This week in history: The bicentennial of Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau |

Seminal American thinker Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Mass., on July 12, 1817. As an essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, historian, and one who in the early stages of industrialism embraced simple living in natural surroundings, Thoreau’s careful observations and powerful conclusions have retained their impact into the 21st century. The national park system, the environmental movement, the wilderness movement, the civil rights movement and the hippie revolution, all are indebted to his insights. Thoreau’s words are quoted with approval by liberals, socialists, anarchists, and conservatives alike.

Thoreau’s collected writings amount to more than 20 volumes. His philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the political thought and actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr.

King noted in his autobiography that his first encounter with the idea of nonviolent resistance was reading Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience” in 1944 while attending Morehouse College. He wrote that it was, “Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.”

After he graduated from Harvard in 1837, Thoreau and his brother John opened the Concord Academy, introducing several progressive concepts, including nature walks and visits to local shops and businesses. The school closed when John died in 1842. Encouraged by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson to write, Thoreau started contributing essays and poems to periodicals. He also became a tutor to children in the Emerson household.

In Concord Thoreau worked in his family’s pencil factory, which he continued to do for most of his adult life. He rediscovered the process of making good pencils with inferior graphite by using clay as the binder. He later converted the factory to produce plumbago (graphite), which was used in the electrotyping process.

Thoreau embarked on a two-year experiment in simple living on July 4, 1845, when he moved to a small cabin he had built on land owned by Emerson in a second-growth forest around the shores of Walden Pond, just 1.5 miles from his family home. He continuously revised the manuscript of what he eventually published as Walden, or Life in the Woods in 1854, recounting the two years, two months, and two days he had spent at Walden Pond. The book compresses that time into a single calendar year, using the passage of the four seasons to symbolize human development. Part memoir and part spiritual quest, Walden at first won few admirers, but later critics have regarded it as a classic American work that explores natural simplicity, harmony, and beauty as models for just social and cultural conditions.

In July of 1846, Thoreau ran into the local tax collector, who asked him to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes. Thoreau refused because of his opposition to the Mexican–American War and slavery, and he spent a night in jail because of this refusal. The next day Thoreau was freed when someone, likely his aunt, paid the tax against his wishes. He later lectured and wrote about “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government.”

After John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, many prominent voices in the abolitionist movement distanced themselves from Brown. Thoreau composed a speech, “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” which uncompromisingly defended Brown and his actions. Thoreau’s speech proved persuasive: The abolitionist movement began to accept Brown as a martyr, and by the time of the Civil War entire armies of the North were literally singing Brown’s praises: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, But his soul goes marching on.” That song, of course, was later reset to new words as “Solidarity Forever.”

As a social philosopher

Thoreau strove to portray himself as an ascetic puritan. “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” Thoreau wrote. Millions of people around the world today question whether they own their computers and iPhones, or the other way around.

He was a proponent of limited government and individualism, distancing himself from contemporary anarchists, writing: “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” Though famous for his nonviolent resistance to unjustly exercised authority, he regarded pacifist nonresistance as temptation to passivity.

Thoreau had complex and nuanced views toward industrialization and capitalism. He admired the commercial enterprise that exchanged products around the world, but wrote disparagingly of the factory system:

“I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing. The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like that of the English; and it cannot be wondered at, since, as far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that corporations may be enriched.”

Thoreau also favored bioregionalism, the protection of animals and wild areas, free trade, and taxation for schools and highways. He disapproved of the subjugation of Native Americans, technological utopianism, consumerism, mass entertainment, and frivolous applications of technology.

Thoreau was influenced by Indian spiritual thought: Walden contains many overt references to the sacred texts of India. He followed various Hindu customs, including following a diet of rice, flute playing (reminiscent of the favorite musical pastime of Krishna), and yoga.

He also read contemporary scientific works by Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, and Asa Gray, Darwin’s staunchest American ally.

Thoreau contracted tuberculosis in 1835 and suffered from it sporadically. In 1860, he became ill with bronchitis and his health rapidly declined. Knowing his time was short, he spent his last years revising and editing his unpublished works. When his aunt Louisa asked him toward the end if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” He died on May 6, 1862, at age 44, never married and childless, his sexuality the subject of speculation ever since his death.

Thoreau’s political writings had little impact during his lifetime, when he was known mostly as a naturalist. Nevertheless, Thoreau’s ideas went on to influence many readers, including political figures, artists, authors, and future naturalists.

Adapted from Wikipedia.


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.