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Natural Freedom in Romantic American Literature

There is a common denominator that binds the works of James Fennimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, and Henry David Thoreau. The four authors share a common affinity to the concept of freedom in the context of societal pressures, religious dogmatism, and government control. Washington Irving describes this phenomenon in an allegorical manner through his character Rip Van Winkle.

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Cooper attempts to present his case through an entertaining tale entitled The Pioneers. Ralph Waldo Emerson explains his ideas of freedom through a transcendentalist perspective. On the other hand, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience essay painted an idealized picture of a free society in the absence of an all-powerful government. Combining key insights gleaned from their works creates the suggestion that natural freedom only exists in a romanticized view of America.

Rip Van Winkle

It is easy to misinterpret Irving’s, Rip Van Winkle. Readers oftentimes fail to read between the lines. Without the use of discernment, it is easy to read the story as a simple morality tale. In other words, it is easy to mistake it as a cautionary tale, especially in a nation that prides itself in the pursuit of the American Dream. Every single human being is expected to become a productive member of society. Rip Van Winkle violates the unspoken rule.

However, Irving wants his readers to feel this way to realize that social norms and conventional understanding of how to live as a citizen created a false representation of an American society that projects itself as the land of the brave and the free.

Irving’s intended message became clear after the main character emerged from two decades of booze-induced coma (Irving 1). At this point, Irving utilized the American Revolution as the backdrop to magnify the deeper meaning of the characters, such as Dame Van Winkle, the gentleman with a cane, and the bystanders. In the end, it became clear that through Rip Van Winkle, Irving lamented the struggle for freedom. The American Revolution served as the transition point, transferring the power to control people’s movement and decision-making process from a king to a politician. In this case, Dame Van Winkle represented the King of England, while the old gentleman with a cane represented astute politicians.

Cooper’s Argument for Freedom

Cooper’s argument focused on man’s relationship with his property. In The Pioneers the author uses the tension between natural law versus human law as the starting point in the conflict that transpired between Natty Bumppo and the local government. Cooper presented the idealized version of the frontiersman through Natty’s character. He is free as a bird but bounded by strong principles, particularly those that concern private property. In the end, Natty’s decision to burn down his house was the strongest indictment against the propensity of a powerful government to oppress and to make life difficult for ordinary citizens.

In Natty’s tragic story, the helplessness that pervaded Judge Temple’s decision-making process became the ultimate proof in the irony that the revolution did not elevate the people’s sense of freedom (Cooper 1). In this instance, Judge Temple was compelled to follow human laws, when in his heart he knew that he owed a debt of gratitude to Natty Bumppo.

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View of Nature According to Emerson and Thoreau

In Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience the author’s insights regarding the laws of nature shaped the way he understood the purpose of national governments and how the citizens are supposed to respond to the statutes and legal mandates that emanate from the said regime. Although Thoreau espoused the idea of securing the liberty of every single citizen based on the laws of human nature, he understood the value of a national government. His views were in sharp contrast to Emerson’s opinion which is filled with the words of an idealist (Emerson 1). Nevertheless, Emerson was forced to acknowledge at the end, that only a few people can follow the steep and narrow path that brings enlightenment to the soul.

Thoreau and His Contemporaries

Thoreau bitterly laments the fact that his contemporaries were a group of selfish cowards. He did not express his complaints in such an explicit manner. However, it was implied when he said that men of economic means did not dare to lift a finger to fight slavery (Thoreau 1). Thoreau believed in the idea that the U.S Constitution forces its citizens and its leaders to fight for freedom and justice. For example, there is a need to fight against any form of slavery. The failure to challenge all forms of slavery makes a mockery of the U.S. Constitution.

Thoreau’s distrust of centralized governments was tempered by the need to establish justice. Thus, he cannot accept the presence of a powerful government that is helpless in safeguarding the basic human rights of all members of society.


Freedom is manifested in natural laws and human nature was the concept that was at the heart of the intellectual discourses that emanated from the pens of Irving, Cooper, Emerson, and Thoreau. These men wanted freedom in its purest form. In their opinion, it is manifested in the absence of a domineering government. It is exemplified in the lifestyle followed by Rip Van Winkle and Natty Bumppo. However, all of them realized that their desire for real freedom is unrealistic in light of current circumstances. As a result, they were contented to write about a romanticized view of an ideal society.

Works Cited

Cooper, James Fennimore. The Pioneers. 2000. Web.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Transcendentalist. 2009. Web.

Irving, Washington. Rip Van Winkle. 2016. Web.

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Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience. 2016. Web.

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