Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) remains politically salient due to his essays “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” “Slavery in Massachusetts,” “The Last Days of John Brown,” and his energetic defense of “Civil Disobedience.” He also derived significant notoriety from his writings on nature and his relationship with the transcendentalist movement, especially the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. As Emerson noted in his eulogy, however, Thoreau aimed “at a more comprehensive calling, the art of living well” (53). Like Socrates, Thoreau lived the “examined life,” most especially in his famous autobiographical reflections Walden (1854).
“Civil Disobedience” (1849) has had an enduring legacy; for instance, Mahatma Gandhi stated simply that “it left a deep impression upon me” (71). In it, Thoreau articulated the first theoretical argument for a form of resistance to oppression and tyranny that did not depend upon force of arms. Thoreau was not a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King Jr., though he did spend a night in jail for refusing to pay a tax out of protest for the U.S. invasion of Mexico as well as slavery. In fact, Thoreau’s critique of the state is reminiscent of the anarchist tradition; it is more a general opposition to tyranny than a simple opposition to slavery or war.
Thoreau believed that there were two ways to judge human laws, either by expediency or by individual conscience. By expediency, Thoreau meant a simple majority of the electorate. Thoreau made it clear that, for him, individual consciousness meant far more than legislations, which regularly made men “the agents of injustice.” These two different judgments—by expediency or by conscience—lead either to obedience or to disobedience. Thoreau, in Walden and Civil Disobedience, writes that “if [the injustice] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law” (396).
From Thoreau’s viewpoint, true power stems from the willing cooperation of people: “If one honest man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartner ship, and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America” (397).
Though Gandhi and other practitioners of nonviolent resistance to oppression have admired Thoreau for this sentiment, Thoreau’s increasing antislavery activism led him to endorse violent resistance as well. Thoreau praised abolitionist John Brown, the leader of the unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (1859) as quoted in Milton Meltzer’s Thoreau: People, Principles, and Politics, “like the best of those who stood at Concord Bridge . . . only he was firmer and higher-principled. . . .” (115). Thoreau wholeheartedly embraced Brown’s attempt to use of violence to end slavery in the United States, but he died in 1862, before Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and before the end of the bloody U.S. Civil War (1861–1865) brought to the end of slavery throughout the country.
- Donahue, James J. “‘Hardly the Voice of the Same Man’: ‘Civil Disobedience’ and Thoreau’s Response to John Brown.” Midwest Quarterly 48, no. 2 (2007): 247–265.
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Thoreau.” Atlantic Monthly, December 2006, 53–54.
- Gandhi, Mahatma. The Essential Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, edited by Raghavan Iyer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
- Hyde, Lewis, ed. The Essays of Henry D.Thoreau. New York: North Point Press, 2002.
- Meltzer, Milton, ed. Thoreau: People, Principles, and Politics. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963.
- Rosenblum, Nancy L., ed. Thoreau: Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
- Steger, Manfred B. “Mahatma Gandhi and the Anarchist Legacy of Henry David Thoreau.” Southern Humanities Review 23, no. 3 (1993): 201–215.
- Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
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