in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: March 9, 2022

Podcast #779: The World of the Transcendentalists and the Rise of Modern Individualism

The town of Concord, Massachusetts has been famous twice in history. First as the location of the “shot heard round the world” which kickstarted the American Revolution in the 18th century, and second, as the home of several famous writers and thinkers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, in the 19th.

My guest today, professor of history Robert A. Gross, has written landmark books on both of these periods in Concord’s history. The first, called The Minutemen and Their World, was published in 1976. Now, nearly 50 years later, he’s published a new volume called The Transcendentalists and Their World.

In both books, Bob delves into the details of everyday life in Concord in order to illuminate broader trends and forces in American culture. In the case of his second book, he does so to explore how the communal, hierarchical nature of life in America during the Revolutionary period shifted to a more autonomous and bottom-up ethos during the time of transcendentalism — a movement which prized individuality over conformity and intuition over logic, believed divinity existed in each person and throughout nature, and celebrated the authority of the individual over the authority of institutions.

In today’s episode, Bob and I discuss how changing forces in commerce and religion, as well as a fervent, emerging interest in self-improvement, led to this shift, and how thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau set a new course for what it means to live a life of integrity. We end our conversation with what the world of the transcendentalists has to tell us in our own time period, which, like theirs, is marked by the widespread rejection of top-down gatekeepers.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. The town of Concord, Massachusetts has been famous twice in history. First, as the location of the shot heard around the world which kick-started the American Revolution in the 18th century. And second as the home of several famous writers and thinkers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the 19th. My guest today professor of history, Robert A. Gross, has written landmark books on both these periods in Concord’s history. The first called the “Minutemen and Their World” was published in 1976. Now nearly 50 years later, he’s published a new volume called the “Transcendentalists and Their World.” In both books, Bob delves into the details of everyday life in Concord in order to illuminate broader trends and forces in American culture.

In the case of his second book, he does so to explore how the communal hierarchical nature of life in America during the Revolutionary Period shifted to a more autonomous and bottom-up ethos during the time of Transcendentalism, a movement which prized individuality over conformity and intuition over logic, believed divinity exists in each person and throughout nature, and celebrated the authority of the individual over the authority of institutions. In today’s episode, Bob and I discuss how changing forces in commerce and religion, as well as a fervent emerging interest in self-improvement led to this shift, and how thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau set a new course for what it means to living life of integrity. We end our conversation with what the world of the transcendentalist has to tell us in our own time period, which like theirs is marked by the widespread rejection of top-down gatekeepers. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

Bob Gross, welcome to the show.

Robert A. Gross: Oh, thank you.

Brett McKay: So back in 1976, you wrote a book called the “Minutemen and Their World” which focused on life, the details of life in Concord, Massachusetts as a way to help people understand the forces that created the American Revolution. You spent the next 50 years continuing to research about Concord, and you’ve written another book about Concord. It’s called the “Transcendentalists and Their World” which uses the same town as a way of understanding how American culture shifted from being about duty and interdependence in the 18th century to being more individualistic and self-reliant in the 19th century. And we’re gonna talk about the Transcendentalists today. But I think to understand the Transcendentalists and their world, you need to have a basic understanding of what the Minutemen and their world was like. What was it like before the Transcendentalists were born and came of age? So broadly speaking, what was the cultural ethos of colonial and revolutionary Concord and the rest of New England, too, in the late 18th century?

Robert A. Gross: It’s a way of life that’s centered on families and shaped by communal values. Fathers aspired in the 17th and 18th century to maintain their families on the land and pass on the homestead to their sons, and to place your daughters with husbands who also would be local and would be land owners. There was an idea of the family as a line that should persist over time. Parents named children for themselves. And if a child died, they frequently gave the name to the next one of the same sex to arrive. Now, imagine if your child got to age 5 years old and sadly died, and you had another child of the same sex come along, and you said, “Oh, let’s give the same name to the child.” How do you think that would go over today?

Brett McKay: Yeah, “That’s weird, what are you doing?” Yeah.

Robert A. Gross: Yeah. People would say, “How could you ruin the memory of your unique child by taking their name? Are you trying to replace that child?” Well, in fact, in a sense, they were. The child was not viewed so much as unique. And the really stunning thing is that the older the child was before dying, the more likely they were to replace the name. And now take this, when they worshipped in the meeting house, which was established by law and funded by taxes, they didn’t sit wherever they wanted. People took assigned seats and the seating plan was actually designed by a committee of the town which presented the plan to the entire town meeting which had to vote on it. And the seating was done according to hierarchical rules, by age and then public service and wealth, Men on one side, women on the other. If you were under 30, you had to climb up the stairs to the galleries. If you were Black, you didn’t have an assigned seating or assigned seat, but you were on the margins of the galleries. This is a world that’s both homogeneous in large part, but also hierarchical. People had a place, but they were expecting to know their place.

Brett McKay: There is that hierarchy, but I imagine it gave people a sense of… They knew where they belonged in the world. They weren’t having anxiety about, “What am I supposed to do with my life.” It was just like, “You’re born in this world… ” And you didn’t think about that, you just… That wasn’t even on the table.

Robert A. Gross: Your father’s a farmer, you’re gonna be a farmer.

Brett McKay: Right.

Robert A. Gross: Your father’s a merchant, you’ll be put out to a county house. It was a very small set of institutions that made up the New England way: Town government, which was a combination of the town meeting, and then they elected selectmen and other officers in the town. You’ve got the church, and the idea is one town, one church. You’ve got the militia, where most able-bodied men were expected to train a few times a year. And you’ve got this common… The schools paid for by local taxes, combining the districts that elementary literacy and then the grammar school that trained a select few to go on, a few men to be students at Harvard and enter the ministry. While Boston and other port towns had a variety of voluntary associations, Concord really had very few organizations. In that sense, it was not pluralistic.

Brett McKay: Okay, so the Concord before the Transcendentalists, so in the late 18th century: Very communal, very hierarchal, other people’s business was often your business. What they were doing, you might have a say in that, like, “Well, you can’t do that, ’cause that’s not what we do around here.” But then you start seeing after the revolution, the start of the 19th century, you start to see fissures in this communal ethos manifest themselves in different parts of Concord life. How did that start happening?

Robert A. Gross: ‘Cause the ideals of the 18th century Concord were communal, they were familial, they were inclusive, but they were also increasingly not being achieved.

Brett McKay: Why weren’t they being achieved?

Robert A. Gross: Well, for one thing, Concord founded in 1635 had lots of land to provide for family, but by the 1720s, there were so many sons and daughters and such a fixed amount of land that a good many of Concord’s young were having to go settle elsewhere if they wanted to be farmers. But even the revolution, that was accelerating, and the exodus of the young from the town, put real strains in familial relationships. A father had been accustomed to keep his son on the farm, you know, until mid to late 20s, and you can imagine that there could be real tensions. Here’s a young man, reaches physical maturity, is ready to go out into the world, to marry, and the father says, “Well, I’ll give you land, but I need you here one more season or one more year.” And what you see before the revolution, and then it continued after, is increasing difficulty in passing on this older way of life to the young. Now we jump to the 19th century, and we find that pretty much the expectation of immigration has now built into local life. It’s gonna be the case that at best one son is gonna be able to take over the family farm.

And that son will not only have to take over the family farm, but probably if that son is the eldest, have to post bond to provide for younger brothers and sisters. This is when if the parent is now gone and the will has stated that this is gonna happen. So sons who inherit the farms are often doing so with a burden of debt to take care of their siblings. Or it’s the youngest child who takes over the farm, and is now gonna have to care for the aging parents.

Brett McKay: So it sounds like there’s some generational conflict driven by economics because of how they did things in Concord at the time.

Robert A. Gross: Yeah, there’s a considerable tension now. I mean it’s not as if… Well, in the revolutionary period, the tension was about young people who wanted to reproduce the way of life in which they’ve been raised, and not able to do so in Concord, and so they move away. In the 19th century, it’s increasingly the case that the young people are pressing not to be like their parents, but to do something different.

Brett McKay: So you have Concord, it’s becoming increasingly connected to the wider world, to the rest of the country and the rest of the world. You see an increase in consumerism in Concord; people buying goods just because they want something, not necessarily out of necessity, but because well, they wanna wanna… They want a dress that looks nice, they want a clock that looks nice in their house. How did this increasing consumerism change Concord or at least its communal ethos that it had before the Revolutionary War?

Robert A. Gross: Well, it leads people to deepen their engagement in market transactions ever more than they had done in the colonial period. It’s certainly the case that in the 18th century, people were buying imported goods from England and via England from lots of parts of the world. We wouldn’t have had a controversy over the Tea Act if people hadn’t been importing tea. And they were importing a lot of other fine goods and textiles and the like. The difference is that people were importing fine textiles, and this could be true in the early 19th century, from Europe, for going to visit in the parlor or going to Sunday meeting for worship. Their every day clothes were the mixture of linen and wool, known as linsey-woolsey. So your everyday work clothes you could make on the farm, your fancy clothes you would buy at the store. But once the Industrial Revolution and textiles got going, and once Concord had its own mills, and then you had a Waltham and the Lowell mills, it made ever less sense to make even your work clothes at home.

But if you’re not gonna be making your work clothes at home, then your daughters and your wives and widows are not gonna be spending so much of their time by spinning wheels and looms, coming up with clothing. What’s gonna fill their time? And how are you gonna pay for the goods? So you’re a farmer, you’re gonna deepen your involvement in the marketplace in order to pay for your imported goods. But in addition, as part of the involvement in the market, we need to emphasize that commercial incentives were coming, particularly in the form of merchants and banks, to induce people to engage ever more deeply in market production. A new set of merchants running what were called Cheap Stores, what were maybe the Dollars Stores of the early 19th century, were opening up in the countryside selling goods at a discount for cash. Typically, stores in the 18th and early 19th century had operated on a credit basis, in which you went in and you bought imported goods, and you paid your bills by bringing in commodities that you raised on your farm.

And you didn’t have to settle your accounts often for long periods of time. Only if you did a formal acknowledgement in a note would you have to pay interest if you didn’t pay your bills on time. Once you move to a cash basis in sales, you can eliminate the need for credit and for possibilities of paying interest. So you got a discount, you’re paying cash. And here’s the key thing. Buying and selling at the country store in the 18th and early 19th century could be as much a social occasion as an economic one. There were not necessarily fixed prices, and people would haggle over what they would get in payment for the butter they brought into the store or other goods. When they finally got done with all the haggling, the merchant would typically provide a free glass of toddy or another rum drink. So, sociability and sales were linked together, but once you move to a cash basis, you don’t need that. A lot less haggling, but a lot less social connection.

Brett McKay: And that carried over to just the ethos. People became more individualistic. They weren’t… Yeah, like you were saying, before the Revolutionary War and the shortly after, the way you traded, it was very communal-based. Your reputation was on the line ’cause you bought on credit, and so you had to know everyone in the town, whether they were creditworthy or not. And as you said, there’s that haggling, there’s that social aspect, but as soon as you bring in cash, that stuff stopped mattering. Like you didn’t really… “Well, if you’ve got cash, I’ll take it. That’s all we need. I don’t really care about your reputation as a man.” Another area you explore is the world of religion. What was going on in the world of religion in Concord at the start of the 19th century that you saw more of these fissures in the communal ethos that they once had?

Robert A. Gross: Yeah, so in the 17th century, you will recall, Massachusetts, they expected there to be an established religion, and that was not unusual in most of the colonies. In every town, locals would get together and choose their Protestant faith. It was invariably Congregationalist. By the early 19th century, Massachusetts continued to have a religious establishment that most of the other states of the New Republic had abandoned. Massachusetts’ constitution of 1780 provides that every town should support a public Protestant teacher of piety, religion and morality. The minister is being supported here, not so much ’cause he has a sacred role, but he has a kind of… He is a higher school master, who’s teaching the rules of piety and morality.

So Ezra Ripley, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s step-grandfather, comes to Concord in 1778, succeeding William Emerson, the actual blood grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a patriot preacher in the Revolution and died in 1776 as chaplain on an expedition to Ticonderoga. Ripley comes in, becomes minister of the town, and he not only succeeds Emerson in the pulpit, he also succeeds him as the new husband of Emerson’s widow, who’s 10 years older than he. And he comes to occupy and then to own the old manse that was built by Reverend William Emerson. And from Ripley’s point in view, he stands for continuity, ’cause through Emerson, he is linked all the way back to the founding ministers of Concord, founding minister, Peter Buckley.

His greatest desire, Ezra Ripley, was to view the entire community as his parish. He always referred to them as “my people.” Ripley’s sermons and his practices of church government really emphasized people’s behavior socially and ethnically towards one another. He preached what I call in the book an ethic of interdependence. They were all really bound to one another. “Who could live alone and independent?” he once asked. “Who but some bitter hermit or some half-crazed enthusiast would say to society, ‘I have no need of thee’?” In his view, religion was about community, and I think his idea was really… It would be something like an English country vicar, where when people came to the Sunday meeting, they embodied community, but it came at a great cost. And the cost was many people that there was little in the way of spiritual intensity in his faith, and people who grew up in the Calvinist, in New England Congregationalist tradition, also inherited desire for an intense relation to divinity, and some of them were not happy with Ripley’s endless preaching of morality and the rational way to be in the world.

Brett McKay: Ripley’s own step-daughter, Mary Moody Emerson, the aunt of Ralph Waldo Emerson and muse of Transcendentalism, she used to parody Ripley as “Dr. Reason.” He had no sense of the divine and the intensity in his faith. He also used the church to uphold not just interdependency, but hierarchy. And there are two key things to mention here: One is that in the church membership, men were infrequently seen. 70% to 75% of church members in Concord in the 18th and first part of the 19th century were women. Men didn’t join typically ’til their mid-40s or even later. By the early… Period before 1820, they were not joined ’til about age 50. And Ripley was having a hard time drawing young people into his congregation. One reason, and we learned this from young people who left, is that he seemed to convey the impression that, “You’re too young to have any independent thoughts of your own about religion. Nobody really cares what you think. Follow your elders.” And by the mid-1820s young people, especially young people who’d come to Concord as newcomers and who weren’t going to be in Concord for all that long, they could see no reason why to join a congregation dominated by old folks, maybe “old fogies” would have been their term, that had little to offer them other than moral lessons in behaving ethically and deferring to your elders.

Also, you made the point that another reason that young people were leaving the Ripley’s church was that, again, is that, his lack of religious fervor or sentiment. There wasn’t that intensity. What was going on? Why were the young people attracted to that in a church?

Robert A. Gross: Well, in 1825-26, there’s a break away, from Ezra Ripley’s Parish and people interested in a much more intense, but also more Calvinistic, form of congregational space, start a congregation of their own. They’re led by Henry David Thoreau’s aunts, who are in the forefront of demanding a new way of worshipping. They view themselves as a little band of poor, but faithful Christians, who start out on their own. And it may be that they wanted both greater Calvinist orthodoxy as well as greater spiritual intensity. Henry David Thoreau’s step-grandmother had actually, in 1810, helped to play a role in creating a mini-revival in Concord. And in her home, Rebecca Thoreau hosted her neighbors who engaged in their own prayer services.

Ezra Ripley was quite alarmed by this. He worried that it would be a repeat of the great awakening of the mid-18th century when people were rejecting established ministers and claiming that you could be born again in a minute, when they were having profoundly emotional experiences of conversion. And to those who look on that great awakening with distrust, they were aghast at the sense that the social order was collapsing when learned authorities were being set aside for someone who came off the farm, was a sinner one day and the next day he said, “Oh, I’m born again. I can now judge you.” So you have a combination of people wanting to break away from learned authority, from the rule by the elders, and a desire for a more intense spiritual experience. I don’t think it was the case that the majority of young people went to the evangelical church, but more went to the evangelical church than ever chose voluntarily to worship with Ezra Ripley.

Brett McKay: So we’ve got… We’re talking about there’s changes going on in religious life, that’s in flux, there’s changes going on in trade and farming and economic life, everything is kind of… We’re seeing a transition from the old way to something else. We’re kind of in a liminal period right now. The other thing you start seeing around the same time, the beginning of the 19th century, is this really fervent interest in self-improvement or cultural improvement in Concord. So you’re seeing these voluntary associations forming, like lyceums, libraries, debating clubs. What was going on, why were young people in particular interested in self-improvement at the time?

Robert A. Gross: Not just young people, but their elders were eager to see the progress of commerce, of manufacturing, and the expansion of minds and spirits throughout the New Republic. You had the start of agricultural societies in the 1820s. Concord was the host for the Society of Middlesex Husbandmen and Manufacturing, and their aim was to promote improved farming through scientific methods by tending to the best practices of the day. And their endless message to farmers was, “Don’t do what your fathers did, just out of unthinking inheritance. Don’t follow superstitions, like timing your farming operations by the phases of the moon. Pay attention to science, be empirical. Reject the past when it’s not useful. And do so in order to make more money off your farm and be able to stay on the homestead that you might otherwise have to give up.” That message, “Pay attention to the best practices of the day. Keep up with current knowledge,” is also being promoted for the schools of Concord. Don’t just use the school books nor Webster’s speller and Jedediah Morse geography that your parents used in 1790, use the new textbooks of the day that are incorporating the latest knowledge.

So when you have the promotion of this break with the past, you then have the central question: So what are the young people to learn and to do? And what are they gonna do if you ask them to find their own way in the world and not just inherit the farm or be in an apprenticeship and do what your father did as a master mechanic and you’ll do the same? Everything is changing. And you have a couple of movements for social and cultural improvement, some of which originate in England. Like the Lyceum Movement, which grows out of efforts by reform-minded manufacturers in Britain to reach their workers. Some in Britain, the deeply conservative, thought the working class never needed an education. If you educate the working class, all you do is make them unhappy. They won’t get any richer, they’ll just know that they could have lived better but don’t. And that would be politically dangerous and invite radicalism and revolution. The reformers in Britain and then their counterpart in America said, “No, let’s educate the working man, so that the working men can learn about science and technology and come to be a participant with his boss in the Industrial Revolution.”

That idea makes its way over to the United States. A man named Josiah Holbrook in Derby, Connecticut outside New Haven, a graduate of Yale, who is trying to run an agricultural school on his family’s farm for young men, when he learns about the British movement and he gets really excited. And he thinks, “I’ll start the American Lyceum where young people can learn and educate one another by getting scientific apparatus to participate, to do experiments, and learn new science by hearing lectures, by studying up themselves, and giving lectures to their neighbors, and by buying a certain number of books to take themselves as reference work.” Why would young men wanna do this? Well, he thinks he can appeal to young men in their 20s to join the Lyceum and improve their lives. He also recommends the sponsorship at Lyceum by their bosses by arguing that young people left on their own in cities are gonna be prone to doing a lot of drinking, and hanging out, and going to places of amusement, then who knows what trouble they’ll get into.

Lyceums could serve as an instrument of temperance and abstinence. Get the young people to improve their minds, not release and relax their spirits. Go to lectures and the likes, go to debating clubs, then do this under the sponsorship of their elders, the merchants and manufacturers who employ them. Concord starts the Lyceum in 1829, and very quickly the Lyceum becomes less of a place to offer improvement, and if you will, moral discipline for young men, but rather a community institution where young women, as well as their mothers and wives of merchants and manufacturers, all come together for shared education. A lot of lectures are given by locals in Concord. I should add that a lot of young people go to Lyceum less for the so called learning lectures, but more for young men, some of whom I quote in the book, who wanna, “I’ll go and meet young women at the lectures.” It’ll look as if they wanna improve themselves and maybe they’ll be good prospects.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from my sponsors. And now back to the show. So this is in the 1820s. Did any of the Transcendentalists go? Like, did Emerson go to Lyceum or debate clubs or things like that?

Robert A. Gross: When I’m describing the lyceum, it’s from 1820 through the 1840s, and Emerson starting in the early 1830s, he witnesses the movement and says, “Hey, I’d like to make my career as a lecturer.” This is as he’s feeling ever more discontent with his position as the Minister of Boston Second Church, a really prestigious pulpit to occupy. And here he is, his father, the Reverend William Emerson, who died when he was a boy, had been the Minister of Boston’s first congregational church, the most prestigious in town. His grandfather, Reverend William Emerson the senior, had been the Minister of Concord, and there’s Waldo. Everybody in his family had been proud and counting on him to carry on the clerical lineage of the family. He doesn’t wanna do that, and he’s feeling increasingly unhappy with his role as the Minister representing the entire community and presiding over rituals that are essential to congregationalist worship, in particular the communal service.

And he feels like it’s a ritual that has become empty for him. And if he can’t perform it, the communion service for the members, he can’t with any integrity remain the Minister of the town. So he resigns, goes to Europe, and then comes back to the United States with the view to being a freelance preacher, someone who won’t have to represent any community, but can give sermons, and become a lecturer. And he can lecture at lyceums, and that’s what he sets out to do. He used the lyceum as his secular pulpit, and he vows that he will not say anything to an audience at a lyceum that he hasn’t thought about, and felt deeply about, and considered not just to please an audience, but to express the truths as he knows them most deeply. And in particular, those truths will be the truths of what comes to be known as Transcendentalism.

Brett McKay: Yeah, this feels like this is one of those shifts in an individual’s life that points to a larger cultural trend because previously, if you wanted to talk about self-improvement, you had to do it over the pulpit at church through the lens of faith, but now you have this emerging possibility of lecturing about self-improvement outside of church. So there’s an emerging culture, and message of self-improvement that’s not attached to religion, and Emerson saw that and he started taking that on. But do we know why Emerson felt he had to resign from being a pastor? What was it? Why didn’t he feel committed to congregationalism. And was there anything going on in his personal life or maybe the wider world that was influencing his ideas of what it meant to have a religious life?

Robert A. Gross: Well, one thing, he’s married, and his wife dies in 1832. And then here he is a widower after having a relatively short marriage of a year and a half. And as now a widower in the pulpit, he’s feeling increasingly rested. He’s been reading thanks to the tutelage of his aunt Mary Moody Emerson. He’s been reading Coleridge, and he’s read Wordsworth, and he’s aware of new views of religion that are coming from German thinkers. And those views of religion cast considerable doubt on the inherited faith, whether it’s Orthodox, Calvinism, or the liberal form of Protestantism that comes to be known as Unitarianism. The higher criticism of the Bible in Germany suggests that neither the Old nor the New Testament are the revealed Word of God, but text written by human beings maybe through some kind of revelation to prophets, but they’re texts that should be studied like any other text.

In addition, as Emerson comes to understand the currency of Romanticism from Germany, he comes to realize that religion is not a creed, it’s not a form of church discipline, it’s not a subjection to community, it’s something else. And he comes to believe, as do other Unitarian ministers in the Boston area in the early to mid 1830s, religion is really a spirit that runs through all things and especially through nature, and that human beings are part and parcel of that. We all have within us, we all incarnate some part of divinity. We might say today that we all share a common human nature. We would say back with… If we were going along with Emerson, that we all share a common divine nature. Common humanity becomes a common divinity.

And that spirit of divinity runs through all things, and it means that you can worship God on a hilltop as well as in a cathedral. It doesn’t really matter whether you believe in total immersion as baptism or a sprinkling of a little bit of water on an infant. It doesn’t matter whether you subject yourself to church discipline and scrutiny or whether you just in private say, “I have faith in God.” All of Emerson’s faith in this new version, now what we call Transcendentalism, means essentially that religion is an individual experience and a profession. And religion then will shift from the communal dimensions and framework that I’ve described to a far more individualistic one. In this sense, Emerson and other Transcendentalists are challenging the authority and the institutions of the New England way. The church, Emerson says, is not gonna reach anyone unless it really conveys an intense spiritual experience from the pulpit by the Minister in sermons to the members of the congregation. And the institutions of authority don’t matter so much as the authority or the individual experiencing faith through experiences in nature.

Brett McKay: So again, you’re seeing this theme of a transition from communal way of life to a more independent individualistic way of life?

Robert A. Gross: Right. And Emerson comes to see that when you take this vision of religion and you merge it with the currents that are going on in politics and in society, you can come up with a faith that is egalitarian, as well as freeing individuals and democratic. There are a couple of things to say first: This vision of religion that I’ve described provides a strategy that Unitarian reformers have in mind for what to do in a world when there’s no longer a religious establishment. 1825 in Concord, the Trinitarians set off in ’26, form their own congregation and worship on their own, build their own meeting house, and you have a collapse of the idea of one town, one church. In 1834, Massachusetts gets rid of the establishment altogether, and it’s the last State in the union to do so. And now all these different religious sects, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Universalists, Baptists, Methodists and still others, are gonna have to compete with one another for members.

Emerson, I think, and the other early Transcendentalists have a mind that this new view of faith, that it’s a spirit that runs through everything, it’s the strategy by which you can compete for souls and members. But in addition, this will broaden into a way of viewing life in America and judging its practices and its institutions. In Emerson’s mind, the highest form of nature is not the discovery of the laws of nature to come up with technological improvements that will advance trade and commerce and promote materialism and consumerism. The highest uses of nature are through… As a conduit to the spirit that runs through all things. And two, the experience of divinity, and the experience, the aesthetic beauty of nature. So that for Emerson this vision of the world anew, through the spirit running through everything, becomes the basis for a critique of the institutions and way of life in New England and Concord as a whole. And from this perspective, Emerson comes to see himself as a spokesman for all the young people, and particularly young men, who can feel within themselves a universal soul, a connection to something higher, to a larger purpose. And yet when they look out in the world that they’re about to enter, what do they find? They find demands to a conformity, demands to harness yourself to the demands of the marketplace, to the counting house, to your boss as the manufacturer.

And from Emerson’s point of view, he looks out and he finds young college graduates, like Henry David Thoreau, who say, “Am I really gonna give up my divine spirit, my potential for perfectibility, just to make a living?” “I can’t do that,” said as Emerson views young man at the time saying, “I have to do something higher or I will wait to join the society as a whole.” That becomes the radicalism of Transcendentalism, to provide a space for young men and young women to say, “I’m not gonna conform, I’m gonna discover myself. I will serve society, but not through the answering to Ezra Ripley, but by answering to my inner potential, cultivating that. And when I do that, then I will serve the community.”

Brett McKay: So what you’re seeing, it’s almost anti-institutional. So you see them rejecting church, not joining churches, ’cause they feel like you don’t need a church, you can just go and be a part of nature and you experience God that way individually. But then also another institution you saw a lot of young men reject, that their fathers and grandfathers were a part of, was Freemasonry. During this time in the 1820s Freemasons are having a hard time getting young men to join. Was it for that same reason, they just didn’t wanna conform to another institution?

Robert A. Gross: Well, I think it’s a little more complicated. So, remember, I first described colonial Concord as not having much in the way of voluntary association. Well, Concord does start to get voluntary associations in the 1790s, but they were a particular sort, like the masonic lodges. They’re top-down institution, in which if you’re gonna start a lodge, you have to get permission from a higher lodge. The masons were offering feisty young men in the mid to late 20s, who would go for… In an increasingly fluid world needed to build attachments as they moved from one place to another. And so to join a masonic lodge, if you were an inspiring young merchant or a mechanic, or a lawyer, or a doctor, and you knew that you might grow up in one place, get trained in another, and try to make a living in another place. If you were a mason, you could, in a sense, carry a letter of recommendation from one town to another, show it to the new lodge and people would welcome you.

What does the masons have to offer? Well, the Freemasons, as they took shape in the mid-18th century and after, claimed to be in possession of the secrets of nature, which could be rationally understood as they’d been passed on from architects of King Solomon’s temple all the way down to the present. In fact, it was a group organized in the late 17th century, whose knowledge didn’t descend from time immemorial, but was relatively recent. But that knowledge would be passed on to the members through secret ceremonies of initiation. The masons actually professed to embody reason and science, but their reason and science wasn’t simply transparent to all readers. It had been passed on as a secret knowledge within rituals that nobody else could know, and once you were initiated into Freemasonry, you were duty-bound, sworn to never, ever reveal those secrets to anyone else. And there were various levels of Masonry that you could take. You can become a master Mason and then pursue your knowledge to ever higher levels, so there’s a kind of curious contradiction in Freemasonry. It’s an inner circle that you’re admitted to, and I should add, one black ball could kill your application for membership.

And so, you could apply, if you were accepted, you could have access to this, a recondite knowledge that nobody else had. And yet, as a Mason you would frequently participate in public ceremony; the Masons had rituals to dedicate and consecrate cornerstones and buildings and monuments when they were laid in the early American republic. So they’re conducting public ceremonies and they’re suggesting that their knowledge will foster virtue in the public good in the new American republic. But they’ll do so through private meetings and initiations that nobody has access. By the mid-1820s, what you have is an institution that’s growing in influence and power in the New Republic, but in fact, invisible and un-transparent to people who aren’t members. When in the 1826 a man named William Morgan in Western New York reveals the secrets of masonry, he’s a disgruntled mason who wants to get even with his former fraternity brothers. When he reveals the secret of masonry with a friendly printer, he’s whisked away by hostile members of the masonic fraternity and never seen again ’til his body washes up in Western New York. That sets off what’s called the anti-masonic crusade.

That doesn’t come to Concord until 1833 and I won’t go into the reasons why the delayed response, but, what you now have is an attack on an institution that claims to be operating in the name of virtue, that’s top down and undemocratic and utterly un-transparent. And yet, exercising exceedingly extraordinary influence over the course of town and county and state and nation. It’s not that it promotes the rebellion, but just something else… Masonry reclaims to offer knowledge of science and nature. Well, you don’t have to join the Masons to get that. The Lyceum Movement will now make that available either for free or for maybe a quarter to go to a lecture. Whereas it can cost you some $20 to join the Masons. So you don’t need to get knowledge from the Masons. If you’re worried about your virtue and you need to be careful and not drink too much, well, join a temperance society. So you don’t have to be a Mason for that. And what if, it turns out, you want to make your way as a future husband and father? Well, Masons come under a large suspicion for their all-male ceremonies, where it’s rumored there is rivalry and obscenity and too much drinking. Instead, stay at home with your wife and your children. There’s a new ideal of domesticity now that is at odds with your earlier practices of heavy drinking, not just in the Masons but in the town, and practices of all male groups, where a new ideal of domesticity is taking shape, Freemasonry goes into abeyance.

Brett McKay: Okay, so you’re seeing here again, you’re… This not, I’m gonna say a rebellion, it’s kind of a rebellion, against older institutions, these older institutions, whether it’s church, Freemasonry, they have competition now in the form of lyceums, debate clubs, libraries. Family life is becoming a source of competition for attention. And then you also have Transcendentalism saying, “Yeah, you could just do this stuff on your own because you are connected to nature and you’re connected to the divine on your own, you don’t need to belong to another institution to do this stuff.”

Robert A. Gross: Exactly, so that Transcendentalism becomes the most radical of the rejections of the older institutional world. Remember Emerson is famous for once saying, “An institution is just the lengthened shadow of the man.” Institutions in effect are transient and insubstantial. The only thing that’s enduring and substantial is spirit and soul of the individual.

Brett McKay: We also, at this time, Emerson is… He’s doing the lyceum circuit, he’s becoming influential outside of Concord. Transcendentalism is spreading. Emerson takes on a student, we call him, he’s a friend, Henry David Thoreau. They have an interesting relationship because on the one hand, Emerson saw a lot of potential in Thoreau and admired him, but there’s also a tension between the two because they both embrace Transcendentalism, but it was different. How would you describe the difference between Thoreau’s approach Transcendentalism from Emerson’s?

Robert A. Gross: Emerson is the theorist and philosopher. Thoreau is a guy who insists on how do you put it in practice. So Thoreau and Emerson don’t meet until the fall of 1837, when Thoreau, having graduated from Harvard at the end of August, takes over as the master of the village grammar school in the center of town, the very school that he had attended for a time before going to the private academy in Concord. Emerson has now been living in Concord, married and starting to have children in 1835, so he’s new to the town. The two of them meet. Emerson has been aware of Thoreau as a really talented young man. They meet and they become fast friends. And Emerson begins to refer in his journal and letters to his Scottish friend, Thomas Carlyle, refers to Thoreau as “My Henry Thoreau.” So Thoreau is the protege of Emerson, and Emerson is just thrilled at the way in which he says “My ideas are given expression by Thoreau in incredibly sharp and clever ways.” And Thoreau has, in 1836, read Emerson’s little book, Nature, and being quite taken with Waldo’s ideas.

They’re evermore closely connected to each other in the next few years. Thoreau will come to live in Emerson’s house, be a babysitter for the kids, be a handyman who helps around the house. He’s incredibly adept at all kinds of physical tasks from farming to fixing things in the house. Tasks at which Emerson’s pretty incompetent. So Thoreau is close to Emerson, so much so that when some of Thoreau’s classmates from Harvard come out to visit Concord they see him and Emerson together and one says, “If I close my eyes I could not tell which one was speaking.” Who was Emerson and who was Thoreau. That Thoreau had taken to imitating Emerson so closely, not just in the tone of voice, but the way he spoke, in the measured-ness of his speech. And so much so that James Russell Lowell parodied Thoreau as basically stealing his apples from Emerson’s orchard. No one wants to be lambasted and satirized as imitator, but think about what it’s like, when what you’re implicating is the philosophy of authentic individuality, and the person who is coming to be identified with that philosophy is Ralph Waldo Emerson.

You’re depending on Emerson, who’s hiring you, he’s giving you literary opportunities, he’s giving you access to his friends in his library, and you are seen by people as less the genius in your own right than the knock-off, the imitative knock-off of Ralph Waldo Emerson. And you’re trying to build your own career, you decide you’re gonna make letters your profession, literature your way of earning a living. How do you do that when every time you’re introduced, you’re introduced on terms that are already set by Emerson. That’s gonna be the case when Emerson finds Thoreau an opportunity to live near Manhattan and be a tutor for Emerson’s nephews on Staten Island where Emerson’s brother, William, is a lawyer. And it’ll be the case even when you live at Walden ’cause you’re squatting rent free on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. So Thoreau is having to feel acutely the tension between his own authentic individual genius and the dependence upon someone who essentially needs to wish away that dependence as Emerson, by saying, “Everyone has to be an individual, even though I’m encouraging you to be an individual dependent on me.”

Brett McKay: And as you said, Emerson was… He’s the more theoretical guy, he was the guy out there describing the big idea of Transcendentalism. And Thoreau decided, “You know what, I’m actually gonna do this.” And the way he did it, his famous experiment at Walden where he built this little house. And you make the point that a lot of people make fun of Thoreau’s Walden experiment because like, well, you know, he was still by his family, he’d go visit his family. But you point out the fact, the reason why it was so weird for Thoreau to do that was that no one lived by themselves in Concord, except for maybe a few widows who were doing really poorly economically. Everyone else lived with somebody, and that’s what made Thoreau’s experiment of building the house just so he can live in it, such a radical expression of Transcendentalism.

Robert A. Gross: Yeah, when I taught my courses that dealt with Concord in the first part of the 19th century, I would always come into class and say, “You know we talk about this period from 1800 to 1850 as a period where so many Americans are going west, going to the so-called Frontier and carving out farmsteads for themselves.” And I always ask the question, “So how unusual was it to say, ‘man lives alone in woods.’ That must have been a common phenomenon.” But not in Eastern long settled New England. Maybe it was true on the frontier of the west, but in Concord in 1837, no more than a dozen people lived alone. And as you said, they were almost all widows and one or two solitary men. In 1850, there were only about three or four people who lived alone, nobody lived alone. And I quoted a passage from Ezra Ripley, that grew out of his ethic of inter-dependence, “We need society, we need one another to get by.”

But Thoreau is doing something different, Thoreau’s experiment at Walden is an attempt to provide an answer to the question of how you can get a living in this society and cultivate and express your higher self in the very process. Let’s analogize to the present: An awful lot of people hold jobs Monday through Friday in which they don’t like what they’re doing, but can’t wait ’til the weekend or vacations, when they take them, to really express themselves. Thoreau means to challenge that dichotomy, to say you ought to be able to express your higher self through the very way you get a living. So Thoreau wants to live a life of integrity, even as he’s working. And the experiment at Walden is an attempt to show that you can live with integrity, realize your higher self in the very course of making a living.

His emphasis is always practical. It’s whatever you believe, how do you put it into practice and make it authentic? That’s why the apocryphal story is, that when Thoreau went to jail for a night to protest the Mexican War, Emerson supposedly came, looked through the jail door and say, “Henry, what are you doing inside?” And supposedly Thoreau says, “Waldo, why are you outside?” That is probably apocryphal, but it brings out the fundamental difference that Thoreau is always about how do we lead a life of integrity in a society that opposes us at every turn.

Brett McKay: So as I was reading your book, I couldn’t help but to make connections between the world of the Transcendentalist and our own day. So the way… The world that you’ve described here in our conversation and in the book is a world in flux for the Transcendentalists. You have people rejecting institutions, leaving churches, organizations that were once a staple of life are no longer… They no longer have sway. And I think you can see that today. I mean, your churches, like mainline Protestantism is on the decline, but you’re seeing the rise of different evangelical non-denominational churches. You’re seeing old organizations that had a prominent part in American life wither away and not have that influence. I’m curious, do you think there are any lessons we can take from the Transcendentalists in navigating our own time of flux and transition?

Robert A. Gross: Well, I think one will be to acknowledge our condition. I mean the decline of the mainline Protestant churches, as well as a falling attendance in Catholic Churches, points to this distrust of inherited institution. Whether people are on the right politically or on the left, look at how much Americans have been rejecting the gatekeepers of all the authorities of the past, the institutions that once had so much influence in guiding our lives. But think also of Thoreau’s fundamental question: How do we lead a life of integrity in a world where the economic choices seem to militate against it? Thoreau talked about the curse of trade. Lots and lots of young people today are talking about the curse of conformity and trade and the way in which technology dominates their lives.

We need two things at once: We need to get renewal from the Transcendentalists, the faith in individual possibility. And we need to also renew from Ezra Ripley, the faith that we’re all bound together in this work as fellow human beings and fellow Americans. That it seems to me fundamental challenges that in the world of the 18th and early 19th century, interdependence went along with hierarchy and homogeneity. We’ve gotta find a way toward interdependence that goes with democracy, pluralism and equality.

Brett McKay: Well Bob, is there some place people can go to learn more about the book and your work?

Robert A. Gross: Well, they can find The Transcendentalists and Their World for sale at bookshop org I think it is, at the Thoreau Society’s online bookstore, and obviously, at all the major bookstores that distribute through the internet.

Brett McKay: Well, Bob Gross, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Robert A. Gross: Well, thank you so much, it’s really been fun to answer your great questions.

Brett McKay: My guest there is Bob Gross, he’s the author of the book “The Transcendentalists and Their World.” It’s available on and book stores everywhere, make sure to check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

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