Transcendental Ethos

A Study of Thoreau’s Social Philosophy and
Its Consistency in Relation to Antebellum Reform

© Michael J. Frederick, 1998

Thoreau Reader:  Home - Table of Contents - Next Section

V. Later Thoreauvian Themes
[1]        As often opportunity presents itself, Thoreau hoisted his banner. On January 26, 1848, Bronson Alcott wrote in his journal: "Heard Thoreau’s lecture before the Lyceum on the relation of the individual to the State — an admirable statement of the rights of the individual to self-government, and an attentive audience."(147) Thoreau followed the lead of Alcott and Charles Lane, when, in 1843, he stopped paying his poll tax in protest of slavery. One afternoon, near the end of his second summer at Walden, Thoreau, on his way to the cobbler’s shop, was arrested by Concord constable Sam Staples. Alcott’s journal refers to Thoreau’s 1848 lecture resulting from his arrest entitled "The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government," published a year later in Elizabeth Peabody’s Aesthetic Papers as "Resistance to Civil Government."

[2]        Thoreau gave the lecture twice in early 1848 at the same time as Adin Ballou’s book on Christian Non-Resistance was reviewed by the Christian Examiner. Ballou advocated passive resistance against institutionalized, government sanctioned, chattel slavery. He recognized the nefarious injustice of his government, that it sanctioned slavery and war was enough to establish this fact in his own mind, being contrary to his avowed Christian ethic. The book, while recognized as an exemplary work by notable pacifists such as Leo Tolstoy, was ignored by Thoreau, who simply would not have accepted its fundamental arguments. Noting the government’s role in the egregious institution, Ballou wrote:

And yet, notwithstanding all this, I must be a member of the national organization, who are bound by this political creed and covenant. I must be a voter. I must vote for the President of the United States to be "commander in chief of our army and navy." I must agree to have him put under oath, faithfully to execute this office. I must myself be ready to accept of this, that and the other office, prefaced by an obligation to support the entire Constitution, war, slavery and all, as ‘the SUPREME LAW of the land!" And if IDOLATRY were a fundamental prescription of the compact, I must support that too!(148)
He echoed Garrison’s "Declaration of Sentiments" address, which declared similarly: "We shall submit to every ordinance of man, for the Lord’s sake; obey all the requirements of government, except such as we deem contrary to the commands of the gospel; and in no wise resist the operation of law, except by meekly submitting to the penalty of disobedience.(149)

[3]        "Resistance to Civil Government" differs from Ballou’s book in tone, temperament, and suggested course of action. In the past, Thoreau had come to the aid of several speakers in Concord favoring the free discussion of slavery. Now he championed the freedom of self-expression. He always believed non-resistance should have an edge. When in the course of time a government ceases to represent the welfare of society, he believes it is the individual’s right, and sometimes their duty, to resist heroically, rather than cravenly submit to its injustice.

[4]        As Alcott aptly suggests, Thoreau’s essay is a treatise on self-government, but also germinating from the Transcendental concept of self-culture. The essay advances the third proposition of Emerson’s "American Scholar" address. Individuals not only should enrich themselves in the literature of the past and in nature but also in affecting the progress of society. Thoreau takes this to its ideological conclusion.

I HEARTILY accept the motto, — "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — "That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.(150)
Simply a continuation of his earliest themes, he calls not for no government but for virtuous self-government. Thoreau says he cannot be "forced" by society to conform, only by those who "obey a higher law" than he. Giving a Transcendental metaphor, he writes: "I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man."(151)

[5]        In reading the Bhagavad Gita, Thoreau recognized what he believed was a fundamental defect in Krishna’s argument. Because "no sufficient reason"is given for the necessity of why Arjuna should fight and because Brahmanic virtue "consists not in doing right, but arbitrary things," Thoreau concludes that inactive virtue is not virtuous but, in fact, in this case, "a defense" of the caste system. Without discounting altogether the need for severe and mild punishments, he had earlier reasoned that the end of all punishment would be the good of society. Within his seemingly recondite social philosophy there is simplicity. Given the premise that the human mind is not tabula rasa, that human beings are not merely malleable, but are complex organic organisms, Thoreau reasons that social progress is facilitated by individual self-culture first, and institutions secondly. In an 1844 lecture, "Reform and Reformers," he wrote:

        There is no objection to action in societies or communities when it is the individual using the society as his instrument, rather than the society using the individual. . . .

        In every society there is or was at least one individual, its founder and leader, who did not belong to it, but who imparted to it whatever life and efficiency it had, and sad indeed is the condition of that society, and it is the condition of most, which is deprived of its head — and soul — for the members can still vote, — and as it were by force of galvanism, a spasmodic action be kept up in the body, and men call it life, and expect virtue and character from senseless nerves and muscles.(152)

[6]        He by no means objects to the ideals of the Non-resistance Society, but being a practical idealist, recognizes the necessity of definitive individual action and sacrifice, sometimes force. In "Resistance to Civil Government," he almost immediately alludes to the Society, stating that there are "objections" against a "standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail. . . ." This he particularly objects to as a standing army is often used by a few unscrupulous men wishing to further their own unjust enterprises. "Witness the present Mexican war," he says. While he deliberately criticizes the war, we should note, Thoreau stopped paying his taxes before the eruption of conflict with Mexico in protest of slavery, not war.

[7]        Without casting suspicion on the majority, Thoreau is sure it is they who have kept the country free, who are the educators, and who have settled the West: "The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished. . . ."(153) He is optimistic, cherishing the integrity of the individuals who compose the citizenry: "But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government." Desiring to be a good citizen, Thoreau always paid the highway tax, and as for "supporting schools," he says he is doing his part to educate his "fellow countrymen now."(154)

[8]        Governments, particularly in a democracy, need the consent of the people in order to function. Refusal to pay taxes, if carried out by a majority, could have serious consequences for a government. Therein lies one aspect of a potentially dangerous campaign. Thoreau does not address the problems that would be associated with civil disobedience on an expanded scale, whereas Gandhi gives this considerable attention. Confined, instead, to the theme of his own individual resistance against the civil authorities, his essay avoids discussing it wholly in terms of a national collective movement. Although, he does entreat conscientious citizens and abolitionists alike to follow his example. "If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact," he says, "the definition of a peaceable revolution," and adds, "if any such is possible."(155) He would much rather discuss his own individual experience and in his own characteristic style writes: "I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name, — if ten honest men only, — aye, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America."(156) His intended hyperbolic response is meant literally, ideally, as Thoreau truly believes the power of virtue influences the good of society: "For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done for ever." The truth of his statement can be observed in the subsequent effect of his essay in the twentieth century.

[9]        With the individual as the foundation of society, and as the essential necessary component for social progress, Thoreau also argues: All are peaceably inclined. He objects not so much to the fact that men go off to war, but that they go against their own will and conscience:

A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, aye, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined.(157)
Individuals, as Thoreau trenchantly perceived in himself, have a tendency toward a higher and a lower nature. Unaware of their higher natures, individuals often have an "undue respect for law." They resign their consciences to expediency. "Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?" Fleeting thoughts pass through our consciousness and are often dismissed as flights of fancy. As Emerson wrote: "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty."(158) Citizens resign their consciences to legislators and, thus, serve the state "not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus&c."(159) Thoreau complains that in "most cases there is no free exercise," of what he terms, "the judgement" or "the moral sense." The implementation of which is not predicated on an assumption of nonviolent resistance but on the "free exercise" of the moral faculty.

[10]        He particularly objects to a system based on exponential morality when citing William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity in "Resistance to Civil Government" and specifically its chapter on "The Duty of Submission to Civil Government." Paley explains his doctrine as follows:   "This principle being admitted, the justice of every particular case of resistance is reduced to a computation of the quantity of the danger and grievance on the one side and of the probability and expense of redressing it on the other."(160) Thoreau rejects Paley’s argument in cases where the "rule of expediency does not apply, in which a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may." He gives an example of a case where he himself might have to suffer injury: "If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself." Furthermore, doing justice, cost what it may, also contains an implicit sanction of forcible resistance. And given the evidence in A Week, Thoreau’s citation of Krishna’s "defective argument," the inference is wholly tenable.

[11]        He does not formalize moral decision making, nor suggest that his is the only way. Holding slaves and the war with Mexico for the acquisition of new territory and the expansion of slavery are unjust enterprises as he so believed. Because of this injustice, Thoreau resists the government’s support of slavery and the war. In Walden, he wrote: "It is true, I might have resisted forcibly with more or less effect, might have run ‘amok’ against society; but I preferred that society should run ‘amok’ against me, it being the desperate party."(161) As before mentioned, he believed "the strongest is always the least violent," and as such, preferred peaceful to forcible resistance — a preference he would always try to maintain without, however, discounting the possible necessity of force in instances where justice must be done cost what it may.

[12]        By refusing to pay his taxes, Thoreau believed he was acting according to the higher law. Such refusal was not an anarchic deed but an imperatively heroic expression intended as an appeal to conscience necessary for the preservation of justice. His individual act was one of non-compliance and non-cooperation but intended to awaken legislators to their own unlawful participation in perpetuating slavery. In his lecture and subsequent essay on "Resistance to Civil Government," Thoreau makes a similar appeal to conscience, an appeal to mass consciousness. While he recognized the virtues of the American people, he criticized them for not following their consciences: "Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? — in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable?"(162) The majority resigns their consciences, instead, even in such cases when the government’s despotic perpetration of injustice, in this case, slavery, is so great as to be almost universally recognized as inequitable, if not, unjust. In this particular case, Thoreau believed he himself constituted a majority of one.

[13]        "Resistance to Civil Government" follows Antigone’s maxim that there is a higher law than that of the State. Torn between her loyalties to the State and her religious convictions, Antigone disobeyed the king’s law and buried her brother. Similarly, Thoreau breaks the law by refusing to pay his poll tax. For his act of non-compliance and non-cooperation, he readily, willingly, and happily, even humbly, submitted to imprisonment. Fulfillment of the higher law entails living virtuously according to principle, and is essentially nonviolent.

[14]        Thoreau’s act of resistance to the civil law followed from his lifestyle overall, and, in this sense, was not simply a single act of disobedience but rooted in his notion of self-government. Virtue consists of living according to principle, not as an occasional endeavor. One of his reasons for going to Walden Pond was because he wanted to live simply, recognizing virtue as its own reward. A resister of civil government not only should be willing to go to prison but to suffer loss of property as well. In this case, the virtue of simplicity is evident:

I have contemplated the imprisonment of the offender, rather than the seizure of his goods, — though both will serve the same purpose, — because they who assert the purest right, and consequently are most dangerous to a corrupt State, commonly have not spent much time in accumulating property. . . . Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him; and it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it.(163)
At times it may become necessary to resist injustice, and with simplicity, an individual may be properly actuated to perform his or, nonetheless, her duty, as Thoreau believes the higher law is the province of God and bears forth its fruit for civilization. Appealing to the wisdom of Confucius, Thoreau writes: "‘If a State is governed by the principles of reason, poverty and misery are subjects of shame; if a State is not governed by the principles of reason, riches and honors are the subjects of shame.’"(164)

[15]        "Resistance to Civil Government" is reactionary as it considers individual self-government before the State, and revolutionary because political expediency is subordinated to individual virtue. Thoreau, in fact, borrows from numerous traditions, uprooting and gathering his grub. His landscape reveals the mulched remains of Shakespeare, Milton, Sophocles, Jesus, and Confucius, whose fecund practical ethics enrich the central theme of the essay:

There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. . . . A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.(165)
Here again, Thoreau takes for his ideal the free and enlightened State, which corresponds to the ideal expressed in his college essay that the end of all punishment is the welfare of the state. By taking the free and enlightened State as his ideal, Thoreau implies the individual should strive for self-government. He objects to Paley’s system of exponential morality because it does not consider virtue, but what is merely expedient, and does not take into account those instances in which justice must be done, cost what it may.

[16]        In his college essay, Thoreau did not discount altogether the possibility that "some advantage" may be derived from a policy of severe and mild punishments but that the degree of "severity" must "bear some proportion to the offence." If this distinction is not kept in mind, punishment may be unjust. Similarly, "Resistance to Civil Government" does not discount the possibility of severity, in this case, the possibility of bloodshed: "But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded?"(166) He does not insist that resistance must be nonviolent. Instead, he indubitably states: "The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right."(167) Reemphasizing the point again later, he writes: "This, then, is my position at present. But one cannot be too much on his guard in such a case, lest his action be biased by obstinacy, or an undue regard for the opinions of men. Let him see that he does only what belongs to himself and to the hour."(168) As he assumes, all are peacefully inclined, he writes: "I see that appeal is possible," i.e., a peaceful appeal. "And, above all," he writes, "there is this difference between resisting this and a purely brute or natural force, that I can resist this with some effect; but I cannot expect, like Orpheus, to change the nature of the rocks and trees and beasts."(169) He does not assume that natural forces are necessarily benign.

[17]        "Resistance to Civil Government" does not discount earlier themes. Heroic themes are extant and anticipatory of John Brown: "A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the State with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated by it as enemies." His patriotism, or "Concord pride," is still visible. Speaking of the majority, those who do not reverence their conscience, he writes: "Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?" Thoreau believes "[a]ll men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable."(170) "Resistance to Civil Government" is Jeffersonian not by design but in its belief that certain "truths," or ideals, are self-evident, an individual has the right to withdraw his consent from the government, and the people have a right to revolution:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation of such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
[18]        Many European visitors to the United States during Thoreau’s lifetime commented on the American form of Government. William Howard Russell, commentator for the Times of London during the first year of the Civil War, wrote in his travel diary: "During my short sojourn in this country I have never yet met any person who could show me where the sovereignty of the Union resides."(171) This type of confusion about the American system of government was not uncommon. American politics often erupted into confusion during the Antebellum period.

[19]        With the Mexican war and the subsequent annexation of Texas in 1845, the Union became irreconcilably split over the future expansion of slavery. In 1849, President Taylor signed a treaty with Mexico acquiring the territory that would later become the states of New Mexico, Utah, and California. Taylor’s handling of events precipitated the greatest crisis in the history of American government prior to the Civil War. Congressional sessions became violent; there were challenges to duels. In 1850, Stephen A. Douglas presented Henry Clay’s Omnibus Bill piecemeal to Congress. Its passage was signed into law by the new president, Milford Fillmore. The Compromise of 1850 gave the South legal access to the territories, making possible the future expansion of slavery.

[20]        The Transcendentalists were outraged by the politically expedient Compromise, viewing it as a moral sanctification of slavery. Thoreau scathingly denounced its iniquity because it upheld the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in forcing Northerners to return runaway slaves to the South: "The fact which the politician faces is merely, that there is less honor among thieves than was supposed, and not the fact that they are thieves."(172) Of the new law, Emerson wrote: "Whilst the inconsistency of slavery with the principles on which the world is built guarantees its downfall, I own that the patience it requires is almost too sublime for mortals, and seems to demand of us more than mere hoping"; elsewhere adding, "I will not obey it, by God."(173)

[21]        Their sentiments were not misplaced. William Ellery Channing, the famous Boston Unitarian minister, remarked in 1842, that the Constitution of the United States is explicit on at least one point: "It affirms that ‘slaves are recognized as property by the Constitution of the United States in those States in which slavery exists.’ Here we have the limit precisely defined within which the Constitution spreads its shield over slavery."(174) Some of the founders, James Madison, in particular as Channing points out, did not want to sanction slavery morally. Madison thought the Constitution should not recognize slaves exclusively as property: "The slave is no less evidently regarded by the law as a member of the society; not as a part of the irrational creation; as a moral person, not as a mere article of property."(175) Moreover, the Declaration of Independence solemnly declares: All Men are created Equal; and are endowed by their Creator with the Inalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Thoreau and Emerson recognized the inconsistency of the Compromise in recognizing what they believed was a rejection of the good intentions and principles upon which their country was founded. Their diatribes become increasingly heated from 1850 on, with the ensuing breakdown of civil government, and the almost inevitable outbreak of war. In an 1854 journal entry, Thoreau wrote: "Your Congress halls have an alehouse odor, — a place for stale jokes and vulgar wit. It compels me to think of my fellow-creatures as apes and baboons."(176)

[22]        Passage of the Fugitive Slave Law inclined many Transcendentalists toward definitive, if not forcible action. In 1849, Emerson’s essay on "War" was published in the Aesthetic Papers along with "Resistance to Civil Government." Emerson took a position similar to Thoreau’s. Although he begins by praising war, the essay soon turns to defending the principles of nonviolence. Emerson asks: "How is this new aspiration of the human mind to be made visible and real?"(177) While he does not speak directly to the question of resisting the civil government, or civil disobedience, he, like Thoreau, is concerned with actualizing the ideal of a higher or enlightened State. Where he is concerned with attaining a peaceful State by avoiding hostility and war, he adds: "A wise man will never impawn his future being and action, and decide beforehand what he shall do in a given extreme event. Nature and God will instruct him in that hour." Thoreau’s essay is the reciprocal of Emerson’s in the sense that each calls for a peaceful State, yet granting, as Thoreau does, the individual do what belongs to himself and to the hour.

[23]        With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, Concord citizens, members of Abolitionism and non-members alike, became embroiled in controversy over the contentious, earth-shattering law. In early 1851, citizens of Concord assisted Shadrach, a Virginian slave, to freedom. In April, Thomas Sims was captured and returned to his Georgian owner. Thoreau , too, got involved. In October, he helped Henry Williams elude slave-catchers by placing him aboard a train bound for Canada. The arrest, trial, and return to slavery of one Anthony Burns prompted Thoreau’s most scathing denunciation of slavery to date.

[24]        On May 24, 1854, Burns was arrested. The next day Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. And a day later, a Boston crowd mobbed the courthouse in a failed rescue attempt of Burns. Richardson explains that "it had taken a battalion of U.S. artillery, four platoons of marines, the sheriff’s posse, twenty-two companies of state militia, and forty thousand dollars to return Anthony Burns to slavery."(178) The exorbitant cost of returning a single individual to bondage outraged Northern-moderates and compelled many to shift their opinion in favor of abolitionism. Among the Transcendentalists, Parker and Alcott had earlier joined the vigilance committee, helping to patrol the streets of Boston at night to protect blacks from indiscriminate arrest as fugitives.(179)

[25]        Thoreau delivered "Slavery in Massachusetts" at an annual Fourth of July gathering of the Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society, the same gathering at which Garrison burned a copy of the United States Constitution. The new law had indeed riled its opponents. Thoreau’s speech was delivered in front of a large audience and later reached thousands of readers in the pages of the New York Tribune and the Liberator. It was not, of course, the first time that one of his essays appeared in an anti-slavery publication.

[26]        Believing his country had lost its sense of reason, Thoreau’s tone and temperament are markedly different in this essay. He says his "thoughts are murder to the State." Before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, there were hopes that the South, especially one of the Border States, might adopt some policy of gradual emancipation.(180) Delaware and Maryland adopted a policy of voluntary manumissions, for example, with some success at decreasing their slave population. Advances in the Border States could have insured a three-fourths majority in Congress needed to pass a constitutional amendment, possibly with gradual emancipation as an aim. The political climate of the 1850's marked a steep decline in the prospect of gradual emancipation. And with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, slavery was opened to further westward expansion, rendering mute the Missouri Compromise, which had provided strict limits seeking to contain its spread. As individual self-government is higher than the State, and as the ideal State will come to recognize it as such, Thoreau contends that "the State has fatally interfered with" his "lawful business." "It has not only interrupted me in my passage through Court street on errands of trade," he says, "but it has interrupted me and every man on his onward and upward path. . . ."(181)

[27]        The new law restricted, as Thoreau believed, his own personal freedom, not only his ability to resist peacefully and effectively the government but his sense of the progressiveness of the ideal in the near future as well. As for "patriotism," every citizen of Massachusetts that is capable of such a sentiment, must feel, similarly, that they have suffered "a vast and indefinite loss" with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. Thoreau adds: "For my part, my old and worthiest pursuits have lost I cannot say how much of their attraction, and I feel that my investment in life here is worth many per cent less since Massachusetts last deliberately sent back an innocent man, Anthony Burns, to slavery."(182) Very significant, this point; Thoreau is admitting that his preference for peaceful resistance is losing its practical appeal. Inactive virtue is not virtuous. "Show me a free State, and a court truly of justice, and I will fight for them, if need be; but show me Massachusetts, and I refuse her my allegiance, and express contempt for her courts." Later, he concludes: "If we would save our lives, we must fight for them."(183)

[28]        That same year, Walden was published. An inexorable book on self-reliance and self-cultivation, it deals with Thoreau’s spiritual journey, vision quest, if you will, while at Walden Pond, a practical expression of lofty idealism. He recognizes an innate tendency towards a higher, spiritual, or ideal existence as well as towards a lower, primitive, or material one with "reverence" to both. Military metaphors are distant, yet evident, and not altogether eliminated: "But sometimes it was a really noble and inspiring strain that reached these woods, and the trumpet that sings of fame, and I felt as if I could spit a Mexican with a good relish, — for why should we always stand for trifles?" There are references and allusions to the War for Independence — the Concord Battle ground, for example. Thoreau admires Oliver Cromwell, in one instance, writing: "almost the last significant scrap of news from that quarter was the revolution of 1649. . . ." In a parody on war, he writes of having witnessed "the struggle, the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle" before his door. He is speaking of ants, of course, but says: "I have no doubt it was a principle they fought for as much . . . as those of Bunker Hill." And where courageous heroics are concerned, he writes: "As for the pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs."(184) Humorous, these can be, but they are also a reflection of an indelible side of Thoreau, which cannot be erased or ignored.

[29]        "Slavery in Massachusetts" implicitly alludes to the use of forcible resistance. Asking for definitive action — reminiscent of his Phillips essay with its "Red-cross knight" — Thoreau argues that Massachusetts willingly puts the militia in the service of slave-owners, "but not a soldier is offered to save a citizen of Massachusetts from being kidnaped!"(185) In opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law, he vigorously implies the intensity of his feelings and the readiness with which he will later defend John Brown: "Whoever has discerned truth, has received his commission from a higher source than the chiefest justice in the world, who can discern only law. He finds himself constituted judge of judge."(186)

[30]        Thoreau adds that it is "strange that it should be necessary to state such simple truths!" If he was to sacrifice the "‘truths’ of his ‘reason’" by defending John Brown, as Wendell Glick believes, Thoreau was not himself aware of a vast discrepancy between his earlier and later writings, nor were his Concord friends. While his acknowledged dismay over the lost appeal of his "old and worthiest pursuits" is evident, he refers to previous pursuits not to principles or a sense of mistaken idealism. By appealing to his conscience, his sense that an individual should do what belongs to himself and to the hour, Thoreau acknowledges the injustice of the Fugitive Slave Law:

        Much has been said about American slavery, but I think that we do not even yet realize what slavery is. If I were seriously to propose to Congress to make mankind into sausages, I have no doubt that most of the members would smile at my proposition, and if any believed me to be in earnest, they would think that I proposed something much worse than Congress had ever done. But if any of them will tell me that to make a man into a sausage would be much worse, — would be any worse, than to make him into a slave, — than it was to enact the Fugitive Slave Law, I will accuse him of foolishness, of intellectual incapacity, of making a distinction without a difference. The one is just as sensible a proposition as the other.(187)
[31]        Such an appeal to conscience relies on the Reason, holding that certain spiritual truths are self-evident and directly comprehended by the Understanding and are apparent to common sense. Removed from the political expediency of his day, such an appeal, for us, is more easily understood. Discrimination is often enough to provoke our own outrage. The actual support of forcible violence against a state militia barracks, however, is a delicate matter, and therein lies a possible explanation as to why so many have wished to downplay this particular aspect of Thoreau’s life, wishing, instead, to label him as a pacifist or an inconsistent one at best. Vincent Buranelli’s concerns in "The Case Against Thoreau" are not altogether misplaced and deserve their rightful recognition in Thoreau study. The New England Transcendentalists were aware of the ethical implications of the new subjectivism. Richardson wrote: "the great — and to a large extent still unrecognized — achievement of the transcendentalist as a group, and Parker and Ripley, Fuller and Peabody, Emerson and Thoreau in particular, was in working out the ethical implications of transcendentalism and making them widely accessible and, above all, liveable."(188) If posterity is allowed to bear witness to Thoreau, we may find he has inspired virtue more than folly.

[32]        Henry Salt, who first introduced the young Oxford Law student, M. K. Gandhi, to Thoreau’s political essays believed "A Plea for Captain John Brown" was among the "very best" of these essays.(189) "A Plea" is entirely consistent with the epistemology of Thoreau’s earlier political works — his college essay on "Severe and Mild Punishments, the "Service," "Resistance to Civil Government," and "Slavery in Massachusetts." The individual, as his or her ken is limited to the present, should act on what belongs to himself and to the hour. Thoreau, then, consistently pursues the Transcendental principle that follows, according to Emerson, the maxim that a wise man will never impawn his future being and action, and decide beforehand what he shall do in a given extreme event. In such cases, Emerson suggests that "Nature and God will instruct" the individual in morally appraising an extreme event. "A Plea" is not only consistent with this existential aspect of Transcendentalism, but is also wholly consistent with the Jeffersonian idea that when a government becomes destructive of natural rights, the people have a right to revolution.

[33]        Thoreau met Brown in 1857 on two occasions, once at the Thoreau household, and a day later at Emerson’s. They discussed the subsequent eruption of violence in Kansas that arose after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Thoreau was moved by Brown’s "Puritanism," his ascetic lifestyle and religious devotion; he was a hero of old, a man of action and sacrifice. Two years later the news of Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry reached Concord, and Thoreau was the first to publically acknowledge the greatness of his deed, its historical importance and its future bearing and import. On November 1, 1859, Thoreau was invited to read his "Plea" for Brown before Theodore Parker’s congregation in Boston. The essay reached its largest audience when it was reprinted in James Redpath’s Echoes of Harper’s Ferry.

[34]        Bronson Alcott, always with a ready observation, wrote in his journal concerning Thoreau’s defense of Brown:

Thoreau has good right to speak fully his mind concerning Brown, and has been the first to speak and celebrate the hero’s courage and magnanimity. It is these which he discerns and praises. The men have much in common: the sturdy manliness, straight-forwardness and independence. It is well they met, and that Thoreau saw what he sets forth as no one else can. Both are sons of Anak, and dwellers in Nature — Brown taking more to the human side and driving straight at institutions whilst Thoreau contents himself with railing at them and letting them otherwise alone. He is the proper panegyrist of the virtues he owns himself so largely, and so comprehends in another.(190)
Alcott trenchantly perceived the pith of "A Plea," its bardic quality, as a hymn to heroic virtue — courage and magnanimity. Brown, in Thoreau’s estimate, was a man of action and sacrifice in the highest esteem of the Greek meaning of the words. He was individually endowed with courage, a Carlylean hero, a self-reliant man of principle and idealism, who recognized within the redoubtable institution of slavery its perfidious tyranny and injustice, who felt a common humanity with the men and women subjected to bondage under the tutelage of an unrelenting slave-power, and as he was beckoned to action, led the raid on Harper’s Ferry with the help of a select band of men, among whom his own sons also served and died. Brown marched to the beat of that martial drum, to the music that inspires heroic action and sacrifice and which is persistent throughout much of Thoreau’s writing, from the "Service," where he first describes its sound, to A Week and "Resistance to Civil Government" and to Walden, though heard at a distance, and to "A Plea," where it resounds forcefully Brown’s resplendent cause. These, Thoreau’s sentiments, are consistent with his principle of self-government and express his kindred sympathy with Brown, the man and his "cause." The essay, above all else, is an appeal to the audiences’ collective sensibilities, asking them to recognize the humanity of Brown’s "cause," invoking a sense of pathos for the man and his decided action. Thoreau qualifies his assumption of Brown’s magnanimity, by quoting Brown:
I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them; that is why I am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge, or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged, that are as good as you, and as precious in the sight of God.

I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave power, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful.(191)

[35]        Thoreau praises Brown for his "Spartan habits," his temperate Puritanism. Brown’s grandfather was "an officer in the Revolution," while his father was "a contractor who furnished beef to the army" during the War of 1812. Young John Brown accompanied his father on several trips to the encampments, where he developed an "abhorrence" of military life. Thoreau explains: "He then resolved that he would never have anything to do with any war, unless it were a war for liberty."(192) Similar to the sentiments expressed in "Resistance to Civil Government," he supposes Brown is peacefully inclined and would not go off to war against his own will and conscience. When Brown resolved on force, however, Thoreau defends his decision based on his faith in the higher law, writing: "He was like the best of those who stood at Concord Bridge once, on Lexington Common, and on Bunker Hill, only he was firmer and higher-principled than any that I have chanced to hear of as there." He adds: "They could bravely face their country’s foes, but he had the courage to face his country herself, when she was in the wrong."(193) An important distinction, Thoreau praises his individual effort. As a so-called majority of one, Brown does not stand for an upheaval; he is not legion; he does not constitute an extreme material threat to the government, an overthrow of its power, whereas regimes are legion. Buranelli’s argument overlooks this meaningful aspect of Thoreau’s political thinking in relation to self-government. All are peaceably inclined, as is Thoreau’s conviction, yet on rare instances, in cases where tyranny is almost universally recognized as such in its vast scope and perpetration of injustice then the individual has the right to resist it accordingly. Harkening back to "Resistance to Civil Government," Brown can be categorized as one of the very few who serve the State as heroes, patriots, and martyrs with their consciences. Thoreau says: "It was no abolition lecturer that converted him," and calls him "a Transcendentalist above all," recognizing that he "did not go to the college called Harvard, good old alma mater as she is," but went, instead, "to the great university of the West"; he was a man of practical experience and idealism.

[36]        "Resistance to Civil Government" represents an appeal to mass consciousness and conscience; this is also true of "A Plea." Thoreau refers to the word resistance several times throughout the essay, writing: "Others, craven-hearted, said disparagingly," of Brown, "that ‘he threw his life away’ because he resisted the government." Many do not recognize the raid for its magnanimity; instead, they believe it was a misguided, untimely, or insane effort. But "[t]hey at most only criticize the tactics." Thoreau argues: "They are so anxious because of a dim consciousness of the fact, which they do not distinctly face, that at least a million of the free inhabitants of the United States would have rejoiced if it had succeeded."(194) In proportion to the total population, Thoreau reasons that some, feeling sympathy for the nation’s 4,000,000 slaves, would agree in principle with Brown’s "cause." Yet, they are unable to voice their assent and the newspapers make matters worse as they distort the truth. "Even the Liberator," Garrison’s Abolitionist journal, "called it ‘a misguided, wild, and apparently insane effort.’"(195) Thoreau again voices his dissent against expediency, writing: "As for the herd of newspapers and magazines, I do not chance to know an editor in the country who will deliberately print anything which he knows will ultimately and permanently reduce the number of his subscribers. They do not believe that it would be expedient. How then can they print truth?" As society refers to ancient heroism but is unappreciative of it when it is in their "midst," Thoreau refers "a city of magnificent distances" as representative of the "impassable boundaries between individuals and between states."(196) Thoreau’s appeal is ethically directed at consensus, an appeal to the audiences’ collective reason and conscience.

[37]        In A Week, Thoreau compared conservatism in the West to the Hindu caste system. It says forsake not your calling, outrage no institution, use no violence, rend no bonds. In "A Plea," he compares the New Englander to a Hindu idolater. Brown, on the other hand, "was an exception, for he did not set up even a political graven image between him and his God."(197) His appeal was direct, and, so to, his action. Thoreau writes: "He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid," referring to his action as "resistance to tyranny."(198) As Brown’s action was resistance to tyranny, and not resistance to civil government, i.e., a polite or non-violent government, Thoreau sanctions the use of force in this particular case. It was Brown’s "peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave," Thoreau adds, "I agree with him."(199) As he assumed in "Resistance to Civil Government" that all are peacefully inclined, he stated: "I see that appeal is possible," i.e., a peaceful appeal. Yet he was careful to recognize an important distinction, at least implicitly, between a civil and a tyrannical government when he wrote:  "And, above all, there is this difference between resisting this and a purely brute or natural force, that I can resist this with some effect; but I cannot expect, like Orpheus, to change the nature of the rocks and trees and beasts." "A Plea" seizes this assumption. "When a government puts forth its strength on the side of injustice, as ours to maintain slavery and kill the liberators of the slave, it reveals itself a merely brute force, or worse, a demoniacal force."(200) Referring to Christ, Thoreau writes: "The same indignation that is said to have cleared the temple once will clear it again."(201)

[38]        Earlier, Thoreau had asserted what is once well done is done for ever. Brown’s "cause," being virtuous, the eternal laws of justice are in its favor. Thoreau writes of Brown’s success in Missouri: "When the time came, few men were found willing to lay down their lives in defense of what they knew to be wrong; they did not like that this should be their last act in this world."(202) At Harper’s Ferry, too, Thoreau believes Brown’s deed, while a material failure, will stand resolutely as a single humane act of kindness in the "cause" of liberty and justice, and as testimony to those millions who suffered in bondage for three centuries within America’s peculiar institution of chattel slavery. Thoreau concludes "A Plea," writing:

        I am here to plead his cause with you. I plead not for his life, but for his character — his immortal life; and so it becomes your cause wholly, and is not his in the least. Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung. These are the two ends of a chain which is not without its links. He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light.(203)
He carefully points out that it is Brown’s "cause" he is concerned with, while invoking a sense of pathos with the essay’s title words. However, he was not altogether comfortable with the advocation of force outside of the Brown episode, which he believed was a rare incidence of righteous action: "At any rate, I do not think it is quite sane for one to spend his whole life in talking or writing about this matter, unless he is continuously inspired, and I have not done so."(204) This is not to let Thoreau off the hook too easily, so to speak, but to recognize that he reserved the right of judgment, as always, for himself. As for a wholesale welcoming of the Civil War, Thoreau faced the prospect with ambivalence. In the last paragraph of "A Plea," Thoreau writes:
I foresee the time when the painter will paint that scene, no longer going to Rome for a subject; the poet will sing it; the historian record it; and, with the Landing of the Pilgrims and the Declaration of Independence, it will be the ornament of some future national gallery, when at least the present form of slavery shall be no more here. We shall then be at liberty to weep for Captain Brown. Then, and not till then, we will take our revenge.
[39]        He later maintained in a letter to Parker Pillsbury that he did not welcome the Civil War: "As for my prospective reader, I hope that he ignores Fort Sumpter, & Old Abe, & all that, for that is just the most fatal and indeed the only fatal, weapon you can direct against evil ever; for as long as you know of it, you are particeps criminis."(205) Thoreau’s attitude remained essentially non-violent. Rather than war, Thoreau favored disunion.

Return to: Table of Contents - Thoreau Reader


147.  Amos Bronson Alcott, The Journals of Bronson Alcott, ed. Ordell Shepard (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1938) 201. (back)
148.  Adin Ballou, Christian Non-Resistance: In All Its Important Bearings (Philadelphia, 1846) 223. (back)
149.  Garrison, "Declaration of Sentiments,"Selections from the Writings and Speeches of William Lloyd Garrison 75. (back)
150.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Reform Papers 63. (back)
151.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Reform Papers 81. (back)
152.  Thoreau, "Reform and Reformers," Reform Papers 186-187. (back)
153.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Reform Papers 64. (back)
154.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Reform Papers 84. (back)
155.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Reform Papers 76. (back)
156.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Reform Papers 75. (back)
157.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government,"Reform Papers 65. (back)
158.  Emerson, "Self-Reliance," Works 31. (back)
159.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Reform Papers 66. (back)
160.  William Paley, Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (London,
804) 155. Thoreau cites this passage in "Resistance to Civil Government," 68. (back)
161.  Thoreau, Walden 232. (back)
162.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Reform Papers 65. (back)
163.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Reform Papers 77. (back)
164.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Reform Papers 78. (back)
165.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Reform Papers 90. (back)
166.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Reform Papers 77. (back)
167.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Reform Papers 65. (back)
168.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Reform Papers 84. (back)
169.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Reform Papers 85. Also see Sherman Paul’s note in Shores of America: Thoreau’s Inward Exploration: "The transcendental conception of necessity was first stated by Thoreau in The Service. It was the central idea of an organic conduct of life — that whether or not one subscribes to Spirit, one must go with the current of life, not against it. Here the wisdom of Lao-tzu would have supported Thoreau." 228. (back)
170.  Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Reform Papers 66, 73, 67. (Back)
171.  William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, ed. Eugene H. Berwanger (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988) 212. (back)
172.  Thoreau, "Slavery in Massachusetts," Reform Papers 92. (back)
173.  Emerson, "Fugitive Slave Law," Miscellanies 226; The Heart of Emerson’s Journals 256. (back)
174.  Channing, The Works of William Ellery Channing 862. (back)
175.  James Madison, The Federalist, ed. Jacob E. Cooke (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961) 367. (back)
176.  Henry David Thoreau, Journals, ed. Bradford Torrey (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949) 7: 129. (back)
177.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, "War," Miscellanies 196. (back)
178.  Richardson 315. (back)
179.  Barry Kritzberg, "Thoreau, Slavery, and Resistance to Civil Government," Massachusetts Review 30 (1989): 543. Kritzberg also writes of Thoreau’s reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law: "The collaboration of his native state in perpetuating this wrong convinced Thoreau that something more vital than the rights of black men was now at stake. His own freedom — of which he was more than usually jealous — was threatened as well. A philosophic individualism, such as he practiced, was only possible in a state where moral principles had some claim over political expediency." 548. (back)
180.  William W. Freehling, The Reintegration of American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) 182-194. (back)
181.  Thoreau, "Slavery in Massachusetts," Reform Papers 107. (back)
182.  Thoreau, "Slavery in Massachusetts," Reform Papers 106. (back)
183.  Thoreau, "Slavery in Massachusetts," Reform Papers 108. (back)
184.  Thoreau, Walden 223, 175, 276, 148. (back)
185.  Thoreau, "Slavery in Massachusetts," Reform Papers 94. (back)
186.  Thoreau, "Slavery in Massachusetts," Reform Papers 98 & 96. It is true, however, that on February 27, 1856, Thoreau disputes the sensibility of America’s and England’s engaging in war. Again, he will denounce war in cases contrary to his moral judgment. Thoreau, Journal (Torrey) 8: 180. (back)
187.  Thoreau, "Slavery in Massachusetts," Reform Papers 96-7. (back)
188.  Richardson 73. (back)
189.  Henry S. Salt, The Life of Henry David Thoreau (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1890) 271. (back)
190.  Alcott 321. (back)
191.  Thoreau, "A Plea for Captain John Brown," Reform Papers 138. Also see John Brown, The Life and Letters of Captain John Brown, ed. Richard Webb (London, 1861). The publication of Brown’s letters helped to shift Northern public opinion in his favor. Union troops reportedly marched to songs in his memory. (back)
192.  Thoreau, "A Plea," Reform Papers 112. (back)
193.  Thoreau, "A Plea," Reform Papers 113. (back)
194.  Thoreau, "A Plea," Reform Papers 118. (back)
195.  Thoreau, "A Plea," Reform Papers 122. (back)
196.  Thoreau, "A Plea," Reform Papers 121 & 122. (back)
197.  Thoreau, "A Plea," Reform Papers 120. (back)
198.  Thoreau, "A Plea," Reform Papers 125 & 130. (back)
199.  Thoreau, "A Plea," Reform Papers 132. (back)
200.  Thoreau, "A Plea," Reform Papers 129. (back)
201.  Thoreau, "A Plea," Reform Papers 133. (back)
202.  Thoreau, "A Plea," Reform Papers 117. (back)
203.  Thoreau, "A Plea," Reform Papers 137. (back)
204.  Thoreau, "A Plea," Reform Papers 133. (back)
205.  Henry David Thoreau, The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding (New York: New York University Press, 1958) 611. (back)

Thoreau Reader:  Home - Table of Contents - Next Section