Front Page Titles (by Subject) Transcendatalists vs. Slavery - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3
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Transcendatalists vs. Slavery - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Transcendatalists vs. Slavery
“The Agitator and the Intellectuals: William Lloyd Garrison and the New England Transcendentalists.” Mid-America 62(October 1980):173–185.
When William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) arrived in Boston in June 1830, the Transcendentalist movement was developing out of the discussions, writings, and lectures of Emerson, Thoreau, and their associates in nearby Concord. Side by side, Transcendentalism and Garrisonian abolitionism grew in the rocky soil of New England. Despite significant differences, the two groups eventually recognized their mutual philosophical groundings and worked together toward common goals. The authors examine Garrison's relationship with the Transcendentalist literary leaders of his day, and trace the gradual evolution of their common ties.
Transcendentalists generally accepted the existence of an a priori knowledge that transcended the senses. They also agreed on the beneficence of God and the goodness of man. At the core of the movement were the ideals of self-sufficiency, independence, and individualism. Moral laws, they believed, were permanent immutable laws of the universe which each individual could grasp by heeding his conscience. They opposed slavery as a violation of this higher law, since man was meant to be free. No man-made law or constitution, as they saw it, could make such an institution right.
A common belief that slavery violated a higher spiritual law provided a natural link between Garrison and the Transcen-dentalists. In the early years, however, their relationship was ambivalent and, at times, rocky.
From 1830 until the outbreak of the Civil War, the Transcendentalists' position on slavery changed significantly. When they first became aware of Garrison, they still hoped that slaveholders' own conscience would reveal the evil of slavery to them. Their belief in the goodmess of man gave them grounds to hope for a moral revolution in the South. However, as the power of slavery grew, they came to appreciate Garrison's position, developing a deep respect for his role in the movement to free the slaves.
One of the first Transcendentalists to express conditional support for Garrison was the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), whose moral and religious philosophy formed a basis for Transcendentalist thought. Although both men agreed that slavery was evil, Garrison and Channing differed when it came to assessing blame for it and determining a method for its eradication. A mild gentleman who believed in the moral excellence of the human soul, the Rev. Channing could not, at first, condone Garrison's violent rhetoric.
In his 1835 pamphlet, Slavery, Channing condemned the practice of slavery but, at the same time, warned that the North should not interfere with Southern institutions. He called for an immediate halt to agitation, which, he said, damaged the cause of the slave. In The Liberator of February 27, 1836, Garrison roundly condemned the Channing pamphlet, calling it “contradictory and unsound.”
Despite their early differences, Channing and Garrison grew to respect each other. Public events, such as the murder of Elijah Lovejoy, the Creole affair, and agitation for the annexation of Texas, brought the minister nearer the abolitionist position. In the pamphlet, Duty of the Free State, Channing called for a strong anti-slavery commitment from Northern states. In a sequel to that tract, he contended that the North should withdraw from the Union rather than allow Texas to come in as a slave state. This radical proposal foreshadowed the disunionist movement which flourished among abolitionists in the 1840s.
As the Civil War approached, Transcen-dentalists would become far more radical. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), for example, would strongly defend Garrison's burning of the U.S. constitution. Eventually, some Transcendentalists, such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, went so far as to advocate violence as a means to end slavery. In this, they moved beyond Garrison, who consistently opposed bloodshed.
Garrison cannot be credited with turning the Transcendentalists into abolitionists, since the very essence of their philosophy was antithetical to slavery. However, until Garrison brought slavery to national attention, the philosophers operated largely in the abstract. In Garrison, they came to see a man actually living out the principles they advocated. In the end, the agitator helped bring the intellectuals into public affairs. The philosophical mind would ultimately join the practical movement.