henry david thoreau and civil disobedience -- 3/17/15

Today's selection -- from What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe. The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, viewed by many as the spiritual father of civil disobedience and whose writings were later invoked by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"Any account of the Concord Transcendentalists must reckon with Henry David Thoreau (properly pronounced 'Thaw-roe'). Thoreau has served as a patron saint for two movements in American life: environmentalism and civil disobedience. In actuality, Thoreau was neither a natural scientist nor a political philosopher. His genius lay in reflecting upon relatively modest experiences and turning them into great writing.

Henry David Thoreau in 1856

"By Walden Pond, just a mile and a quarter from Concord town center, Thoreau built a one-room cabin on land owned by his friend [Ralph Waldo] Emerson. He stayed in it, off and on, from July 1845 to September 1847. Other Transcendentalists had experimented with living in a utopian commune called Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. Thoreau constructed his own one-man utopia in search of a way of life that would bypass what he found to be the distractions of social convention and material clutter. Like the Shakers and the early Quakers, like the original Christian monastics, Thoreau opted for simplicity. 'I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.' Practicing thrift as a form of spiritual discipline, Thoreau turned his back on the consumer products that his countrymen embraced so eagerly. Yet he did not scorn the industrial revolution; he felt in awe of the railroad trains that passed not far from his cabin, for they exemplified the human qualities of invention and adventure that he admired.

"Why did Thoreau not go out to the frontier and build his cabin in an actual wilderness? Because he wanted to prove such a major undertaking not necessary; one could conduct a living experiment within easy reach, using few resources. If others who felt discontented with their lives wished to imitate his example, they could readily do so. The important thing was to explore one's inner state of mind, not journey long distances. As Thoreau wryly put it, 'I have traveled a good deal in Concord.'

"As for 'civil disobedience,' there is no evidence that Thoreau ever used the expression in his life. He spent a night in Concord jail -- either the twenty-third or twenty-fourth of July 1846 (we cannot tell which) -- for refusing to pay the Massachusetts state poll tax of $1.50. News traveled fast in the village, and within a few hours someone had paid the tax for him, probably his aunt Maria Thoreau, a member of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society like a number of other women in the Thoreau and Emerson families, who closely monitored the political stands of their menfolk. So the local constable, Sam Staples, freed his friend Henry the next morning.

"Henry Thoreau made this brief experience the basis of a lecture and later turned the lecture into an essay entitled 'Resistance to Civil Government.' He there discusses his action as a moral protest against immoral government practices: the return of escaped slaves, the war against Mexico, and the treatment of the American Indians. The essay has often been invoked by subsequent generations of protesters, including Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, and opponents of South African apartheid. Those who have cited Thoreau in this way have generally been non-violent and willing to accept punishment for their lawbreaking, but his essay makes no mention of either of those principles (and Thoreau elsewhere had repudiated non-violence). Nor, of course, did he invoke the federal Constitution to sanction his violation of a state statute. The only 'higher laws' Thoreau cared about were the eternal principles of morality. Linking his act of protest with the Concord of 1775, he asserted an individual right of revolution. On the whole, Thoreau seems less concerned with disobedience as a reform tactic than as a demonstration of the moral integrity of the protester. When human law conflicted with the dictates of conscience, he did not doubt which should prevail. Confident that the intuitions of conscience put everyone in touch with the same immutable moral law, neither Thoreau nor the other Transcendentalists worried about the possibility of conflicting moral principles.


Daniel Walker Howe


What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States)


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2007 by Oxford University Press


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