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Transcendentalists and the American Renaissance

  • Individualism, a social theory favoring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control and the habit or principle of being independent & self-reliant, became prominent in the antebellum era.
  • Transcendentalists posited the importance of an ideal world of mystical knowledge & harmony beyond the world of the senses & they called for the critical examination of society & emphasized individuality self-reliance, & nonconformity.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller were three prominent transcendentalists.
  • Thoreau wrote “Resistance to Civil Government,” an 1849 essay that advocated for civil disobedience or passive resistance against unjust laws (like slavery).
  • During the antebellum era, American artists and writers began to create new distinctly American styles and genres that increasingly were respected around the world.

Transcendentalists and the American Renaissance

Lecture Slides are screen-captured images of important points in the lecture. Students can download and print out these lecture slide images to do practice problems as well as take notes while watching the lecture.

  1. Intro
    • Overview
      • Individualism
      • Transcendentalism
      • Transcendentalists
      • Ralph Waldo Emerson
      • Henry David Thoreau
      • The Defense of Nature
      • Gender Roles Redefined
      • Emergence of a Broad Array of Movement
      • Romanticism and Nationalism
      • Literature and the Quest for Liberation
      • BrookFarm: A Utopian Experiment
      • Southern Literature
      • American Landscape Painting
      • Example 1
        • Example 2
          • Intro 0:00
          • Overview 0:06
          • Individualism 0:54
            • Alexis de Tocqueville
            • Individualism
          • Transcendentalism 3:12
            • Intellectual Movement
            • Individuality Self-Reliance and Nonconformity
            • Instincts and Emotion
          • Transcendentalists 4:55
            • Understanding
            • Transcend the Limits of the Intellect
            • Concord, MA
            • Images of Transcendentalists
          • Ralph Waldo Emerson 7:11
            • Leading Spokesman of this Movement
            • The American Scholar
            • Outpouring of First Class novel, Poetry and Essays
            • Original Relation with Nature
            • Ordinary Middle-Class Americans
            • New Industrial Society
          • Henry David Thoreau 12:04
            • Lives of Quiet Desperation
            • Self-Realization
            • Walden and Life in the Woods
            • Resistance to Civil Government
          • The Defense of Nature 16:34
            • The Rapid Economic Development
            • Inspiration and Spirituality
          • Gender Roles Redefined 17:49
            • Woman in the Nineteenth Century
            • Mystical Relationship with God
            • The Questioning of Gender Roles
          • Emergence of a Broad Array of Movement 19:49
            • Romanticism
            • Order and Control
            • Slavery Overshadowed
          • Romanticism and Nationalism 21:49
            • The Need to Improve the American Culture
            • Romanticism for Inspiration
          • Literature and the Quest for Liberation 22:19
            • Washington Irving's James Fenimore Cooper
            • Walt Whitman
            • Democracy, The liberation of the Individual and the Pleasures of the Flesh
            • Herman Melville
            • Strength of Individual Will
            • Edgar Allen Poe
          • BrookFarm: A Utopian Experiment 25:33
            • Nathaniel Hawthorne
            • Brook Farm
            • Form of Socialism
            • All Share in the Leisure
          • Southern Literature 27:40
            • Historical Romances of the Plantation System
            • William Gilmore Simms
            • The Lives of Ordinary People and Poor Whites
            • Mark Twain
          • American Landscape Painting 29:15
            • Hudson River School
            • Nature is the Source of Wisdom
            • Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran
            • Examples of Landscape Painting
          • Example 1 31:45
          • Example 2 34:08

          Transcription: Transcendentalists and the American Renaissance

          Welcome back to

          This lesson is on the transcendentalists and the American renaissance.0002

          We are going to talk about, as I was saying in the introduction, the transcendentalists, who are at the heart of the American renaissance,0008

          which is a time when the United States is trying to forge and create this new culture, and find its own voice.0016

          Its own sense of purpose, and make a new distinct type of style,0025

          and also be respected in the world stage for our contributions in painting, architecture, literature, as well as intellectual thought.0032

          You could add here as well.0045

          We are going to tackle some of those major themes that were very important throughout the antebellum era, the pre Civil War era.0048

          The foundation of understanding transcendentalism and all the other types of reform movements0058

          that will grow out of it, first, you have to understand the importance of the idea of individualism.0065

          We are going to see that Alex De Tocqueville who was a French author, who wrote the famous work Democracy in America,0074

          coined the word individualism to describe the condition and values of native born white Americans.0083

          To try to capture what is it that makes Americans unique, and what helps them standout.0091

          They are kind of a different nationalist group and how can I describe them in an inaccurate way.0100

          Individualism is a huge theme throughout U.S. history.0109

          There are pros and cons of individualism, obviously.0114

          But the idea that yes, this is a social theory favoring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control,0117

          or the habit or principle of being independent and self reliant.0128

          Thinking for oneself in an independent way, that you are making your own decisions.0132

          That you have the freedom to do so.0140

          This is something that is going to have an overall influence.0142

          In essence, in fact, other reform movements as people begin to think differently in an independent way, and not blindly plod along in life.0149

          This is going to be a rejection of what is happening in societies.0161

          Some of the negative aspects of U.S. society could be industrialization, the inequalities that were happening ,0169

          the exploitation of nature because of the industrialization.0178

          That is going to be important in the antebellum era.0186

          Let us get into transcendentalism.0193

          This was a 19th century intellectual movement that posited0198

          the importance of an ideal world of mystical knowledge and harmony beyond the world of the senses.0203

          The idea of being able to transcend, to be above, if you will, and find this higher truth.0209

          And ultimately, transcendentalist would call for the critical examination of society0219

          using critical thinking and emphasizing individuality, self reliance, and nonconformity.0225

          Where did they reside, where did they live?0238

          The transcendentalist were primarily in the New England area.0242

          This was a group of New England writers and philosophers who borrowed from German philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, and Schelling,0247

          and from other writers in England such as Coleridge and Carlyle.0258

          They embraced the theory that rested on a distinction between reason and understanding.0263

          Reason was defined as the individuals in a capacity to grasp beauty and truth,0268

          through giving full expression to the instincts and emotions.0274

          This is much different than an enlightenment approach to understanding reason.0281

          They are redefining it and putting the emphasis on what is inside, how people are feeling, that this is much more natural.0288

          They also embrace theory that, this is kind of a repeat.0299

          Understanding was the use of intellect in narrow artificial ways imposed by society,0306

          involved the repression of instinct and the victory of externally imposed learning.0314

          The goal is to liberate from the confines of understanding and transcendent to the limits of the intellect,0319

          and allow the emotions, the soul to create an original relation to the universe.0327

          They are trying to find their own philosophical truth by transcending all of these other issues and all of these other forces,0334

          in the greater society at large, and find a new fresh way of looking at the world.0348

          This group first emerged in Concord, if I try to do the Boston accent, Concord Massachusetts.0356

          I have some pictures here of some of the main transcendentalists.0369

          There are a lot of famous works that perhaps you will be able to explore in an American literature class.0375

          We do know that Thoreau here, this is Thoreau, we have Emerson,0384

          and some of the other famous transcendentalists in here as well, such as Margaret Fuller, Mark Twain, and others.0392

          This is a quotation by Thoreau, to be admitted to nature's heart, cost nothing, none is excluded but excludes himself.0402

          You have only to push aside the curtain.0410

          This is to symbolize when Thoreau went into the woods and when he wrote Walden,0415

          and try to connect with nature and write down his philosophies, thoughts and feelings about a variety of things.0422

          The first transcendentalist and the granddaddy of transcendentalists, if you will, was Ralph Waldo Emerson.0434

          He is a leader and also had experience as a Unitarian minister in his youth.0444

          He became dedicated to teaching transcendentalism.0451

          He was the leading spokesman of this movement, who wrote numerous works such as Nature,0456

          one of his best essays that discussed how individuals should work for a communion with the natural world.0461

          This is very much against the industrialists and modernist who were kind of focusing on at this time where they were looking to exploit nature.0470

          Emerson is critical of what is happening in society, in our industrialized society in the 1800’s.0483

          But he was a nationalist, which is also kind of interesting.0493

          He is a committed nationalist and proponent of American cultural independence.0495

          He will be at the forefront of trying to find this unique American voice, and what makes us individuals, what makes as American.0500

          Within the American scholar, it is going to highlight his ideas.0513

          I have a little quotation from the American scholar in fact.0521

          We will walk on our own feet, we will work with our own hands, we will speak with our own minds.0525

          A nation of man who for the first time exist because each believes in self inspired by the divine soul which also inspires all men.0531

          He is going to be very influential in sparking the American renaissance and transcendentalism is at the heart of it.0543

          During the American renaissance, the idea, usually that a renaissance is a rebirth or a flowering of culture.0551

          This was a movement characterized by an outpouring of first class novels, poetry, and essays.0559

          It was at a very inspirational time, as these artists, thinkers, writers,0565

          were trying to put the United States on the global map, as far as creative thinkers and geniuses.0571

          Emerson is one of those important leaders.0582

          His influence is very significant.0585

          He urged American writers to celebrate democracy.0587

          What was good about the United States, and individual freedom, and to also find inspiration in the familiar.0591

          In ordinary life, look to nature that that is where we find inspiration and truth and meaning.0600

          He is going to be very influential on other thinkers as well.0610

          Some of his thoughts, he believed that people are trapped in unquestioned and unexamined customs,0615

          institutions, and ways of thinking.0622

          They are just kind of going through the motions and not thinking critically, and not making genuine choices.0625

          They are just doing it because of social conventions.0634

          He really believed that remaking oneself, you had to depend on the discovery of the original relation with nature.0639

          That is where he believed that you could find truth.0648

          His genius lay in his capacity to translate vague ideas into examples that made sense to ordinary middle class Americans.0655

          He was not an elitist, he was trying to connect with ordinary people.0663

          He will celebrate the individual who was liberated from social controls but remained a self disciplined responsible member of society.0669

          He did not say that just do not care about anything, but you should still have discipline and be responsible.0680

          But you did not have to be in chains with these social norms.0689

          As I was alluding to earlier, very critical of the new industrial society predicting that it would drain the nation's spiritual energy.0697

          His message was very profound and resonated with many people,0707

          and reached hundreds of thousands of people through his writings and through lectures on the lyceum circuit,0711

          where he would lecture in several halls throughout the country.0718

          Another important transcendentalist was Henry David Thoreau.0726

          He was a friend of Emerson who took transcendentalism a step further,0732

          by repudiating the repressive forces of society which produced lives of quiet desperation.0737

          He was getting on a deeper level, and perhaps was not quite a nationalist as Emerson was.0745

          He advocated that people work for self realization by resisting against conforming with society's expectations,0754

          and instead going with one's instincts.0762

          The other thing to keep in mind is that a lot of these thinkers are rebelling against that old Puritan conformist way of thinking.0771

          Keep that history in mind, that especially in New England, the legacy is also going to have an influence.0782

          His famous work is Walden and Life in the Woods, both of these were very much inspired for being isolated and reflecting upon,0791

          being with nature, and kind of looking into his own soul while he was soul searching.0805

          He is also a very well known for another famous essay called the Resistance to a Civil Government.0815

          This is certainly a great example of Thoreau being a nonconformist.0824

          He walked the walk, he did not just talk the talk.0831

          In this 1849 essay, he advocated for civil disobedience.0834

          This idea is going to becomes very important throughout history.0841

          He was inspired by the Mexican-American war which we will talk about eventually, not in this lesson, but stay tuned and keep coming back.0848

          Anyway, he was very much against slavery.0861

          There were many pro slavery, people and politicians who wanted to extend slavery into Texas.0865

          Mexico had actually outlawed slavery.0873

          Slavery was not allowed in Texas, when Texas was part of Mexico.0877

          Anyway, with westward expansion, we are going to see the effort to expand into Texas.0885

          I’m not going to go into all detail there.0891

          But to make a long story short, he thought that the war was immoral, and he did not support it.0893

          Also, tied to his abolitionist beliefs, did not believe that slavery should be expanded.0898

          It should not exist, he thought it was immoral as well.0905

          But anyway, he decides to not follow the law.0908

          The idea of this disobedience is to break a law that you believe is unjust.0915

          Even with this transcendental thought, that you have to be above it, that you have to go with your own instincts.0923

          If you know that, just because it is a law, it does not mean that it is always right.0929

          Are there laws that have been flawed in history?0935

          Many would probably say yes, we have tons of laws, when we had segregation laws, for instance, that certainly we believe today,0938

          by today’s standards, are immoral, and wrong, and eventually are considered unconstitutional through a very long fight,0948

          as well, through the civil rights movement.0956

          The idea behind this is that you have to go with your instincts and your own moral compass,0960

          and decide for yourself if a law is meant to be broken.0965

          In this case, Thoreau applied his idea about not wanting to support, he did not pay his taxes because he did not support this war,0970

          and he did not support the expansion of slavery.0981

          He gets his whole justification for his approach to this, which is very profound0985

          and has an influence later on many important political thinkers like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.0991

          And it is still used today, it is a very effective tactic when groups or individuals want to speak out against unjust policies, laws, etc.0999

          Long winded about that issue.1013

          The defense of nature, in addition to Emerson and Thoreau,1015

          a small influential group of Americans were uneasy with the rapid economic development of their age.1019

          They will look to protect nature, find solace in nature, and elevate it to huge heights.1027

          Huge source of inspiration, spirituality.1038

          And I like to also say that transcendentalist were the first environmentalists in the United States.1041

          They did not like what was happening with the pollution, and the exploitation of the land,1047

          as well as people, human and natural resources.1053

          They started to advocate for simpler lives, true lives, and people having their connection to nature.1058

          Margaret Fuller was also another important transcendentalists and writer.1071

          She began a discussion group for elite Boston women and published Women in the 19th century, in 1848.1076

          That is a very important year for women's rights advocates and activists, and suffragettes,1088

          as we will continue this discussion in a later lesson as the Seneca Falls convention is going to happen at the same year which is very important.1096

          Fuller is also a part of this discussion about women's rights and takes the ideas from transcendentalism1106

          and also applies them to gender relations, and contesting those separate spheres.1114

          She is going to proclaim that there is a new era that was coming in relations between men and women, and advocate for more equality.1121

          She believed that women, like men, had a mystical relationship with God,1132

          and that every woman deserved psychological and social independence.1139

          That she should not be under the rule of her husband,1144

          that she should be able to make her own decisions and have education and opportunity.1150

          She will also suggest the important relationship between the discovery of the south,1156

          that was so central to antebellum reform and the question of gender roles.1162

          Why is it with social norms are always expected for the women to be in the home, care taking for the children, as an example.1170

          She is going to be pushing the boundaries and questioning a lot of those norms that were starting to be broken down.1181

          Other movements that are associated with the American renaissance and transcendentalism.1192

          Romanticism is also going to have a huge impact throughout the antebellum period.1197

          This was an artistic movement, it started in Europe but will also take shape in the United States.1203

          Artistic movement which humans needed to give full expression to the inner spirit.1210

          And that people should work to unleash their innate capacity to experience joy and to do good.1215

          This focuses on expression, on emotions, on instincts, as well as similar things that we saw in the transcendentalists,1223

          concerning order and control.1234

          We also see the opposite type of movement that embodied a more conservative approach.1238

          Conservative nostalgia for better, simpler times.1243

          This emphasized traditional values and institution, stability, and creating new institutions for social control.1246

          That is also another movement for many Americans.1254

          In general, we will see, now with this independent thinking, and of course, tied into this, from previous lesson,1258

          the great awakening that inspired many protestant Americans to walk the walk.1267

          To help the poor, help African-Americans who were enslaved, to promote gender equality, these types of thing.1274

          Slavery will be the major issue that will overshadow all others, but there will be numerous reforms that grow out of all these other movements.1285

          They all kind of interrelate, and most of the reformers will become active in the north and the northwest.1300

          We will see that artists, intellectuals, realize that American culture needs to improve.1312

          And that they need to prove themselves, and stop looking to Europe for inspiration.1319

          That is what these new thinkers were trying to do something new and to try to make a name for themselves.1329

          In terms of literature, we will see that for the first part of the 19th century ,1343

          American readers were mostly unimpressed with the U.S. literature.1348

          In fact, most of the works were sentimental novels.1354

          Many looked to British literature for entertainment.1358

          But that is going to start to change eventually.1364

          There will be some key authors who will start to have a huge effect, and will inspire others to write,1366

          and they kind of start creating their own new genre.1376

          Some writers sought to create a distinctively American literature and built upon Washington Irving's efforts, Rip Van Winkle, for instance.1380

          James Fenimore Cooper being one of them.1392

          Cooper wrote over 30 novels, he is very prolific, in about three decades.1395

          He focused on the U.S. wilderness and that is a huge theme throughout the 1800’s.1400

          Here is nature again.1405

          He was influenced by central New York, and wrote the famous Leatherstocking Tales,1407

          that included The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer.1414

          Very famous novels that were widely read.1418

          Walt Whitman was another famous writer, the self proclaimed poet of American democracy.1423

          He wrote Leaves of Grass.1429

          I will highlight, these two are important.1433

          Washington Irving was a bit earlier.1435

          But kind of focusing on what was distinctively American and focusing on democracy, the liberation of the individual,1438

          the pleasures of the flesh, being really honest and real,1449

          and freeing themselves from the previous social conventions that did not talk about these things, as well as the spirit.1453

          They also helped to liberate first from traditional restricted conventions,1462

          kind of pushed the boundaries and create a new form of poetry and literature.1467

          Herman Melville was another important writer of the time, one of the greatest novelists, who wrote Moby Dick.1475

          Some of the themes in the book, very consistent with what I have been talking about, strength of individual will,1484

          tragedy, revenge, pride, the search for personal fulfillment and triumph that could lead to liberation or annihilation.1492

          All of these ideas resonated with the ordinary people.1500

          People enjoyed this literature and became popular in the United States and abroad.1504

          Then, Edgar Allen Poe, American poet who wrote sad emotional poems.1509

          His works were a bit dark but nonetheless, very appealing and had their own power.1514

          Some of the stories such as Tamerlane and other poems, and later, the Raven,1522

          were very popular works and also propelled him onto the world stage.1528

          Other authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne will also take these transcendentalist ideas, and participate in utopian experiments.1535

          We have talked about some of these previously like the Shaker community, the Oneida community, New harmony, etc.1548

          Nathaniel Hawthorne participated in Brook farm which was a communal living experiment1556

          that was established in West Roxbury in Massachusetts, in 1841.1563

          The founder, George Ripley, was a protestant minister and leader of the communal experiment.1568

          Within Brook farm, this was a form of socialism, they use a form of socialism.1574

          Yet, members of community were encouraged to go through process of self realization.1580

          This was more of an individualistic aspect to this socialist system, where it would allow for self reflection, self realization.1587

          People will share the labor, this is the idea of the committee, and that all would share in the leisure.1597

          Hawthorne gave this a chance and was one of the original residents,1604

          but he later expressed his disillusionment with the experiment in the Blithedale romance.1609

          He also wrote the Scarlet Letter, a very famous work that is certainly somewhat critical of the legacy of Puritanism.1614

          He also wrote the House of Seven Gables, where he wrote about the price individuals had to pay for cutting themselves off from society.1629

          He also said within this that egotism was the serpent of human misery.1636

          Here again we see individualistic ways of approaching what was happening in mainstream society1643

          and experimenting with new ideas and pushing the boundaries.1654

          Coming back to literature, we will see that southern novelists will create their own distinct style.1663

          In the 1830’s, many of the writers produced historical romances, romantic eulogies of the plantation system of the upper south.1670

          some of the famous novelists -- Beverley Tucker, William Alexander Caruthers,1679

          and John Pendleton Kennedy -- are some of the most famous southern writers.1683

          In the 1840’s, the literary capital moved to Charleston.1688

          William Gilmore Simms is one of the most famous writers from Charleston.1694

          He definitely was a nationalist and a strong defender of southern institutions such as slavery, and against northern encroachment.1702

          A much more blend of regional ideas and nationalism.1713

          From the fringes of southern society, writers such as Augustus Longstreet, Joseph Baldwin,1720

          Johnson J. Hooper, and others focused on the lives of ordinary people and poor whites.1727

          And sometimes painfully realistic lives, robust and using real language, even bolder humor in some cases.1735

          This became even further developed by Mark Twain, who is probably the most famous of all of these writers.1746

          In terms of art, we will also see a very significant movement of landscape painting.1758

          The Hudson River school is the first major great school of American painters.1766

          Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, Thomas Doughty, and Asher Durand are some of the major participants in this movement.1774

          They painted spectacular vistas of the rugged unsettled Hudson Valley.1786

          Similar to the transcendentalists, they consider nature more than civilization, the source of wisdom and spiritual fulfillment.1792

          You are probably not surprised, nature will be the focus of a lot of their art.1803

          The idea is that this is what makes us distinctly American, what we should celebrate.1811

          The wild nature that we had here in the United States.1816

          It was unlike what was happening in old Europe, and certainly industrial centers and places like England or France.1820

          Some of these painters traveled further west to capture some of the Yellowstone,1829

          very popular national park, in the Rocky mountain as well.1837

          Bierstadt and Moran are some of these famous painters who captured the landscape of the west.1844

          I have a few examples here, couple examples, by Frederic Church who was at the forefront of the landscape painting movement.1854

          The top one, do you recognized where it is?1866

          This is Niagra by Frederic Church, showing the power of the falls and beauty.1869

          And then this one is Mount Katahdin from Millinocket,1879

          just a very beautiful scene of a lake with mountains in the background, and trees, and a lone canoe, in a very peaceful scene.1887

          That brings us to the end of the lesson.1907

          Let us read through our first example for the multiple choice.1912

          This is an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau, resistance to civil government.1919

          It is good, we get to see actual primary source here.1925

          Unlike those who call themselves no government men, I ask for not no government but a better government.1927

          It is not desirable to cultivate the respect for the law so much as for the right.1936

          The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.1942

          There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war with Mexico,1955

          who yet, in effect, do nothing to put an end to them.1962

          Under government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for just man is also in prison.1969

          If the alternative is to keep all just man imprisoned or give up war and slavery, the state will not hesitate which to choose.1976

          If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure.1984

          This, the definition of appeasable revolution.1990

          Thoreau challenged the government because,2002

          He was an anarchist, he was a pacifist; it engaged in a war to take land from Mexico and expand slavery, it taxed people without representation.2005

          The answer.2020

          Which of the following that Thoreau believed a just man should be prepared to do?2024

          Go to jail for his beliefs, run for political office, stage a radical revolution, organize opposition?2028

          Example two, this one is going to be a short answer.2049

          America is beginning to assert herself to the sense and to the imagination of her children, and Europe is receding in the same degree.2057

          Britain men had begun to see that every American should be educated with a view to the values of land.2070

          The land is the appointed remedy for whatever is false in our culture.2078

          The continent we inhabit is to be physic and food for our mind, as well as our body.2086

          Gentleman, the development of our American internal resources, the extension to the utmost of the commercial system,2094

          and the appearance of new moral causes which are to modify the state are giving an aspect of greatness to the future,2100

          which the imagination fears to open, Ralph Waldo Emerson.2107

          Using the excerpt, answer A, B, and C.2121

          Briefly explain the point of view of the writer about one of the following, nature, railroads, or reform movements.2125

          Let us do this one.2134

          You may want to pause so you can do your own.2137

          Nature was viewed by the transcendentalists including Emerson, as a source for discovering one's inner self.2143

          Also the land of this great nation continued to be the remedy for all problems.2150

          Briefly explain one way in which developments during this period of the mid 19th century led to the point of view expressed by the writer.2170

          Nature was displayed in painting with landscapes especially in the Hudson River school,2188

          expressing the romantic ages fascination with the natural world.2193

          I carried out with a simple route.2200

          And lastly, briefly explain one way in which developments in this period of the mid 19th century2203

          challenged or supported Emerson's point of view.2208

          I will do a challenge, A challenge to Emerson's view was the growing materialism of society in the pursuit of wealth.2213

          The other side, the support of his views could be found in the development of widespread reform movements2226

          that demonstrated a moral commitment in life, such as the women's rights movement, the abolitionist movement.2232

          And even, we will talk about this, the temperance movement, there are several of them that you could actually give examples of.2241

          A few examples from transcendentalism, the American renaissance, romanticism.2253

          I hope you enjoyed this lesson, and thank you for watching