The restless, competitive world of the market revolution strongly encouraged the identification of American freedom with the absence of restraints on self-directed individuals seeking economic advancement and personal development. The “one important revolution” of the day, the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in the 1830s, was “the new value of the private man.” The opportunity for personal growth offered a new definition of Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness, one well suited to a world in which territorial expansion and the market revolution had shattered traditional spatial and social boundaries and made moving from place to place and status to status common features of American life.
In a widely reprinted 1837 address, “The American Scholar,” Emerson called on the person engaged in writing and thinking to “feel all confidence in himself,... to never defer to the popular cry,” and to find and trust his own “definition of freedom.” In Emerson’s definition, rather than a preexisting set of rights or privileges, freedom was an open-ended process of self-realization by which individuals could remake themselves and their own lives. The keynote of the times, he declared, was “the new importance given to the single person” and the “emancipation” of the individual, the “American idea.”
Emerson was perhaps the most prominent member of a group of New England intellectuals known as the transcendentalists, who insisted on the primacy of individual judgment over existing social traditions and institutions. Emerson’s Concord, Massachusetts, neighbor, the writer Henry David Thoreau, echoed his call for individual self-reliance. “Any man more right than his neighbors,” Thoreau wrote, “is a majority of one.”