Optimistic Ideas Other optimistic ideas also inspired Americans during this time. In New England, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a former minister, was the central figure in a movement called transcendentalism. Emerson believed that every human being has unlimited potential. But to realize their godlike nature, people have to transcend, or go beyond, purely logical thinking. They can find the answers to life’s mysteries only by learning to trust their emotions and intuition.
Transcendentalists added to the spirit of reform by urging people to question society’s rules and institutions. Do not conform to others’ expectations, they said. If you want to find God—and your own true self—look to nature and the “God within.”
Emerson’s friend Henry David Thoreau captured this new individualism in a famous essay. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions,” wrote Thoreau, “perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears.”
Thoreau practiced what he preached. In 1845, he went into the woods near Concord, Massachusetts, to live alone and as close to nature as possible. Thoreau spent more than two years in solitude, recording his thoughts in a 6,000-page journal. In 1846, he was jailed overnight for refusing to pay taxes because of his opposition to the government’s involvement in the Mexican-American War.