the Deists with their model of a mechanistic universe, all seemed to betoken a general crisis in American Protestantism. In fact, however, the early nineteenth century would see an unexampled explosion of religiosity across the United States. The stage had been set.

Apprehension regarding the future coexisted with a pride in the accomplishments of the country and a faith in its potential for greatness. The success of the Revolution seemed to confirm that Americans were somehow a chosen people who, under the continued sunshine of divine favor, could achieve whatever they put their minds to. This sense of American exceptionalism derived in large measure from the rhetoric of freedom and equality which had driven the Revolution, and underlay a democratic idealism that Bernard Bailyn has aptly termed the "contagion of liberty." The language that had justified and motivated a separation from England could now inspire a kind of second, domestic revolution that consisted, in its essence, of an exaltation of the "common man" and a leveling of the traditional bastions and symbols of authority. Methodist preacher Lorenzo Dow struck the characteristic chord by invoking the Declaration of Independence:

But if all men are 'BORN EQUAL,' and endowed with unalienable RIGHTS by their CREATOR, in the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- then there can be no just reason, as a cause, why he may or should not think, and judge, and act for himself in matters of religion, opinion, and private judgment.9

This rhetorical elevation of the individual had practical limits, of course, but it did help to create an ethos of personal liberation which validated the private ambition of every citizen.10 In staking their claims to lands on the frontier, setting up new businesses, stepping into the political arena in word and deed, and declaring independence from Calvinist doctrine, Americans put the language of individualism into practice.

Side by side with this new individualism, the public ideology of the young country retained a moral emphasis on communal responsibility which unbridled individualism would tend to corrode. The Revolution, after all, had been fought in the name of "the people," and great effort had been exerted since then to forge a union in the social as well as political sphere.11 The ideals of American exceptionalism, then, combined with anxiety over social fragmentation to open new channels for energies in the culture which had previously lain dormant or found few outlets for expression. In the proliferation of benevolent societies, the temperance and feminist movements, reforms in education, an increasingly vocal abolitionist corps and other civic associations, we see the impulse to create a more ordered and morally upright society. Somewhat paradoxically, many of these social organizations took as their immediate goal the uplifting of individuals. The percolation of sentiments of individual advancement and social responsibility found greatest expression, however, in a religious earthquake that shook the country during the early nineteenth century. The basis of this religious transformation can be found in the longing of many people for an intensity of spiritual experience.

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