19th Century American Studies:
Transcendentalism & Major Figures in the Movement


  • To introduce students to the philosophy of Transcendentalism
  • To identify key figures in the Movement and learn their contributions
  • To understand the context of 19th Century social, political, and moral issues that faced Americans in the early 1800’s, leading to a new world view
  • To research aspects of the new ideas influencing American institutions in the 19th Century and how those institutions changed because of the writers, philosophers, and reformers who were architects of that change
  • To give speeches and entertain formal debate
  • To make creative connections with Transcendental ideas as they relate to current events in society, politics, and morality.


A.  Overview and Background for a Study of Transcendental Thought

In the opening lesson of the unit on Transcendentalism, introduce the Hedge’s Club of Transcendental Thought, a group of academic and religious leaders who discussed and debated the new ideas brought forward in the early 19th Century. Read the overview found in this study guide about that “think tank” of progressive personalities. Formulate a list of categories that apply to their individual interests and expertise of knowledge. Those overriding categories should include: society, politics, morality. Sub-categories should include, but are not limited to: temperance, women’s suffrage, educational reform, prison reform, anti-war sentiment, unions, slavery. Finally, note the list of “key players” in the movement at the end of the overview. The names starred are suggestions for in-depth investigation and include: religious leaders, writers, philosophers, educators, poets and naturalists, and designers of new societies.

Introduce the students to the eventual outcome of this unit of study, which will be to debate the ideas of transcendentalism through the voices of its major personalities. Arguments supporting the philosophy of these individuals will be formed, speeches given, and finally, formal debate about the issues will take place.

In addition to this historical “enactment” of debate, there will be modern transcendental interpretations created: in the field of education, designing a “transcendental school, from its mission statement to its curriculum; in writing assignments, creating “transcendental” poetry and essays based on themes of the movement but appealing to current issues of natural environment, government, criminology practices, worker’s rights, etc.; and, in creating theatre commentary on society, politics, and morality in the 21st Century by writing and performing a play.

B.  Do Individual  Group Research/Preparing to Debate 

  1. Students do research on 19th Century Transcendentalism in three areas of context; including, society, politics, and morality. This can be done individually or in groups and shared with the class in oral reports. Orchestration of this part of the lesson can be determined by the amount of time to be devoted to it, as well as the individual focus of the teacher. Students then choose or are assigned a Transcendentalist for deeper individual research.
  2. Use at least three sources in researching the first part of the assignment. Use at least one book.
  3. For the in-depth research on a person, the second part of the assignment, again use at least three sources, one of which needs to be a primary source.
  4. Based on the in-depth research, write a short biographical sketch of the historical person, including any personality traits or mannerisms that could be used to “play” that person in a debate.
  5. Learn the rules of debate. (Websites are included in a list of resources at the end of this unit of study.)
  6. As a class or in groups, determine the overriding theme/topic to be debated. Orchestration of this part of the assignment is up to the teacher and the goals of the lesson. Not everyone needs to perform in the debate(s), but everyone needs to be involved in the preparation and support of it. Different roles could be assigned: debaters, coaches, fact-checkers, researchers, moderators, score-keepers and judges, writers, and liaisons to the teacher, etc.
  7. This needs to be for an audience, not just the class. Good forums include: a school assembly, an extra-curricular performance, video-taped performance that is shared on the school’s website, etc.
  8. Evaluation should be managed by the teacher and be made transparent from the outset of the unit. A rubric of expectations and evaluation should be supplied to the students and completed at the end of debate(s) with individual or group interviews, if possible, explaining the analysis of their work and performance.

Overview of Process

  1. As the unit unfolds on a group and individual level, it will be important for the teacher to have group and/or individual interviews with students to share insights about the material being compiled for debate. Evaluate content and delivery of oral reports, making suggestions for further investigation if a report is too shallow or lacking in enough detail. Amended information can be shared with the whole class if it will help in preparing for debate. To give more leeway for the more important in-depth research and biography of an individual Transcendentalist, this part of the unit might best be handled, simply, with a PASS/FAIL evaluation.
  2. Grade the biography on whatever standards you place before the students as they begin research. Check progress periodically as research is on-going. Review drafts of bios (teacher review and/or peer review with student partners – set clear rules for peer critiques.) Give a grade to the finished biography.
  3. After presentation and study of debate rules and practices, give a quiz. Everyone needs to get 100%!
  4. Set up debate teams and monitor progress in honing arguments. Having a student liaison to the teacher for each group of debaters is useful. That person can communicate problems or issues that the group may be experiencing and enlist the intervention of the teacher, if necessary.
  5. Debate.
  6. Evaluate.

C.  Designing a “Transcendental School;” Creating “Transcendental” Poetry & Essays; and, Writing /Performing a Play with Transcendental Underpinnings for the 21st Century

There are three distinct groups or areas for creative endeavor. The orchestration of these assignments is up to the teacher and, again, the amount of time that can be devoted to it. To be less overwhelming, both for the teacher and the students, it would work best for each student to be responsible for only ONE of these creative assignments. Also, an effective reinforcement of the research being done for debate would be to have this creative work going on at the same time as the debate preparation. Include daily assignments in reading current events.

 Using current events, those students, who are composing poetry and essays, keep a daily journal of Transcendental responses to the news. Based on those thoughts, they then write persuasive poems and essays. Working on the assignment of creating a “new school,” individuals or pairs write a Mission Statement, decide about enrollment, create curriculum and extra-curricular activities, and formulate a philosophy for the school in their School Handbook. Include a design of the campus (even making a model?). A review of other schools’ Missions and handbooks would help frame their creative model. Finally, those working on writing and performing plays, individually or in groups, write the play, design the set and costumes, and perform a dramatic reading or create video or animation using “imovies” or “scratch,” of the play(s). Different aspects of writing and producing a play could be done by individuals in the group. The writers who work alone might enlist the help of others once their play is written.

Throughout the unit, students share their work: readings of poems & essays; presentations & updates on each group’s progress, with discussion about challenges and how to solve problems; and, finally, a class where students read and perform and share their completed projects. Evaluate based on the parameters set by the teacher at the outset of the projects. Productivity and creativity are key. This is an on-going effort that requires good management of time and consistency. Content should reflect understanding and good application of Transcendentalism.


The Hedge’s Club of Transcendental Thought
By Ellen Gaines

During the early 1800’s in America an incredible “think tank” of progressive ideas formed. It was made up of an unlikely combination of personalities and types of people. These New World Transcendentalists, as they would be called, came from academic and religious backgrounds. They were linked in their pursuit of understanding the world in a natural way through their intuition. People did not need to rely on their five senses, but in fact, to transcend them and become closer to nature. The Transcendentalists believed that what is “true and right and beautiful” could be decided without logical thinking. Natural intuition, what Bronson Alcott called “pre-existing Spirit,” would guide people in their understanding of justice and move them to act in a benevolent way.

What caused these writers and philosophers and reformers to feel so strongly about looking at their world in a different way? What was wrong with the accepted world view that was based on logical arguments? Why did anyone need to rely on more than the physical senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell? What was wrong in the America of the 1840’s that the Transcendentalists wished to right?

To answer these questions, it is helpful to identify the social, political, and moral issues that faced Americans in the early 1800’s. There were many movements and societies that grew to importance because of debates on issues of the day. There was temperance (refraining from drinking alcohol), women’s suffrage (awarding equal rights for women, especially the right to vote), educational reform (allowing openness and self-expression in an atmosphere of mutual respect), prison reform (giving more humane treatment of prisoners and refraining from enforcement of the death penalty), anti-war sentiment (supporting views on peaceful resistance), unions (improving the plight of workers ill-used by the newly emerging manufacturing industry), and slavery (freeing African American slaves and supporting the Abolitionists who championed their cause for freedom).

Grounded in Unitarian optimism, the Transcendentalists believed in the inherent goodness of human beings, especially children. Perhaps this focus on the innocence of children as the hope for mankind led many of the Transcendentalists to become reformers in education. Among them were Bronson Alcott, James Freeman Clarke, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. They believed that children should explore and be free to form their own understandings about their world. It was thought that through good examples in behavior, through “modeling,” that children would find the natural inner goodness of their souls and become the good citizens of tomorrow.

Writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Ellery Channing, used their pen to promote self-reliance, a love of nature, and the responsibility of the individual to make a difference in the world. Through poetry, essays, lectures, and journalism these members of the “Club” could explore the hard questions of the day. They were highly educated, reading the sacred texts of Eastern religions, history and philosophy, literature, the Hindu scriptures, and Persian poetry. A classical education had many of the Transcendentalists reading books in their original languages, such as Latin and Greek. When they came together as a group, their debates followed the teachings of Socrates. His method of asking questions as opposed to giving answers allowed the Transcendentalists to explore deeply into the problems of society in America.

Though linked in a common debate, the Transcendentalists differed in their ideas about how to achieve reform. There were radicals among the members, such as George Ripley, who was the leading force in creating an experimental community at Brook Farm. His “Utopian” world stressed cooperative non-competitive social arrangements. In his community, the people’s tasks were matched with their individual desires and ability to do them. Everyone shared in the responsibility of maintaining the well-being of everyone else by doing what she or he liked to do and could do well. This, Ripley felt, would bring about universal human harmony. The experiment failed eventually when human nature proved to be a weakness in the concept. Not everyone pulled his or her weight.

Then, too, there were “colorful” eccentrics, such as Joseph Palmer, who was famous for wearing a large beard when it was NOT stylish. And, Jones Very, poet, claimed that his poems were written by the Holy Ghost. Also, unique and daring was Margaret Fuller. Her influence on members of the Hedge’s Club was far reaching, and as a champion of women’s issues she was an important voice among her mostly male peers. She broke all norms of the day about a woman’s place in intellectual conversations and her ability to debate independently. Her personal life, too, broke all the norms of day. While she wrote for the New York Tribune in Europe, she met and fell in love with an Italian nobleman, giving birth to a son. Returning to America with her “husband” and son, she died tragically in a shipwreck off the New England coast.

The founder of the club, Frederic Henry Hedge, a minister from Bangor, Maine, was perhaps the most conservative of the Hedge’s Club. The meetings took place from 1835 to about 1850 and convened whenever Hedge visited Boston. Since the group nearly always met when he came to town, it was named for him. This partial list of key players in the group is a celebrity line-up from the mid-nineteenth century:

Hedge (The Club’s Founder)

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Writer, Philosopher, Lecturer)

Bronson Alcott (Educator, Founder of Fruitlands)

James Freeman Clarke (Educator)

Margaret Fuller (Journalist)

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (Educator)

Ellery Channing (Poet)

Henry David Thoreau (Naturalist, Writer)

Orestes Bronson, Convers Francis, George Ripley, Cyrus Bartol,

Theodore Parker, John Sullivan Dwight



Look at the main page of “Teacher Resources” found in

Beyond those resources for Transcendental thought and 19th Century history, the following websites are helpful with debate rules and how to run a debate: