American thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Winthrop developed cogent visions of their new nation, promulgating utopian ideals and encouraging their readers to actively create an idealized society. As Peyser puts it, both Emerson and Winthrop were “deeply suffused with a sense of America’s missionary destiny, of the new nation’s emancipatory message to the rest of the world,” (13). However, Winthrop and Emerson held two divergent visions of what a utopian society would look like and how to go about manufacturing grand social, political, and spiritual change. Winthrop, an American colonial leader and Puritan in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, cultivated an unabashedly Christian vision of a utopian society. Although Emerson was himself “the product of nearly two centuries of New England Puritanism,” and was likewise deeply religious, his utopian vision was less specifically Christian than Winthrop’s (Nicoll 334). More importantly, Emerson advocated for the type of self-reliance that the transcendentalist movement became famous for, whereas Winthrop’s vision of utopia was grounded more in communitarianism.
Whereas Emerson “deliberately eschewed politics,” Winthrop most certainly did not and made an express point to use positions of power to promote his utopian values and Christian ideals (Padover 334). Winthrop began his political career from within the Church prior to expatriating himself from England as an outspoken Puritan reformer of the Anglicans. Along with like-minded thinkers, Winthrop determined that starting a new society in the New World would help Christians like him to realize their vision for a more utopic society based on deep spirituality and contemplation and which was far more ascetic and severe in its approach to material culture than the Anglican society. As a preacher, Winthrop composed sermons like “A Modell of Christian Charity,” and “Citty Upon a Hill,” both of which convey Winthrop’s core ideals of a collectivist, collaborative society in which each person works toward a common goal under a definite Christian rubric. Winthrop’s vision of a utopia was one that included centralized leadership, and he viewed himself as being part and parcel of that position of religious and political authority.
On the contrary, Emerson developed a vision of a utopian society that was absolutely decentralized. Committed to a path of self-reliance, Emerson became the “spiritual guide of many thousands” without seeking any position of power (Nicoll 675). Emerson’s utopic was organic, mirroring what he observed in nature. Inspired by Romantic poets, painters, and visionaries like himself, Emerson preferred a utopia comprised of independent and free thinkers, who were deeply but personally spiritual rather than being committed to an expressly Christian path. Ironically, Emerson came from a long line of preachers and was himself trained as a Unitarian minister. His Christian background did not preclude Emerson from viewing the purpose of religion in a less political and more personal way than Puritans like Winthrop. Emerson and the Transcendentalists encouraged a personal communion with God, preferably through nature and independent of the trappings of dogma. As Nicoll points out, “Emerson speaks with reticence about Christ,” and “would be no means have admitted that Christ was infallible,” (679). More important to Emerson’s utopia were core ethical values that would preclude the need for centralized or authoritative religious guidance. In Emerson’s writings, one can find the seeds of secular humanism that became the primary ethos in successive generations in the United States. Whereas Winthrop’s utopia is religiously strict and dogmatic, with centralized authority and patriarchal leadership, Emerson’s is liberal. Winthrop helped the Puritan colonialists coalesce into their vision of a utopian community, and Emerson inspired a utopia comprised of self-aware and self-empowered individuals.
Winthrop and Emerson highlight what Shaar calls the difference between “liberal individualists and the communitarians” (493). However, both became influential leaders and philosophers whose ideas underwrote the American ethos and mythos. Emerson “left an ineradicable imprint on the leaders and thinkers of his age,” (Padover 334). In both Winthrop and Emerson’s writings can be found traces of American exceptionalism, the view that America was a bastion of genuine spirituality in stark contrast to the corrupt societies characterized by greed in the Old World. By the time Emerson wrote essays like “Self-Reliance,” “many Americans had previously tended to view themselves as already beyond the vicissitudes of history that characterized what they saw as the decadence of Europe and despotism in Asia” (Peyser 13-14). Winthrop and Emerson both lent American culture its dichotomous character, in which the desire for idealized communalism and staunch individualism compete. Emerson’s utopia more closely resembles the utopian visions of the counterculture movement that blossomed a century later, but Winthrop’s idealized communities bear the stamp of communes. Both Emerson and Winthrop would agree that a utopian society is one that is devoid of ostentatious displays of wealth and other signs of materialism, and which instead embraces the fruits of the contemplative life. Although he denied the importance of organized religion in his utopian vision, Emerson most certainly viewed transcendence as being critical to manifesting an ideal society.
As a representative of Puritanism, John Winthrop promotes a vision of utopia that is dogmatic and patriarchal. As a representative of the Transcendentalist movement, Emerson promotes a vision of utopia that is liberal and personal. Understandably, Emerson was far more optimistic about human nature than were any of his Puritan ancestors. To be an advocate of self-reliance requires deep trust in the human race and in the mindset of individuals. Puritans like Winthrop tended to believe the worst of human beings; that they tended towards sin and depravity and required strict rules and oversight to keep their passions in check. A utopian society is an ethical one for both Emerson and Winthrop, but their suggested means by which to achieve ethical standards differs sharply.
Nicoll, W. Robertson. “Ralph Waldo Emerson.” The American Review. Vol. 176, No. 558, May 1903, pp. 675-687.
Padover, Saul K. “Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Moral Voice in Politics.” Political Science Quarterly.
Peyser, Thomas. Utopia and Cosmopolis. Duke University Press, 1998.
Schaar, Jon H. “Liberty/Authority/Community in the Political Thought of John Winthrop.” Political Theory. Vol. 19, No. 4, Nov 1991, pp. 493-518.
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