Transcendentalism has its roots in Romanticism and its head in the clouds. Its heyday was from roughly 1835 to 1845, but its influence permeated the 19th Century. We can see its Romantic roots in the following tenets:
* People are basically Good.
* Nature is Good and the source of all Goodness.
* People can be perfect, and have unlimited potential.
* Individual experience is the only experience that matters.
It differed from Romanticism in that it taught that men and women were equal, and that the mind controlled the world, not the other way around.
The Transcendentalists' view of religion gave rise to Unitarianism as we know it. It differed significantly from earlier views, and was a complete rejection of Puritanical Calvinism. In short, it taught:
* God can be known, through nature and individual experience.
* God is in everyone, and everyone is in God.
* Everyone is part of a universal "over-soul" that unites all of humanity in Goodness.
* All religions hold some truth, and no one religion is right or wrong. Religion, however, is not necessary for a relationship with God.
* The Bible is unnecessary, because it is too narrow.
* Jesus is unnecessary, because people are Good and don't need a savior.
* Miracles don't happen, and never have.
* Human religious traditions are unnecessary and harmful.
Transcendentalists had a very Platonic idea of the world -- they believed that Truth existed outside our physical sphere, and could be found out there, along with idealized versions of things that our reality merely copies. Perfection could be dragged, presumably kicking and screaming, because that's always how things are dragged in literature, into reality by study, solitary contemplation of nature, and the exercise of optimism.
As a philosophy, Transcendentalism was positive and optimistic. It affirmed the worth of every person, and the dignity of humankind. As a practice, Transcendentalism, well, sucked. The 19th Century is replete with stories of communities founded to create (does this sound familiar at all?) perfect societies. The trouble was, people didn't behave in those "Good" ways that they were supposed to. It is a tribute to the firmness of the Transcendentalists' beliefs that they didn't turn cynical sooner, as one utopian community after another failed.
Ralph Waldo Emerson stands out as the primary articulator of Transcendental thought, but he had lots of company. Margaret Fuller was his co-editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial, and had a very interesting literary (and personal) career. Henry David Thoreau went into the woods to find himself, and his chronicle of that experience has inspired generations of solitary thinkers and environmentalists. Bronson Alcott embodied the belief that people were Good and could have perfect societies, and even though he failed to create any, he managed to hang onto that belief. He also fathered Louisa May Alcott, whose Little Women books continue to charm their readers.