In today’s popular imagination, New England Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller are known primarily as canonical literary figures, or in Thoreau’s case as a proto-hippie recluse who lived in the woods by Walden Pond and wrote a book about it. But these writers were engaged with some of the most pressing issues of their day, from abolition and anti-imperialism to civil disobedience.
It was Thoreau himself who coined the phrase “civil disobedience,” in an 1849 essay of the same name in which he argues for the morality of refusing to pay taxes to an unjust government. He spent a night in Concord’s jail for his refusal to pay the poll tax, which he felt was supporting slavery and the Mexican War, but was bailed out by a friend, and spent the next day leading a spirited “huckleberry party” through the woods around town, where “the State was nowhere to be seen.” 
Although less inclined to direct action than his younger colleague, Emerson was a strident critic of contemporary society, exposing the many contradictions and injustices on which it was built. In his lecture “The Transcendentalist,” first delivered in January 1842 at the Masonic Temple in Boston (see image above), Emerson sets out a strong dichotomy between contemporary material culture and idealist thought, praising solitude, independence, and “thoughts and principles not marketable or perishable.” 
In one passage particularly relevant to today’s financial crisis, Emerson chooses as his protagonist a banker building a mass of logic and buttoned-down reputation on a base of pure chaos:
“The sturdy capitalist, no matter how deep and square on blocks of Quincy granite he lays the foundations of his banking-house or Exchange, must set it, at last, not on a cube corresponding to the angles of his structure, but on a mass of unknown materials and solidity, red-hot or white-hot, perhaps at the core, which rounds off to an almost perfect sphericity, and lies floating in soft air, and goes spinning away, dragging bank and banker with it at a rate of thousands of miles the hour, he knows not whither, — a bit of bullet, now glimmering, now darkling through a small cubic space on the edge of an unimaginable pit of emptiness […] ask him why he believes that an uniform experience will continue uniform, or on what grounds he founds his faith in his figures, and he will perceive that his mental fabric is built up on just as strange and quaking foundations as his proud edifice of stone.” 
Americans of Emerson’s day were no strangers to crisis. In some ways, they were more prepared for the underlying uncertainty and risk behind financial markets than people today, accustomed to steadily rising stocks and home values, with minor blips along the way.
In fact, only five years before, the Panic of 1837 ended a period of speculation and inflation with a devastating reckoning, in which banks in New York City refused to honor paper currency, leading to widespread bank failure and record high unemployment. Part of the cause lay in President Andrew Jackson’s decision to withdraw government funds from the Second Bank of the United States (a precursor to the Federal Reserve), but the public primarily blamed the Panic on incoming President Martin Van Buren, who came into office on the cusp of the disaster and was unable to reverse it during his four years in office. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
 From Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” or, “Civil Disobedience:”http://sniggle.net/Experiment/index5.php?entry=rtcg#p33
 From Emerson’s “The Transcendentalist,” quoted at: http://www.emersoncentral.com/transcendentalist.htm
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons