Frederick Henry Hedge, Hedge Club, 1836
[Transcendental Club]
Transcendental Club, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Ripley

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The Transcendental Club

Frederic Henry Hedge (1805-90) was one of the key figures in the establishment of the Transcendental Club. He was born into a distinguished, well-educated New England family of ministers and academics, his father Levi Hedge, was Harvard College’s first professor of philosophy, teaching there from 1792 to 1832.

At the age of twelve Hedge passed Harvard’s entrance exam but his father decided to send him, with a learned guardian named George Bancroft, to Germany to gain a more complete education before he entered Harvard. After some budgetary difficulties, and some behavioural difficulties that possibly arose from Hedge's having been individually privately tutored previously, Hedge found his feet at an highly regarded school, Schulpforte, in Saxony. where he began to develop a mastery of the German language and literature, including Goethe and the German idealists.

Returning to the U.S. Hedge graduated first in his class from the Harvard Divinity School in 1829. In the same year he was ordained at the Congregational Church and Society in West Cambridge, Massachusetts. In West Cambridge, Hedge often met at a local bookstore with Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Ripley, and Convers Francis where they discussed the latest trends in European thought.

Hedge’s career as a literary and philosophical figure of note more fully began in March 1833 with his twenty-one-page essay “Coleridge’s Literary Character,” which appeared in the Christian Examiner. In that article Hedge reviewed Coleridge’s ideas and displayed his knowledge of German thought by elucidating Colderidge’s debt to German idealism. After a brief discussion of Coleridge’s speculative powers, Hedge complained about Coleridge’s lack of clarity on German idealism, and used that opportunity to engage in “a few explanatory remarks respecting German metaphysics.” In the discussion that followed, Hedge demonstrated a thorough understanding of Kant’s Critiques, Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre, and Schelling’s System des transcendentalen Idealismus.

Later in 1833 Hedge received an offer to become minister of the Independent Congregational Church in Bangor, Maine. Initially he was reluctant to accept the offer, but when Emerson preached there and reported to him about the liberal thinkers in the congregation, Hedge reconsidered and moved to Bangor in 1835. The congregation included Congregationalists, Unitarians, and Methodists, many of whom were among the wealthiest and most educated people in the lumber boomtown of Bangor. Hedge’s tenure in Bangor began inauspiciously enough. Just as they were about to move, his wife Lucy grew ill and she and their two young children were unable to join him for several months. Hedge was also engaged in a protracted salary dispute with the congregation. Once those issues were resolved, however, Hedge settled into the position and was well received.  

From 1836 Hedge's visits to Boston from his new home in Bangor, Maine occasioned the gathering of what Emerson called the "Hedge Club" but was more commonly called the "Transcendental Club."  
Hedge, Emerson, Francis, James Freeman Clarke, and Amos Bronson Alcott attended the first meeting of this informal group at the home of George Ripley in Boston. Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, Orestes A. Brownson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Ellery Channing, and others, attended subsequent meetings.

To the initiated, the group was also known as the “Symposium,” in honor of Plato. How frequently the group met over the course of the next three or four years we do not know because of its informality and lack of records, but members agreed that, within the group, Hedge’s mind was the most philosophically trained. Many of the men were ministers who were trained at the Harvard Divinity School and subsequently left the church when they adopted the “New Views” on religion. Significantly, Hedge was among the few ministers who were sympathetic to the New Views but continued their careers within the church.

As early as 1835, Hedge had first proposed that the informal group of like minded persons publish a literary journal devoted to “spiritual philosophy." The project was postponed when Hedge moved to Bangor and thus could not serve as editor of the journal. Hedge raised the idea again in 1839; this time the group founded its literary organ, The Dial, with Fuller as editor and Ripley as assistant editor. Hedge contributed an article, two translations, and one poem to The Dial during its brief four-year existence, yet his interest and involvement in the journal soon languished, possibly because of a growing disenchantment with some of the more radical tendencies of the transcendentalist movement.

It is clear that Hedge’s involvement with the transcendentalists complicated his relationship to the Bangor congregation, as some deacons began to express doubts about his orthodoxy in 1841 and 1842.

New England
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Some Emerson quotations
Henry David Thoreau
Margaret Fuller
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
The Brook Farm


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The Transcendental Club