Thoreau, Henry David

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Thoreau, Henry David

Henry David Thoreau. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Henry David Thoreau.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Henry David Thoreau was a nineteenth-century philosopher and writer who denounced materialistic modes of living and encouraged people to act according to their own beliefs of right and wrong, even if doing so required breaking the law. His writings, especially his call for nonviolent resistance to government injustice, have inspired many later reformers.

Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard College in 1837. During his college years, he was greatly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the leader of the transcendental movement. Thoreau became a personal friend of the eminent author and spent several years as Emerson's houseguest. Their long friendship was a significant influence on Thoreau's writing and philosophy.

Through Emerson, Thoreau met many other brilliant thinkers and writers of the time, including Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Amos Bronson Alcott. This group of transcendentalists supported a plain and simple lifestyle spent searching for the truth beyond one's taught beliefs. Unlike some of the other transcendentalists, Thoreau lived out many of their beliefs. Thoreau's first work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was published in 1849 and is considered the definitive statement of his transcendalist beliefs.

For several years in the 1830s and 1840s, Thoreau refused to pay poll taxes to the government as a way of protesting Slavery, which the government permitted. The poll tax was levied on all men over the age of twenty. Thoreau was finally jailed overnight for this refusal in 1841 but was bailed out by his relatives who paid his back taxes for him.

From July 4, 1845, to September 6, 1847, Thoreau lived alone at Walden Pond, Massachusetts, on a plot of land owned by Emerson. There Thoreau devoted his time to studying nature and writing. While at Walden Pond, he wrote Walden, a collection of essays about nature and human nature that was published in 1854.

Later Thoreau became outraged by the Mexican War, which he believed was caused by greed for Mexican land, and by the fugitive slave act, which helped slave owners recover escaped slaves. As a result of this outrage, Thoreau wrote an essay that was published in 1849 under the title Civil Disobedience (Thoreau's original title was Resistance to Civil Government). The essay contended that each person owes a greater duty to his own conscience and belief system than is owed to the government. Thus, Thoreau encouraged people to refuse to obey laws that they believe are unjust.

Civil Disobedience also supported theories of anarchy based upon Thoreau's insistence that people misuse government. He argued that the Mexican War was started by just a few people who used the U.S. government as a tool. Thoreau maintained that because the U.S. system of government was slow to correct itself through the will of the majority, people should immediately withdraw their support from government and act according to their beliefs of what is right.

"I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach."
—Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau did not approve of violent resistance to government, however. He advocated peaceful or passive resistance. In 1859, when John Brown staged a violent revolt against slavery, Thoreau believed that Brown was right in acting according to his beliefs even though his actions were against the law. Although Thoreau did not admire the violent method that Brown used in trying to stop slavery, Thoreau did admire Brown's commitment to doing what he believed was right. In 1859 Thoreau published The Last Days of John Brown, an essay describing how Brown's actions convinced many Northerners that slavery must be totally abolished.

Thoreau's writings and philosophy greatly influenced many important world figures. For example, the reformer Leo Tolstoy of Russia, mohandas gandhi of India, martin luther king jr., and other leaders of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement were inspired by Thoreau's ideas. Thoreau died of tuberculosis on May 6, 1862, in Concord, Massachusetts.

Further readings

Bennett, Jane. 1994. Thoreau's Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

Lawry, Robert P. 2002. "Ethics in the Shadow of the Law: The Political Obligation of a Citizen." Case Western Reserve Law Review 52 (spring).

Thoreau, Henry David. 2000. Walden; and, Civil Disobedience: Complete Texts with Introduction, Historical Contexts, Critical Essays. Ed. by Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Cross-references

Anarchism.

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