Until very recently the American tendency has been to regard government as a necessary evil, to be kept as near a minimal level as possible. An influential section of the people has always disliked official interference. Extensive programs of social legislation have been fiercely resented. The motives of political leaders have been distrusted, even when they were honestly working for the public welfare. The best men, it is often said, simply will not go into politics. But perhaps the welfare state is now with us to stay and a good citizen can no longer afford to neglect his political duties. The issue raised by the readings chosen for this volume is whether a man eager to improve the quality of American life can work most effectually through political channels or by some other means. The problem is a perennial one, which vexed men in the age of Pericles as well as in the days of Andrew Jackson.
About 1836 and for a few years thereafter a group of young New England intellectuals fell into a way of meeting together in Concord, Massachusetts, to discuss new developments in philosophy, theology, and literature. They were greatly stimulated by the exciting ideas originated by German thinkers and circulated among English-speaking readers in the writings of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Carlyle.
Generally the group met in the study of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a former Unitarian minister who had left his pulpit in order that he might be free to think and write his own unfettered thoughts. It included other youthful and earnest clergymen such as Theodore Parker of West Roxbury, George Ripley of Boston, and F. H. Hedge of Bangor, but among the members were also numbered the progressive schoolteacher and philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott, the poets W. E. Channing and Jones Very, and a recent graduate of Harvard named Henry Thoreau. Thoughtful women were represented by Mrs. Ripley, Elizabeth Peabody, and Margaret Fuller. The novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, the journalist Orestes W. Brownson, and several now forgotten figures sometimes attended the highly informal meetings.
The neighbors in fun christened the gathering the Transcendental Club, borrowing what may have seemed an uncouth term from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The name, however, stuck, and has since become an accepted label for the New England idealists of this period.
The transcendentalists were deeply concerned about the quality of life in America. A great tide of material prosperity, checked only temporarily by the crises of 1837 and 1839 and the ensuing depression, had overtaken the country. Everything was expanding by leaps and bounds. Virgin territories were being opened to settlement from Illinois to Oregon. Turnpikes, canals, steamboats . . .