Civil Disobedience | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Civil Disobedience | Context


Thoreau's Transcendentalism, Individualism, and Solitude

Henry David Thoreau was a member of the transcendentalist movement, which combined literature and spirituality into a life philosophy. The movement arose in New England as a response to the increasingly conservative Unitarian church. The name most often associated with transcendentalism is Ralph Waldo Emerson, the movement's leader and Thoreau's mentor.

Transcendentalism emphasized rising above, or "transcending," ordinary life. It prized idealism over materialism and insight over tradition. To the transcendentalists, spiritual authority came from the individual soul, not an external deity. Everyone needed to find truth from within. The movement believed strongly in the human conscience as a guiding light, leading to Thoreau's call to conscience in "Civil Disobedience." He believed individuals were not only empowered but obligated to determine and to act on their own moral codes.

Although most transcendentalists tried to live by these principles, Thoreau took them to the extreme. For two years he famously lived off the land at his cabin at Walden Pond with complete self-sufficiency. Because transcendentalists believed nature was humanity's best teacher, Thoreau wanted to learn from nature as well as he could.

As someone who believed guidance comes from within, Thoreau deeply valued solitude. He befriended outcasts and avoided social activities. Skeptical of organized social reform movements, he believed reform should start with the individual rather than with group activities. When he became involved in the abolitionist (antislavery) movement, he was following his own conscience, not the tide of the times. His demeanor could be intimidating, even to those who agreed with him. In fact, Emerson described Thoreau as "somewhat military in his nature, not to be subdued, always manly and able, but rarely tender."

Slavery in the United States

Thoreau did not believe in ignoring society's crimes, and he speaks out against slavery in "Civil Disobedience." In the 1840s, when "Civil Disobedience" was written, slavery was undoubtedly the most controversial and divisive issue in the country.

The first Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 allowed states to seize, return, and try without a jury any slaves who crossed federal or state borders. Antislavery activists, especially in the North, rebelled against this law throughout the early 19th century, pushing for jury trials in fugitive slave cases and smuggling persons who escaped from slavery to freedom through the Underground Railroad network (escape routes leading from the South to the North).

During Thoreau's lifetime, the abolitionist or antislavery movement gained ground. A group of 60 abolitionist leaders founded the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in 1833. Among them was the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. The society encouraged nonviolent resistance, including educating the public with lectures and boycotting products, such as cotton, that were manufactured with the aid of slave labor. Antislavery activists even discussed independence from the slave states. Thoreau critiques some of these abolitionist tactics in "Civil Disobedience," believing direct forms of resistance to be more effective.

Concord, Massachusetts, where Thoreau lived, was active in the abolitionist movement. Debates in Concord's lyceum, or public meeting hall (where Thoreau briefly worked as an officer), included discussions on whether enslaved people should all be emancipated at once and whether forcible resistance was ever appropriate. Thoreau's mother, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, was involved in the Underground Railroad and the Female Anti-Slavery Society.

To counter the abolitionists' strength, Southern states fought back with a renewed Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. The new act not only denied fugitives the right to a trial but required the federal government to actively help slave owners capture those who escaped. Daniel Webster, a senator from New Hampshire and Massachusetts known for his eloquent speeches, famously endorsed the new Fugitive Slave Law and its inclusion in the Compromise of 1850 (a series of five separate Congressional bills passed to define the slave status of territories acquired as a result of the Mexican–American War). Although the 1850 law was passed after Thoreau wrote "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau names Webster as a politician willing to compromise his morals and support the continuation of slavery.

Opposition to the Mexican–American War

Another event fueling the fire of the slavery debate was the Mexican–American War (also called the Mexican War), beginning in 1846. In the early 1800s the land that is now the states of Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, California, and part of Colorado belonged to Mexico. When Texas entered the United States in 1845, American politicians were enthusiastic about the prospect of acquiring more territory. The American population was growing, both by birth and by immigration. John O'Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review, wrote about the nation's "manifest destiny to overspread the continent." Advocates for expansion into Western territory adopted the phrase "manifest destiny" to mean a divine right or mission.

However, Mexico was not eager to give up more land. To take the territory by force, President James K. Polk sent troops to the border of Texas. When Mexicans fought back, Polk used their defense as an excuse to declare all-out war.

The addition of Texas to the Union raised another problem: would Texas be a slave state or a free state? Many of the war's opponents, especially abolitionists, saw the war as an excuse to add more slave states to the Union in the South. They viewed Polk's attack as needless aggression for the purpose of sustaining slavery. Thoreau was critical of the concept of manifest destiny, condemning both the bloodshed in the Mexican–American War and the militant expansionism behind it.

Thoreau's references to the "invading army" depict American forces as the occupiers of a defenseless nation. The war's results backed him up. Throughout the Mexican–American War, the United States consistently gained territory until the war's end in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. General Ulysses S. Grant called the war "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation."

Thoreau's Resistance and Night in Jail

Thoreau was not the first American to stop paying taxes in protest. Algonquin Indians had refused to pay taxes to the conquering Dutch, early Americans had resisted Britain's Stamp Tax, and in the 19th century, some free black communities in the North argued for tax refusal. Indeed, Massachusetts abolitionist Charles Lenox Remond recommended that free African Americans choose jail over paying discriminatory institutions, and used the slogan, "No Privileges, No Pay," echoing the American revolutionary war cry of "No Taxation Without Representation." Closer to home for Thoreau, fellow transcendentalist and abolitionist Bronson Alcott was arrested in Concord for not paying the poll tax, three years before Thoreau's own arrest.

The poll tax was a capital tax all adults in the community paid. (There were no income taxes, and Thoreau didn't own enough land to pay property taxes.) In 1842 Thoreau stopped paying the poll tax. Four years later, in 1846, he left his cabin on Walden Pond to run errands in Concord. Local constable Sam Staples arrested him and took him to jail, where he spent one night. An unknown individual, probably Thoreau's Aunt Maria, paid the back taxes for him, and he was released, whereupon he joined the "huckleberry party," the pickers he refers to in the essay.

Upset his debt had been paid, Thoreau believed the government missed the point of his actions. He wrote a lecture to explain his reasoning and to satisfy local curiosity about his night in jail, and then delivered it at the Concord Meeting Hall in 1848. In 1849 fellow activist Elizabeth Palmer Peabody published the lecture as an essay with the title "Resistance to Civil Government" in Aesthetic Papers. After Thoreau's death, the essay was republished with the title "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience." (No evidence shows Thoreau coined or used the term civil disobedience himself.)

Influence on Political Activists

Before the publication of Thoreau's essay, the tactic of civil disobedience as a means of opposing war and slavery had been addressed mostly by American Quaker writers. Thoreau was the first American writer to address the topic from a nonreligious perspective, placing the emphasis on individual conscience instead. His essay was thus able to reach broader audiences as a critique of American imperialism, with which everyone was familiar, regardless of individual religion.

Although some 20th-century readers found Thoreau's call to action impractical, and impossible for everyday citizens, others were inspired. In the 1960s, when the American civil rights movement and anti–Vietnam War movement gained ground, protesters embraced Thoreau's ideas. Civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. cited "Civil Disobedience" as an influence in his practice of nonviolent resistance. Playwrights Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence dramatized Thoreau's protest in their 1969 play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, helping establish Thoreau as an icon for later antiwar activists.

Outside of the United States, Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi was influenced by Thoreau's essay as he led mass protests against British imperialism in India. "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau's blueprint for action, also inspired Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, German philosopher Martin Buber, South African activists protesting apartheid, Danish resistance fighters, and many other thinkers, dissidents, and political leaders around the world. Despite Thoreau's specific references to 19th-century Massachusetts, his message has been adapted to multiple situations and times in history.

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