By the year 1840 the concept of Independence had been forever embedded in American tradition and American government. The value of freedom had yet to be accepted nor granted peacefully. The Revolution released America from the grasp of Britain and it would take yet another war to release the black man from the shackles of slavery. America was still in its infancy; the West was not yet settled, the South was still a confederacy and unity was just a dream. The country was torn by slavery. And some men began to question the integrity of their government. Henry David Thoreau was one such man.
Henry Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts to a successful pencil manufacturer John Thoreau and a strong-willed, quick-witted mother, Cynthia. Early on Henry enjoyed reading books and observing nature in solitude. He inherited the gift of gab and intellectual inquiry from his mother as well as both Puritan and abolitionist ideals. In 1837 he graduated from Harvard. In 1841 Henry moved into Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home.
Emerson was a prominent writer and philosopher of the time famous for his transcendentalist view on life and God. Transcendentalism divided the universe into “Nature and Soul” and classified people as either “Materialists or Idealists” (Schneider, 1987). Transcendentalists disagreed with John Locke’s “blank slate” theory of human development believing rather that we are, “born with certain innate ideas that provide a direct connection between the child and God.”Therefore, a transcendentalist should “hold oneself above merely material concerns and to focus one’s energies on attaining moral and spiritual excellence.” (Schneider, 1987). Thoreau held these ideals very close to his heart. Even as a boy he had sought for something more in life and to find it he turned to Nature. Now, through Emerson Thoreau had found himself and so would set forth to discover the secrets of the Universe.
Surrounded by great minds like Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thoreau traded philosophies and refined his own continuing to write, all the while being pushed by his contemporaries to lecture and write until finally he traveled to New York. His stay would not last long. The hustle and bustle of the big city exemplified the country’s materialism and disgusted Thoreau. He promptly returned to Concord where he built a small cabin on Emerson’s land alongside Walden Pond. For two years he experimented with farming and writing, and studied nature.
Meanwhile, the country was at war with Mexico over the rights to Texas. One night in July1846 Thoreau spent a night in the Concord jail for refusing to pay the poll tax, which helped to finance the war with Mexico. It’s safe to say that Henry did a great deal of thinking that night. In the future this night would be celebrated as the most important night of his entire life. Thoreau’s beliefs as a transcendentalist are well known; a striving to attain spiritual connections between God, Nature and the human Mind, but it is his personal philosophy of “an interconnectedness” of all things in nature including human beings that awakens him to the idea of independence. In Walking he describes how “in wildness is the preservation of the world…the most alive is the wildest.” Meaning that humans all have a “wild savage in us” that pulls us back to nature (Richardson, 1986). Further even from that was his belief that, “The highest we can attain is not Knowledge, but sympathy with Intelligence,” and only after we accept that can we “Live free.” His night in jail affords him the opportunity to see not only how precious freedom is, but also to see the injustice of his government.
As a philosopher Thoreau saw the path to enlightenment, as a naturalist he uncovered the beauty and importance of nature and his place in it, now as an abolitionist he would set out to write an antislavery, antiwar essay that would reach across the Atlantic and into the future.
Thoreau’s night spent in a Concord jail opened his eyes to the “injustice” of America’s government. His complaint was that conscience not law should decide right from wrong. In 1849 Thoreau published “Resistance to Civil Government” which opens, “I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least.” He continues, “I believe that government is best which governs not at all.” He saw government as “but an expedient,” a means to an end. He understood it to be “the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will” and that it was not immune to abuse and perversion before that “will” was carried out. “This American government,” he says, “is but a tradition…It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished.” This is Transcendentalist Thoreau, claiming an “inherent” character in the American people to follow their destiny to be their own independent and free country. After all, it was the people who created the government and if this is true then the government could be changed. He goes on to ask for “a better government” one in which “the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience.”
As far as the war with Mexico Thoreau describes soldiers marching in line “against their wills, against their common sense and consciences.” If the men cannot choose how to bring peace, “are they men at all? or small moveable forts…at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?” “The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, bus as machines, with their bodies.” Thoreau is suggesting that the individual not his government governs his body and more importantly his mind. Freedom was not something granted by a government and its laws; it was every man’s right. “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also,” Thoreau says. “This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as people.” Simply put, the law was wrong. And no man of good conscience could allow it to exist any longer. Bernard De Voto writes in The Year of Decision “somewhere between August and December 1846 the Civil War had begun.” (Richardson, 1986).
For much of the early 1850’s Thoreau would continue writing and refining his earlier works. Completing his manuscript A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and eventually his most famous book, Walden in which he set forth his ideas on how an individual should best live to be in tune to his own nature as well as to nature itself. He continued to protest slavery and after meeting John Brown in 1857 altered his pacifist view to condone using force when all peaceful means of abolishing slavery had failed.
Thoreau’s Walden gained him immediate fame, attention, and praise. Resistance to Civil Government would find more attention in the 20th century inspiring men like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi with its use of passive resistance to unjust laws. Thomas Carlyle called it the one truly original American contribution to civilization (http://www.biography.com/cgi-bin/biomain.cgi). It is also in the 20th century that Thoreau would come to be regarded as one of America’s major literary thinkers. As a naturalist Thoreau’s ideas of”interconnectedness” and a need for preservation would spring up later in the country’s efforts to ‘Conserve’ and respect the remaining wilderness. And perhaps Thoreau’s greatest achievement was convincing a nation that Freedom is within us all and no man or government has the power to deny us our destiny.
Richardson, Robert D. Jr. (1986). Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. University of
California Press, 455p.
Schneider, Richard J. (1987). Henry David Thoreau. Twayne Publishers, 179p.
http://www.biography.com/cgi-bin/biomain.cgi. Henry David Thoreau.
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2940.html. John Brown.
http://www.constitutuion.org/civ/civildis.htm. On the Duty of Civil Disobedience by
Henry David Thoreau.