Friday, April 04, 2008

An Open Note to Henry David Thoreau

You once said, "A man who is more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already."

Very well, but now what do I do?

Tell me, please, Henry. You taught me what was true and beautiful, and you helped me to see what was false and ugly. However, knowing the difference is not the same as solving the problem. You said to be a counter-friction, but how? I am not as free as you were. I have many things at stake. If I'm to stick my head into the fire, I'd like a little more guidance and assurance, please. Do you reject me because I seem to have more than I am willing to sacrifice? Well, I'm sorry that I don't have a wealthy buddy like Waldo to support me in my whims.

Oh, dammit, you've been dead for 150 years. Thanks for nothing.

Actually, thanks a lot--but that admission lacks the angst filled drama of saying thanks for nothing.

Thoreau was the most important American thinker in history. If you don't know him, meet him in "Civil Disobedience," Walden, "Life Without Principle," "Walking," and his John Brown essays, especially "A Plea for Captain John Brown."

And here I present my essay:

Henry David Thoreau: Romantic Republican


When I took on the task of examining Henry David Thoreau’s political ideology, I was burdened with a heavy baggage of myths and preconceptions. I scoured his writings, immersing myself in his journal—in vain. I wasted more than a few weeks researching what I presumed about Thoreau. Only after I began to consider Thoreau on his own terms was I able to make any progress. Thus is how I learned, it is possible for people to know Thoreau superficially and to accommodate pieces of his genius according to their purpose.

How one interprets Thoreau usually depends upon deeply held prejudices. We see in him what we want to see. The rest we discard as minutia, the price of eccentricity. Hence Thoreau the anarchist, Thoreau the environmentalist, Thoreau the atheist, Thoreau the transcendentalist, Thoreau the individualist, Thoreau the abolitionist, Thoreau the hermit, Thoreau the good-for-nothing skulker, and so on. A memory from my past demonstrates this very plainly. Early in my academic career, as an undergraduate at Hillsdale College, I participated in a discussion sponsored by the Objectivist Lyceum. [1]During the course of this discussion, I used Thoreau’s widely known statement: “A man had better starve at once than lose his innocence in the process of getting his bread.”[2] To which one of my libertarian peers replied, “Thoreau was a fool—except for all the stuff he said about government.”

The problem is, if Thoreau was a fool, then his theory of government cannot be taken seriously. His political beliefs were not conceived in a vacuum. His essay, “Resistance to Civil Government” (also called “Civil Disobedience”), was not a political treatise designed as, say Newton’s Principia Mathematica, to change the world. Rather, it was a justification of his actions—a reaction to conditions, not a positive contribution to political thought. Thoreau’s politics sprang forth from his attitude toward people, nature, and his own ego. He was a transcendentalist, and as such, believed that all things were connected. Like Emerson’s gospel of the Oversoul, Thoreau, as an individual tuned into nature, believed he was somehow connected to all of creation and the creator. Thus, as part of a theoretical superstring, Thoreau believed in the absolute significance of himself. It is from Thoreau’s ego that we learn of him. Perhaps no word in his entire vocabulary was as important as I. He wrote in the first person because he was the first person. His politics emphasized the importance of the individual because he was an individual. Any analysis of Henry David Thoreau must thus accept the fact that Thoreau perceived and wrote about the world in the first person. Next, the analyst must therefore accept how Thoreau viewed himself. That’s the trick. Thoreau cannot be understood properly outside his own context. He cannot be looked at by an analyst's eyes; he must be analyzed through his own eyes.

I conceived the thesis for this paper in an earlier study, which exists now as a sort of prelude to this much larger, far deeper analysis. All the books and articles researched for the previous paper have been cited in this paper’s bibliography, though I did not reread all of them. Although there exists a great quantity of secondary material written about Thoreau, I made little use of them other than a couple biographical studies and a few pertinent essays. My aim was to get close to Thoreau on his own terms. Thus, the bulk of my research consisted of reading his massive journals, numerous essays, and several books printed both during his lifetime and posthumously. Secondary sources were secondary in consideration, if considered at all. Therefore, if there be error in my conclusions, the fault rests solely upon my scholarship.

The reader will also notice, and hopefully forgive, the extensive amount of direct quotations within this essay. It is my intention to let Thoreau speak for himself, and I tremble at the thought of misrepresenting him through careless paraphrasing. As Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote regarding his attempt to characterize posthumously: “It seems the duty of a live literary man to perpetuate the memory of a dead one . . . but how Thoreau would scorn me for thinking that I could perpetuate him! And I don’t think so.”[3]


Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Henry David Thoreau’s life is how genuinely unremarkable it was. He was born David Henry Thoreau, studied at Harvard, befriended Ralph Waldo Emerson, worked odd jobs, lived in quasi-solitude for two years at Walden Pond, went to jail for one night, gave some speeches, wrote some essays, published two books, and died a relatively young man. He was never elected to high office—indeed, he never ran for any office. In fact, he never even voted throughout one of the most politically charged eras of United States history. Of the two books he published during his lifetime, neither was particularly successful. They were received, in a way, in the same manner as he was generally perceived: insightful but impractical and somewhat dull. When he died, he was mourned by his friends in Concord. The rest of the country was generally ignorant even of his life, let alone his passing.

Today, his influence is far reaching. He is the champion of environmentalists, libertarians, vegetarians, and many other special interest groups. Conservative spokesman Rush Limbaugh began his first book, The Way Things Ought to Be,[4] with a quote from Thoreau; and the musician and sometime liberal political commentator, Don Henley, has advocated the environmental preservation of Walden Pond. Thoreau’s writings have been put into action by some of the great humanitarians of the twentieth century, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi. Nearly everyone, it seems, can identify with a piece of Thoreau. However, pieces of Thoreau cannot suffice. The whole of Thoreau is greater than the sum of his parts; there is a gestalt into which fits all of the parts that have been cut and pasted by others for their own ends. That gestalt is the object of this study, and it is only by looking at the whole of Thoreau that the pieces can be placed into their appropriate context.

Concord’s Problem Child

Americans have long touted a tradition of individualism. The right of men to pursue their own destinies according to their own ambitions has long been the trademark of American political and social thought. Such that the very first amendment of the United States Constitution verifies and guarantees that men and women might say as they please, believe as they wish, gather at will, and print whatever they choose. Perhaps no man took more advantage of this right and kept it nearer to his heart than Henry David Thoreau. It is Thoreau’s steadfast maintenance of his individuality that has made him a villain to some and a hero to many.

Born David Henry Thoreau, to a modest household in Massachusetts, Thoreau betrayed a distinct streak of individualism when he chose to switch his first and middle names. He attended Harvard College, where he struck classmates and instructors with as an odd and conceited fellow. Graduating in 1837, Thoreau briefly helped his father make and sell pencils. Next, he spent three years as master of a private school—during which time he met and befriended Concord’s most famous resident, the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Working as a handyman, Thoreau lived with Emerson and his family for two years. Through Emerson, Concord's “Transcendentalist Club,” which introduced him to other leading thinkers such as Margaret Fuller, Orestes Brownson, Bronson Alcott, and Theodore Parker.[5] Although he frequently published and edited writings for the transcendentalist periodical The Dial, Thoreau could not sustain himself economically as a writer. Instead, Thoreau, the born naturalist, often made just enough money doing odd jobs, often surveying land in and around Concord. Excepting his term as a schoolteacher, Thoreau never held a job for any great length of time, for he wished to maintain his economic sovereignty. So strong was his desire to be independent, he spent two years living alone on Walden Pond, during which time he spent an evening in jail for refusing to submit to taxation by an immoral government. He advocated passive resistance, but eulogized John Brown. He died before his time, but his words, now translated into many different languages, speak stronger than ever to a world more than ever in need of hearing them.

Thoreau’s attitudes are received today in very much the same manner as they were in his own time. The following opinion from the September 9, 1854 issue of Albion (N.Y.) suggests the common attitude, then and now, towards Thoreau: “We can admire, without wishing to imitate him, and we can thank him cordially for hints on many topics that interest humanity at large.”[6] The Morning Courier and New York Enquirer also commented: “Half mad, but never silly; the half that is not mad, full of truths.”[7] Scores of other newspapers reviewed Thoreau’s writings and criticized him similarly. To this day, the predominant consideration of Thoreau is that he was very intelligent and wise to an extent, but that most things he said must be taken with a grain of salt, if taken at all.

Even those who knew Thoreau closely criticized him. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of him as “the most unmalleable fellow alive—the most tedious, tiresome, and intolerable—the narrowest and most notional—and yet, true as all this is, he has great qualities of intellect and character,”[8] and Elizabeth Hoar plainly stated, “I love Henry, but do not like him.”[9] Indeed, he was the local oddity in Concord. He was respected by his cadre of transcendentalist friends, but shunned by the business and political elite as a renegade, good-for-nothing hermit—and so it has always been. Those willing to look through Thoreau's eyes have seen the beauty in him, no matter how intolerable his character; while those willing only to look at Thoreau, with all the burden of their prejudices, have never seen much of practical value.

It is this question of value that must be considered. People who merely look at Thoreau do so with their own values in mind. Those willing to look through Thoreau see his values and accept him. As Emerson remarked on July 19, 1842, to Margaret Fuller,

I am sorry that you, & the world after you, do not like my brave Henry any better. I do not like his piece [“The Service”] very well, but I admire this perennial threatening attitude, just as we like to go under an overhanging precipice. It is wholly his natural relation & no assumption at all.[10]

While a man such as Emerson might admire Thoreau for setting himself apart from the community at large, Thoreau was reviled or dismissed by others for doing so (Hawthorne referred to him as a “queer notable”).[11] In Thoreau, thus, is found a dialectical clash between two great American traditions. On the negative side, he did not fit into the New England scheme of church, family, and local community.[12] On the positive side, he was the foremost proponent of the republican notions behind this country’s founding principles. The village of Concord has long congratulated itself as one of the early cradles of the American Revolution, and although many of his neighbors considered him something of a “problem child,” when examined closely, it becomes clear that Thoreau was actually Concord’s truest child; the most republican man in a nation founded upon republican principles. He was the American Revolution continued, freedom in action.

The question is one of sovereignty. To most Americans at the time (and today), popular sovereignty—the idea that ultimate authority rests with the people—is the driving force of American socio-political thought. In his “Gettysburg Address,” Abraham Lincoln expounded the virtues of “Government by the people, of the people, and for the people.” [13] However, if such defines political ideology of good Americans, Thoreau was no good American. To Thoreau, America’s definition of popular sovereignty did not match his definition of good government, good society, or good anything; nor did Thoreau consider the will of the people valid in determining right from wrong. In Thoreau’s mind, the individual reigned supreme. Men should be governed by their own consciences, not by the whims of other men through either social pressure or political coercion. As Emerson noted,

Henry Thoreau made, last night [October 24, 1842], a fine remark that, as long as a man stands in his own way, everything seems to be in his way, government, society, and even the sun and the moon and the stars, as astrology may testify.[14]

Thus, Thoreau practiced and preached a life of personal economic, social, and political sovereignty.

Simply put, to be sovereign is to reign supremely. Usually associated with governments, Thoreau amended its denotation to specify individuals, specifically, the individual geniuses, or consciences, of men. It was the extreme of the classical republican doctrine of independence, and it has often been misconstrued as essentially anarchistic. While conceivably extreme and, in the very least, bold, Thoreau’s message of personal sovereignty was neither anarchistic or naive, but instead the complete manifestation of the libertarian ideals which, through founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, served to nurse the United States through revolution and independence.

Thoreau the Peculiar Republican

Thoreau’s republicanism was not identical to the republicanism upon which the United States was founded. Thoreau represented the next step. His was republicanism enriched with romantic and a transcendentalist worldviews. Everything in his character revolved around his carefully woven tapestry of romanticism, transcendentalism, and republicanism. They are the root cause of his experiment at Walden Pond, his time in the Concord town jail, and his taking the podium in defense of John Brown. They form the basis for his attitudes of art, the environment, economy, society, politics, et cetera.

Republicanism made its print on America during the colonial era. Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and the “Declaration of Independence,” by Thomas Jefferson demonstrate this clearly enough. In “Common Sense,” Paine demonstrates how monarchy is unnatural and illogical, that Americans do not benefit from the British Empire, but actually suffer detriment. Shortly after Paine published “Common Sense,” the Second Continental Congress approved Richard Henry Lee’s resolution to draft a declaration of independence. Written by Thomas Jefferson, the “Declaration of Independence” is the ultimate expression of American republicanism.

The “Declaration” is composed in four parts: the preamble, the declaration of natural rights, the list of grievances, and the resolution for independence. In timeless wisdom and elegant prose, Jefferson conveys the enlightened notion that men are born free, equal, and in full possession of the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” According to this scheme, the state exists for the single purpose of protecting these rights. Furthermore, should the state “become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” After stating this, Jefferson demonstrated how Americans had endured “a long train of abuses and usurpations” at the hands of the British government, and concluded that the colonies were henceforth relieved of their “allegiance to the British crown” and, thus, “free and independent states.” [15]

In many ways, Thoreau was himself a living declaration of independence. The difference is, Jefferson wrote for a people, while Thoreau wrote for a person. Jefferson declared the establishment of “free and independent states,” but Thoreau declared himself a free and independent man. Having never signed any so-called social contract, he felt no obligation to it. Sovereignty was his, not the state’s; for if the state existed by the consent of the people –and he was indeed a person—then he was free to withhold his consent.

Popular sovereignty, modified by Thoreau into personal sovereignty, was, however, only a part of the republican credo. Classical republicanism also embraced a form of economic sovereignty. Jefferson preached this in his support of a yeomen class of self-sufficient farmers. Just as no man can be free whilst living under a tyrannical government, neither can a man be free who depended upon another man for livelihood. Wage labor is thus a form of servitude, for a laborer must count on another for employment. An independent agriculturist, however, can produce his own consumables, relying solely upon himself for sustenance. There is logic in this assessment, and it may be a logic very closely related to the institution of labor unions, which were designed to increase a wage laborer’s security and independence.

While Thoreau clearly saw the detrimental effects of wage labor to a man’s independence, he took the issue a step further. He observed how a man’s labor, however independent of anyone else, could enslave him nonetheless. The only truly free man is one who can,

be clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark, and that he live in all respects so compactly and preparedly that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.[16]

Otherwise, a man is the property of his possessions. Seeing things thus, Thoreau endeavored to maintain economic sovereignty. Just as he would not be duty bound to a government, Thoreau would not be duty bound to mere things.

Just as republicanism advocated political and economic independence, it also promoted a social order. A republican society is based upon freedom and equality. Social rank, if there must be such a distinction, is purely nominal and based upon wealth and occupation. However, no man can amass enough wealth or secure such employment as to elevate his rights and privileges above even the poorest of his peers. He might be deemed more important by his neighbors, but none are under any obligation to defer to him.

Once again, Thoreau embraced the idea and extended it. Thoreau deferred to no one, even to his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. If at any point his neighbors disapproved of his inclinations, Thoreau could not dispense with their criticism with greater alacrity. His business was his business, not theirs. Clearly, Thoreau could not divorce himself from society, but his devotion to nature and two-year sojourn at Walden Pond show a reluctant acceptance of it. He would make what use of it that he could—as he did with the state and economy—but he declined to submit himself one iota to another’s dictates or whims.

Thoreau was thus far less radical than has been popularly surmised. He started from the traditional political, economic, and social theories of republicanism that had made the United States an oddity amongst nations; but he did not stop there. He treated them not as theories but as axioms, and he molded his life around them. His revolution did not begin at Lexington or stop at the Treaty of Paris, 1783; it began on the moment of his birth and ended quietly when he died on his bed, a free man until the end.

Working Hard or Hardly Working:

Thoreau’s Economy

The first section of Walden is entitled “Economy,” but little within the seventy-odd pages of the chapter demonstrates any conventional understanding of what might be called economics. The standard definition for “economics” concerns the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. For traditional economists, the important topics include what goods and services are produced, what quantities are produced, how are they distributed, to whom are they distributed, and who consumes them. Involved in these topics are questions of price and regulation. However, Thoreau treats economics in an entirely different manner. To him, a man’s economy concerns how a man makes his living.[17] Thus, the important questions deal not with what has been produced, distributed, or consumed; but how a man lives. It is not important that a man has produced Q amount of A and sold it at price P, and with the profits managed to acquire product B. Rather, Thoreau’s economy deals mostly with how cheaply might a man sustain himself. Arguing that life is equal to an unknown but fixed amount of time, however much a man labors for money must be subtracted from his life (for labor takes a certain quantity of time).

Thoreau’s economics is a rejection of the protestant work ethic. It is also a response to the rapidly commercializing and industrializing forces at work in the New England of his time. It all comes down to freedom. Following the republican notion of economic sovereignty, Thoreau understood that working in a factory or in someone else’s business is tantamount to servitude. A man who earns his living by the grace of another man is not free. Thus, Thoreau lamented the trend towards factories. However, working for oneself in any trade, be it as a small business owner or independent farmer also represented a loss of freedom. A man can become a servant to his property and desires, and thus have to spend his time (which means his life—which suggests his freedom) acquiring or paying off property and working to acquire and then pay off more property. Hence,

An average house in this neighborhood costs perhaps eight hundred dollars, and to lay up this sum will take from ten to fifteen years of the laborer’s life, even if he is not encumbered with a family,—estimating the pecuniary value of every man’s labor at one dollar a day, for if some receive more, others receive less;—so that he must have spent more than half his life commonly before his wigwam will be earned.[18]

Thus, he argues,

The very simplicity and nakedness of man’s life in the primitive ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him but a sojourner in nature. When he was refreshed with food and sleep, he contemplated his journey again. He dwelt, as it were, in a tent in this world, and was either threading the valleys, or crossing the plains, or climbing the mountain-tops. But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper.[19]

One of Thoreau’s aims whilst staying at Walden Pond was to show how a man might live well at no great expense of his time.[20] It is no surprise that he began living in his home on July 4,[21] for his life at Walden was a move for independence. This was a different kind of independence than is usually connotated by the word, for he meant by it not simply to be independent of another’s external control, but to be free of internal wants. His independence followed the recipe of “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”[22].

Simplicity, as used by Thoreau, means to live according to necessity; not to be encumbered by desire for material wants;[23] and the Walden experiment was Thoreau’s attempt to show how easily a man might provide for his own needs, with as little sacrifice as possible: “For more than five years I maintained myself . . . and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living.”[24] Thus, he could maximize his time “to devote himself to his chosen pursuit, independent of his labor.”[25]

For this reason, Thoreau scorned most industry, commerce, and even agriculture. He did not reject the notion that a man must labor to live, but he questioned how much life must be sacrificed in laboring to live. What might commonly be identified as an industrious person, to Thoreau, was rather the opposite, for most “industry” required a man to submit too much of his time, too much of his freedom, too much of his life. What men usually call “productivity,” Thoreau called “an infinite bustle,”[26] for he notes,

I am awakened almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work. . . . If a man was . . . made a cripple for life, . . . it is regretted chiefly that he was thus incapacitated for—business! I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.[27]

Thus, “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us!”[28] Lamenting this, he adds further,

If I do this [devote his life to “business”], most will commend me as an industrious and hardworking man; but if I choose to devote myself to certain labors which yield more real profit, though but little money, they may be inclined to look on me as an idler.”[29]


“If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down![30]

Because labor tends to lead men to sacrifice the better part of their lives, Thoreau explains his objection, arguing that

The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse. If the laborer gets no more than the wages which his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself. . . . You are paid for being something less than a man.[31]

Hence Thoreau’s statement that “the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine.”[32] Commenting further, he explains,

If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for. I trust that I shall never thus sell my birthright for a mess of pottage. I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.[33]

All around him, Thoreau saw the problem:

The farmer is endeavoring to solve the problem of a livelihood by a formula more complicated than the problem itself. To get his shoestrings he speculates in herds of cattle. With consummate skill he has set his trap with a hair spring to catch comfort and independence, and then, as he turned away, got his own leg into it.[34]

As a remedy, Thoreau proposes that “You must get your living by loving,“[35] for “An efficient and valuable man does what he can, whether the community pay him for it or not.”[36] He furnishes his own experience as an example:

For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms, and did my duty faithfully; surveyor, if not of highways, then of forest paths and all across-lot routes, keeping them open, and ravines bridged and passable at all seasons; where the public heel had testified to their utility. . . . I have looked after the wild stock of the town . . . [and] I have watered the red huckleberry, the sand cherry and the nettle-tree, the red pine and the black ash, the white grape and the yellow violet, which might have withered else in dry seasons.[37]


Finding that my fellow-citizens were not likely to offer me any room in the court house, or any curacy or living anywhere else, but I must shift for myself, I turned my face more exclusively than ever to the woods, where I was better known. I determined to go into business at once, and not wait to acquire the usual capital, using such slender means as I had already got. My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles; to be hindered from accomplishing which for want of a little common sense, a little enterprise and business talent, appeared not so sad as foolish.[38]

On Christmas Eve, 1841, he wrote of these ambitions:

I want to go soon and live away by the pond, where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds—It will be a success if I shall have left myself behind. But my friends ask what I will do when I get there. Will it not be employment enough to watch the progress of the seasons?[39]

Since “the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality,”[40] a man must make careful use of his time, directing his energies toward those things that will enhance his inward needs rather than his external wants; for “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.”[41] Thoreau’s expenses are well documented in Walden, for the purpose of demonstrating how one might live free and comfortable according to his economic doctrine.[42] For Thoreau, it was not just a point of pride that he could live for 27 cents per week; it was testimony to how free he really was.[43] His ambition to live economically sovereign is obvious in entries throughout his journal. On January 11, 1857, he wrote

For some years past I have partially offered myself as a lecturer; have been advertised as such several years. Yet I have had but two or three invitations to lecture in a year, and some years none at all. I congratulate myself on having been permitted to stay at home thus, I am so much richer for it. I do not see what I should have got of much value, but money, by going about, but I do see what I would have lost. It seems to me that I have a longer and more liberal lease of life thus. I cannot afford to be telling my experience, especially to those who perhaps will take no interest in it. I wish to be getting experience.[44]

Some of his contemporaries, at least those who knew him closely, saw what Thoreau meant. On May 27, 1839, Emerson recorded in his journal that “My brave Henry . . . is content to live now, and feels no shame (if) in not studying any profession, for he does not postpone his life, but lives already—pours contempt on these cry-babies of routine and Boston.”[45] Five years later, Emerson elaborated,

Henry is . . . not encumbered with himself. He has no troublesome memory, no wake, but lives ex tempore, and brings today a new proposition as radical and revolutionary as that of yesterday, but different. The only man of leisure in the town. . . . If I cannot show his performance much more manifest than that of the other grand promisers, at least I can see that, with his practical faculty, he has declined all the kingdoms of this world. Satan has no bribe for him.[46]

In a review of Walden, the Literary World (a New York City publication), also demonstrated a grasp of Thoreau’s economy when it wrote, on September 22, 1849, “[Thoreau is] quite independent of the slavery which people submit to under the world civilization.”[47] Charles Frederick Briggs, in Putnam’s Monthly (October 1854 edition), also saw that:

There is nothing of the mean or sordid in the economy of Mr. Thoreau, though to some his simplicity and abstemiousness may appear trivial and affected; he does not live cheaply for the sake of saving, nor idly to avoid labor; but that he might live independently and enjoy his great thoughts; that he may read the Hindoo scriptures and commune with the visible forms of nature.[48]

The National Anti-Slavery Standard (Dec. 16, 1854 edition) also correctly pigeonholed Thoreau as “one man whose aim manifestly is to live, and not waste his time upon the externals of living. . . . and not to become the slave of any calling.”[49]

For his efforts to live according to his economic standards, Thoreau has, from his own times through the present day, been chastised as an idler and something of a moocher. On April 27, 1849, the New-York Daily Tribune published a letter written in reply to an earlier article on Thoreau. It argued,

The young man is either whimsy or else a good-for-nothing, selfish, crab-like sort of chap, who tries to shirk the duties whose hearty and honest discharge is the only thing that in her view entitles a man to be regarded as a good example.[50]

In reply to this letter, the editor of the Tribune wrote,

Mr. Thorough is indeed in a fog—in fact, we suspect there was a mistake in his name, and that he must have been changed at nurse for another boy whose true name was shallow. Nobody has proposed or suggested that it becomes everybody to go off into the woods, each build himself a hut and live hermit-like, on vegetable products of his very moderate labor.[51]

Even Emerson fell victim to misinterpretation: “Thoreau wants a little ambition in his mixture. Fault of this, instead of being the head of American engineers, he is captain of a huckleberry party”[52] The mistake comes from differing definitions of “ambition.” Thoreau’s ambition was,

to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what
it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not live, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it.[53]

People tend to interpret his March 1841 journal entry, “I must not lose any of my freedom by being a farmer and a landholder,”[54] as something of a rational to avoid honest work. On September 7, 1848, Thoreau’s own aunt, Maria, wrote “I wish he could find something better to do than walking off every now and then.”[55] However, such people clearly miss the point. In Walden, when Thoreau identifies farmers as “serfs of the soil,”[56] he is commenting on how they are tied down to their land, unable to reflect introspectively, and spending the bulk of their lives raising crops instead of wisdom. As he elaborates,

Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? They have got to live a man’s life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can. How many a poor immortal should have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and wood-lot! . . . But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost.[57]

Leaving “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through ignorance and mistake, . . . so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them .“[58] Such observations led to Thoreau’s famous analysis that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”[59] A desperate man, conscious of his malady or not, is not a free man. He is the servant—or slave—of whatever fears or wants drive him; hence his observation: “men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men.”[60] Thoreau wholeheartedly believed that true economics does not measure the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services; it is the measure of how much life a man possesses. He took jobs, but only on his terms—most of Thoreau’s employment resume reads as a list of odd jobs. He was a skilled surveyor, and he worked often as a surveyor. He was good at it, and it allowed him to be out of doors, amongst nature:

I was more independent than any farmer in Concord, for I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment. Beside being better off than they already, if my house had been burned or my crops had failed, I should have been nearly as well off as before.[61]

He resisted anything that obliged him to another for any lengthy amount of time. “A[n] . . . independent mind does not toil at the bidding of any prince. Genius is not a retainer to any emperor, nor is its material silver, or gold, or marble.”[62] He was able thus to live comfortably and devote the bulk of his time to higher pursuits. As a good republican, Thoreau rejected all things that would usurp his economic sovereignty: “Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past.”[63] In the conclusion to “Walking,” Thoreau puts his peculiar form of ambition into words, and puts this topic to rest.

The sun sets on some retired meadow, where no house is visible, with all the glory and splendor that it lavishes on cities, and perchance as it has never set before,—where there is but a solitary marsh-hawk to have his wings gilded by it, or only a musquash looks out from his cabin, and there is some little black-veined brook in the midst of the marsh, just beginning to meander, winding slowly round a decaying stump. We walked in so pure and bright a light, gilding the withered grass and leaves, so softly and serenely bright, I though I had never bathed in such a golden flood, without a ripple or a murmur to it. The west side of every wood and rising ground gleamed like the boundary of Elysium, and the sun on our backs seemed like a gentle herdsman driving us home at evening.

So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.[64]

The Anti-socialite: Thoreau's Social Sovereignty

Society can be defined as 1. the sum of social relationships among groups of humans or animals2; 2. a structured community of people bound together by similar traditions, institutions, or nationality; 3. the customs of a community and the way it is organized, for example, its class structure; 4. a particular section of a community that is distinguished by particular qualities; 5. the prominent or fashionable people in a community and their social life; 6. the state of being with other people; 7. an organized group of people who share an interest, aim, or profession.[65] Here are presented seven definitions of society, and none of them very well suits Thoreau’s approach.

Although Thoreau did not often refrain from discussing what he thought about his neighbors, he did not consider him bound to them with relationships, structure, fashion, or much of anything else. While Thoreau was a young college student, Josiah Quincy, then president of Harvard, wrote in a letter to Emerson:

His instructors were impressed with the conviction that he was indifferent, even to a degree that was faulty and that they could not recommend him consistent with the rule, by which they are usually governed in relation to beneficiaries.[66]

It is possible that Thoreau was responding to this appearance of indifference, when he wrote, “At the age of sixteen I turned my steps towards these venerable halls, bearing in mind, as I have ever since done, that I had two ears and but one tongue.”[67] Thoreau was not reticent; rather, he was patient and introspective. He was not, it seems, a necessarily enjoyable companion, for he felt obligated to no person or standard of politesse. He was not a hermit—he saw people several times a week while living in “solitude” at his Walden residence—, nor was he completely unresponsive to the thoughts and reactions of his neighbors. He simply preferred to go his own way. One Sunday morning, while the townsfolk were filing out of Church, Thoreau was in the process of dragging a pine tree down the street for transplanting. He made no effort to conceal his disregard for the Sabbath. His aunt Louisa chastised him, and Thoreau replied, “I have been worshipping in my way and don’t trouble in your way.”[68] To understand Thoreau’s society, one must remember his economics, for they are linked—as are all fundamentals of Thoreau’s thought. Remember sovereignty. Thoreau practiced economic sovereignty. Likewise, he adhered to a form of social sovereignty.

Society is a collective noun, but a man is singular. Society is abstract, but a man is concrete. It is impossible to know much about others, but, with time and consideration, one might know oneself. Such considerations—all observable throughout Thoreau’s repertoire—have been confused as mere egotism on his part. However, Thoreau explains his position in Walden:

In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.[69]

Later, he offers an appropriate example of this:

My excuse for not lecturing against the use of tobacco is, that I never chewed it, that is a penalty which reformed tobacco-chewers have to pay; though there are things enough I have chewed which I could lecture against.[70]

Thoreau was a naturalist, and as metaphysical as he was, he placed more than a great deal of stock in empirical evidence. He observed, and he contemplated that which he observed. He did not follow the scientific method necessarily; rather, he synthesized what he learned from observation with his particular brand of metaphysics.[71] Meaning, perhaps, quasi-empirical is the better term. Nonetheless, as Thoreau states in his journal entry for April 15, 1858: “The naturalist accomplishes a great deal by patience, perhaps more than activity. He must take his position, and then wait and watch.”[72] Thoreau did indeed watch, and he made no real attempt to conceal the conclusions he met. Consider Hawthorne’s assessment:

I have known Thoreau a good many years; but it would be quite impossible to comprise him within this little sheet of note-paper. He is an excellent scholar, and a man of most various capacity; insomuch that he could make his part good in any way of life, from the most barbarous to the most civilized. But there is more of the Indian in him, I think, than of any other kind of man. He despises the world, and all that it has to offer, and . . . is an intolerable bore. . . . I ought not to forbear saying that he is an upright, conscientious, and courageous man, of whom it is impossible to conceive anything but the highest integrity. Still, he is not an agreeable person; and in his presence one feels ashamed of having any money, or a house to live in, or so much as two coats to wear, or of having written a book that the public will read—his own mode of life being so unsparing a criticism on all other modes, such as the world approves.[73]

Whatever people might have thought about Thoreau, he seems to have regarded it little. As he states early on in Walden: “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.”[74] Perhaps more of Hawthorne’s opinion can elaborate: “[Thoreau] is a man of thought and originality; with a certain iron-poker-ishness, an uncompromising stiffness in his mental character, which is interesting, though it grows rather wearisome on close and frequent acquaintance.”[75] It seems clear enough that Thoreau acted regardless of his peers’ judgment.

Thoreau, indeed, may not have even believed he even had any real peers. He saw his place in nature (which he usually capitalized as a proper noun):

For my part, I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only . . . Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features.[76]

Through nature, not society, a man became closer to truth and God. In this, Thoreau echoes Emerson’s essay “Nature”:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental; to be brothers, to be acquaintances,—master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.[77]

Note Thoreau’s opening lines of “Walking”:

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.[78]

While still in his early twenties, Thoreau wrote, onMay1, 1841, “Life in gardens and parlors is unpalatable to me—it wants rudeness and necessity to give it relish,”[79] for “a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.”[80] Thus,

I would not have every man nor every part of a man cultivated, any more than I would have every acre of earth cultivated: part will be tillage, but the greater part will be meadow and forest, not only serving an immediate use, but preparing a mould against a distant future, by the annual decay of the vegetation which it supports.[81]

Walking amongst nature was one of Thoreau’s greatest past times. Recalling the previous section on his economics, one can understand that doing such was when he was most productive. According to him, “No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital in this profession [walking].”[82] However, Thoreau did not consider a walk in the conventional matter:

The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, . . . but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. (631) . . . . I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is,—I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder, when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works,—for this may sometimes happen.[83]

To Thoreau, walking was contemplative, not physical. His brand of walking consumed, according to his estimates, no fewer than several hours and many miles.[84] On his walks, he did not usually take companions—two, not three, was a crowd to him—which probably accounts for so many of his neighbors’ perception of him as an eccentric hermit. In the context of his personal sovereignty doctrine (especially the economic aspect), his walks become purely rational. They allowed him to commune with nature and contemplate existence. Economically, this meant that he had to scorn wealth, or at least the pursuit of it, for he needed more free time than a traditionally “industrious” man could afford. Socially, it meant that he needed to leave town (he did not like roads), and abandon the company of others. Company would divert him from his purpose. All of society was, even at its most necessary level, a distraction to him:

The village is the place to which the roads tend, a sort of expansion of the highway, as a lake of a river. It is the body of which roads are the arms and legs,—a trivial or quadrivial place, the thoroughfare and ordinary of travelers. The word is from the Latin villa, which together with via, a way, or more anciently ved and vella, Varro derives from veho, to carry, because the villa is the place to and from which things are carried. They who got their living by teaming were said vellaturam facere. Hence, too, the Latin word vilis and our vile; also villain. This suggests what kind of degeneracy villagers are liable to. They are wayworn by the travel that goes by and over them, without traveling themselves.[85]

Hence his declaration that “In short, all good things are wild and free. . . . Give me for my friends and neighbors wild men, not tame ones.[86] Furthermore:

In society, in the best institutions of men, it is easy to detect a certain precocity. When we should still be growing children, we are already little men. Give me a culture which imports much muck from the meadows, and deepens the soil,—not that which trusts to heating manures and improved implements and modes of culture only![87]

Thoreau fancied mother-nature in no metaphorical sense, and he took pride in his relationship with her; hence this amusing note from Emerson’s journal, September 28, 1853, when Emerson took almost rapturous pleasure from disturbing Thoreau with a plant specimen unfamiliar even to Concord’s great naturalist: “Henry Thoreau could hardly suppress his indignation that I should bring him a berry he had not seen.”[88] Nonetheless, he was the resident expert, as Hawthorne noted on September 1, 1842:

[Thoreau] is a singular character—a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. . . . [He} has repudiated all regular modes of getting a living, and seems inclined to lead a sort of Indian life among civilized men—an Indian life, I mean, as respects the absence of any systematic effort for a livelihood. . . . [He] is a keen and delicate observer of nature,--a genuine observer,--which, I suspect, is almost as rare a character as even an original poet; and Nature, in return for his love, seems to adopt him as her especial chiled, and shows him secrets which few others are allowed to witness. He is familiar with beast, fish, fowl, and reptile, and has strange stories to tell of adventures and friendly passages with these lower brethren of mortality. Herb and flower, likewise, wherever they grow, whether in garden or wild wood, are his familiar friends. He is also on intimate terms with the clouds, and can tell the portents of storms.[89]

Thoreau was at his best and greatest of ease when he spoke of nature. Whether he wrote of walking (which was never walking merely), or of huckleberries, nature was Thoreau’s great muse. On February 28, 1849, Sophia Hawthorne wrote to Mrs. Horace Mann:

His lecture before was so enchanting; such a revelation of nature in all its exquisite details of wood-thrushes, squirrels, sunshine, mists and shadows, fresh, vernal odors, pine-tree ocean melodies, that my ear rang with music, and I seemed to have been wandering through copse and dingle! Mr. Thoreau has risen above all his arrogance of manner, and is a gentle, simple, ruddy, and meek as all geniuses should be; and now his great blue eyes fairly outshine and put into shade a nose which I once thought must make him uncomely forever..[90]

Thoreau often wrote of “wildness” as the preferable antithesis to civilization or society. Romantics have tended to argue that society (or at least its institutions) corrupts men. In this respect, Thoreau was a solid romantic. Society smothers a man by forcing him to compromise and distracting him from purer thoughts and actions. Consider yet another passage from “Walking,” in which there is more than a smidgen of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”:[91]

In literature it is only wild that attracts us. Dullness is but another name for tameness. It is the uncivilized and wild thinking in “Hamlet” and the “Iliad,” in all the Scriptures and Mythologies, not learned in the schools, that delights us. . . . Genius is a light which makes the darkness visible, like the lightning’s flash, which perchance shatters the temple of knowledge itself,—and not a taper lighted at the hearthstone of the race, which pales before the light of common day (649).[92]

Thoreau did not glory in what men did for society, or what society did for men—he would have been no fan of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address—but in how successfully men resisted the yoke imposed upon them by their neighbors:

I rejoice that horses and steers have to be broken before they can be made the slaves of men, and that men themselves have some wild oats still left to sow before they become submissive members of society.[93]

Shortly thereafter, Thoreau alters his metaphor, but maintains the integrity of principle:

We may study the laws of matter at and for our convenience, but a successful life knows no law. It is an unfortunate discovery certainly, that of a law which binds us where we did not know before that we were bound. Live free, child of the mist,—and with respect to knowledge we are all children of the mist. The man who takes the liberty to live is superior to all the laws, by virtue of his relation to the law-maker.[94]

Thoreau then returns to his comparison between men and animals:

While almost all men feel an attraction drawing them to society, few are attracted strongly to Nature. In their reaction to Nature men appear to me for the most part, notwithstanding their arts, lower than the animals. It is not often a beautiful relation, as in the case of the animals.[95]

For Thoreau, it was not a matter of society being in need of reform; it was men needing to be independent of society. Of course he spoke of and advocated certain reforms, but he was not as much the idealist as, say, Emerson or Bronson Alcott. When Alcott invited Thoreau to join him in his utopian community experiment called “Brooks Farm,” Thoreau refused and commented privately: “As for these communities—I think I had rather keep bachelor’s hall in hell than go to board in heaven.”[96] A man had not the capacity nor should he have the inclination to attempt to mold his peers in any particular way. That was the whole problem with society in the first place:

I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.[97]

Most philanthropy, no matter how seemingly benevolent, was, at its core— tantamount to misanthropy. Few of Thoreau’s peers, even his admirers seem to have grasped this fundamental aspect of Thoreau’s personal sovereignty. Emerson usually understood Thoreau, as evidenced by the following passage:

Henry Thoreau made, last night, the fine remark that, as long as a man stands in his own way, everything seems to be in his way, government, society, and even the sun and the moon and stars, as astrology may testify.[98]

However, in his Journal entry for March 23, 1843, Emerson misses the point when he writes, “Young men, like H[enry]. T[horeau] owe us a new world & they have not acquitted the debt: for the most part, such die young, & so dodge the fulfillment.”[99] As Thoreau recorded in his own journal, “While I bask in the sun on the shores of Walden pond, by this heat and this rustle I am absolved from all obligations to the past.”[100] Simply put, Thoreau felt no obligation to anyone. On February 11, 1851, he wrote—in words that completely reject Emerson’s notion about owing anyone a new world:

“I have lived some thirty-odd years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably can tell me nothing to the purpose. There is life, an experiment untried by me, and it does not avail me that you have tried it. If I have any valuable experience, I am sure to reflect that this my mentors said nothing about. What were mysteries to the child remain mysteries to the old man.[101]

The New Hampshire Patriot ran a review of Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers on July 26, 1849, and noted correctly that Thoreau was: “retired from the busy scenes of life, he turns the mental eye inward and endeavors to read the mysterious page of his own soul. Again looking at objects around which meet his senses, he reads lessons of wisdom.”[102] Thoreau believed that he could only help himself through introspection, and so, he reasoned, the same was true for all others. In a way, he was, ironically, a great reformer because he did not attempt to reform anyone; rather he showed men how they might reform themselves. Walden, “Walking,” and “Civil Disobedience,” are all first-person accounts of Thoreau’s quest to do good, and Thoreau makes suggestions to his readers. However, they are first-person accounts not just because they are written using first-person pronouns, but because they are personal accounts. He moved to Walden Pond. He enjoyed solitary forays into the woods. He refused to pay his poll-tax and went to jail.[103] Almost everything he wrote was about himself and his own endeavors to live a good life, and he resented others for intruding upon him and his quest for happiness. Consider the following tantrum-like fit composed on January 11, 1857:

For some years past I have partially offered myself as a lecturer; have been advertised as such several years. Yet I have had but two or three invitations to lecture in a year, and some none at all. I congratulate myself on having been permitted to stay at home thus, I am so much richer for it. I do not see what I should have got of much value, but money, by going about, but I do see what I should have lost. It seems to me that I have a longer and more liberal lease of life thus. I cannot afford to by telling my experience, especially to those who perhaps will take no interest in it. I wish to be getting experience. . . . As for the lecture-goers, it is none of their business what I think. . . . I was describing the other day my success in solitary and distant woodland walking outside the town. I do not go there to get my dinner, but to get that sustenance which dinners only preserve me to enjoy, without which dinners are a vain repetition. But how little men can help me in this! Only by having a kindred experience. Of what use to tell them of my happiness?

Thus, if ever we have anything important to say, it might be introduced with the remark: “It is nothing to you, in particular. It is none of your business, I know.” That is what might be called going into good society. . . . Men even think me odd and perverse because I do not prefer their society to this nymph or wood-god rather. But I have tried them. I have sat down with a dozen of them together in a club, and instantly—they did not inspire me. One or another abused our ears with many words and a few thoughts which were not theirs. There was very little genuine goodness apparent. We are such hollow pretenders. I lost my time. But out there! [in nature] Who shall criticize that companion? It is like the hone to the knife. I bathe in that climate and am cleansed of all social impurities. I become a witness with unprejudiced senses to the order of the universe. There is nothing petty or impertinent, none to say, “See what a great man I am!” There chiefly, and not in the society of the wits, am I cognizant of wit. Shall I prefer a part, an infinitely small fraction, to the whole? There I get my underpinnings laid and repaired, cemented, leveled.[104] (Journal 9:214-216), Borst 419-420.

In light of this, it is not difficult to ascertain what Hawthorne meant when he recorded,

Mr. Emerson appears to have suffered some inconveniency from his experience of Mr. Thoreau as an inmate. It may well be that such a sturdy and uncompromising person is fitter to meet occasionally in the open air, than to have as a permanent guest at table and fireside.[105]

It was not Thoreau’s duty to mind any soul other than his own. Besides, as he wittily remarks in Walden, “As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full.”[106] So worrisome was he that society, no matter how well-intended, would deform him, he later declares, “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life . . . for fear that I should get some of his good done to me.[107] Thoreau practiced a “live and let live” policy, and on the door to his soul, he posted boldly a sign reading “DO NOT DISTURB.” In another journal tirade, Thoreau practically shouts,

Talk of fate! How little one can know what is fated to another!—what he can do and what he can not do! I doubt whether one can give or receive any pertinent advice. In all important crises one can only consult his genius. Though he were the most shiftless and craziest of mortals, if he still recognizes that he has any genius to consult, none may presume to go between him and her [sic]. They, methinks, are poor stuff and creatures of a miserable fate who can be advised and persuaded in very important steps. Show me a man who consults his genius, and you have shown me a man who cannot be advised. You may know what a thing costs or is worth to you; you can never know what it costs or is worth to me. All the community may scream because one man is born who will not do as it does, who will not conform because conformity to him is death,—he is so constituted. They know nothing about his case; they are fools when they presume to advise him. The man of genius knows what he is aiming at; nobody else knows. And he alone knows when something comes between him and his object.[108]

When Thoreau, as reported by Emerson, said “that a thought would destroy like the jet of a blowpipe most persons,”[109] he simply meant that people do not think enough; rather, they are conditioned to accommodate what “society” thinks. Clearly, this is a vicious circle, in which no one thinks for himself, but only echoes what each believes each other thinks. Such is not sovereignty. Such is servitude, ignorance, and a waste of one’s life. When critics, such as the following in England’s Chamber’s Journal accused Thoreau of having “vague and scarcely comprehensible social theories,”[110] they gave credence to Thoreau’s tirades, all the while managing to get lost in the paradoxical contest that Thoreau fought between the conforming tendencies of society, which leaves the individual virtually meaningless, and the independence of personal sovereignty, which grants the individual complete meaning. Thoreau chose meaningfulness over meaninglessness. Society tried to convict him as a worthless hermit, but his own conscience acquitted him with the words, You are free to go. This court is adjourned.

An Unregistered Independent: Thoreau’s Politics

Any fool can make a rule

And every fool will mind it[111]

Anything written of Thoreau’s politics should begin with the opening passage from “Civil Disobedience:”

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.[112]

With this passage begins the trouble with understanding Thoreau’s politics. He is mistakenly called an anarchist by some, and others simply dismiss him as an idealistic nincompoop. He was neither; and, when studied with Thoreau’s personal sovereignty in mind, the truth comes out.

The political sovereignty of individuals is the trickiest of Thoreau’s formulas. One man might practice economic sovereignty well enough, should he manage to regulate his wants to be commensurate with his needs; and economic sovereignty is the first step to true personal sovereignty, for a man who is not economically sovereign must rely upon the employment opportunities granted by another. Thus, economic sovereignty is essential to social sovereignty. Economic sovereignty, however, is also essential to political sovereignty, for the rich “cannot spare the protection of the existing government, and they dread the consequences to their property and families of disobedience to it.[113] Once economically sovereign, a man might practice social sovereignty well enough, provided that he can strike his own course and “Damn the torpedoes”[114] of public opinion: “You must live within yourself, and depend upon yourself always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs.”[115] However, even an economically and socially sovereign person must have problems with political sovereignty, for the coercive powers of the state are external forces and not nearly so relenting. Thoreau knew this first-hand. When he was confronted for not paying his poll-tax, the town jailer did not forgive Thoreau as a local eccentric. He jailed him. A man’s relation to the state is the most elusive form of sovereignty conceivable. However, as Thoreau lectures in essays such as “Civil Disobedience,” and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” it is possible.

The American political system is—and has been since its founding—based, supposedly, upon the notion of popular sovereignty. The notion goes at least as far back as the English philosopher, John Locke, who, in his “Second Treatise on Government,” submitted the refined theory that, under a good government, a social contract, of sorts, exists between the people and the state. Under this contract, the state agrees to enact certain laws, for the purpose of protecting the natural rights of life, liberty, and property. Murder, for instance, is illegal because it deprives a man of his right to live. In return for the protection of their own rights, the people agree to follow the laws designed to protect others’ rights. Should people break these laws, they are in breach of that contract and thus forfeit their rights to life, liberty, and property. Consider, again, the example of murder. If a man is convicted of murder, he defaults upon his rights and faces the possibility of imprisonment—or, in some cases, execution. However, should the state breach its side of the contract by not protecting—or possibly even violating—people’s rights, it faces the possibility of alteration or abolition. This is the argument of the Declaration of Independence. As such, it is thus among the founding principles of the United States of America.

The problem for Thoreau was this whole idea of a contract. He did not sign any contract with the state, so how can he be liable to its terms and conditions? Even if he had been approached to sign such a contract, it is doubtful that he would have done so, for fear of surrendering his conscience. Furthermore, the entire nomenclature of the topic is troublesome for Thoreau. He was a practitioner of social sovereignty, but he is somehow bound by an imaginary contract between society and the state? (Both of which bind him to the collective will of the former and the coercive power of the latter).

In all honesty, however, Thoreau did not dwell much upon politics. He never even registered to vote. This is partly rooted in his social sovereignty, for he sought to be independent; and doing so required him to admit that his fellow Americans were independent of him as well—whether or not they subscribed to his social sovereignty (which overwhelmingly they did not):

However, the government does not concern me much, and I shall bestow the fewest possible thought on it. It is not many moments that I live under a government. . . . The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to,—for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well,—is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it.[116]

Most of Thoreau’s political commentary comes as a reaction to the state’s infringement of his sovereignty. He would have just as soon left the state to go its merry way. When it and he clashed, however, he took a stand and never surrendered his principles:

the state never confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.[117]

The main issue between Thoreau and the state, appropriately enough, since this is a study of personal sovereignty, was the legal status of slavery and the state’s “contractual” obligation to sustain the “property rights” of slave owners. It takes no experienced philosopher to admit that slavery is abhorrent to republican principles—although, ironically, slaveholders were among the founding fathers. As a republican, Thoreau saw this, and he stewed over it. It was no vast step, considering his predilection for striking out on his own, for him to denounce the state and resign his allegiance to it for allowing and fostering the enforced servitude of millions. When his wants threatened to corrupt his nature, he purged himself of them. When society threatened to infringe upon his individual genius, he shunned it. So, when a state that presumed to govern him showed itself a willing accomplice in the vilest institution in the world, Thoreau invoked his political sovereignty and, in his own way, seceded from it: “It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worthless in that case.”[118]

While Thoreau usually spoke of going his own way, he could not always do so with politics, no matter how much he disliked politics. The state imposes itself upon the people. Therefore, Thoreau was not above recommending certain political actions, even extreme ones such as the secession of Massachusetts from the United States.[119] This goes to show how passionately Thoreau despised slavery, that he would lower himself to the role of political commentator. The secession of the individual from the state is vintage Thoreau. If the state of Massachusetts should continue in its relationship with slave states, then the individual citizens of Massachusetts should secede from Massachusetts.

Emerson describes Thoreau’s mindset this way: “Aristotle long ago explained it, when he said, ‘One who surpasses his fellow-citizens in virtue is no longer a part of the city. Their law is not for him, since he is a law unto himself.”[120] Thus, Thoreau rejected popular sovereignty and its social contract, with the statement: “Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined.”[121]

It is obvious that Thoreau wanted reform, in that he wished for slavery to end: “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.”[122] In his opposition to slavery, he spoke directly to people of slavery’s inherent evil and of their active role—for being complacent—in its existence. However, he was not, by nature, a political man. Like William Lloyd Garrison, with whom Thoreau was acquainted, he advocated a non-political, passive resistance. The two decades prior to the Civil War were among the most politically controversial in American history, but Thoreau never voted in an election. Indeed, he never even registered to vote.[123] He delivered his famous lecture, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” at a rally held on July 4, 1854, in Framingham, Massachusetts. Garrison also spoke that afternoon. Among the themes of that day’s lecture was that the government’s support of slavery had rendered it defunct. During Garrison’s speech, he replied, in his way, to the argument that slavery is evil but is also constitutional. Since the constitution protected slavery, Garrison, in front of all present—including Thoreau—burned a copy of the United States Constitution. It must not have struck Thoreau as a peculiar or outlandish thing to do, for he records no mention of the event in the days following. Many Americans, upon hearing of Garrison’s desecration of the Constitution, were outraged. Thoreau, however, simply wrote in his journal observations of birds and tortoise eggs.[124]

A free-soil party arose from the conflict over the expansion of slavery, but Thoreau could not be shaken from his political sovereignty:

It is not any such free soil party as I have seen—but a free man party—i.e. a party of free men—that is wanted— It is not any politicians even the truest & soundest . . . who are wanted to fight this battle—men not of policy but of probity. Politicians! I have looked into the eyes of two or three of them—but I saw nothing there to satisfy me— They will vote for my man tomorrow if I will vote for theirs today. . . . My advice to the State is simply this: to dissolve her union with the slaveholder instantly. She can find no respectable law or precedent which sanctions its continuance. And to each inhabitant of Massachusetts, to dissolve his union with the State, as long as she hesitates to do her duty.[125]

Thoreau blasted democracy because of its grounding in the idea of majority rule—an idea diametrical to Thoreau’s personal sovereignty:

All voting is a sort of gaming . . . and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voter is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.[126]

This unwillingness of the masses to do anything other than to vote and simply abide by the results caused Thoreau to observe, “There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them. “[127] Similarly, “How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely, and enjoy it?”[128] His conclusion was to lament: “How many men are there to a square thousand miles in this country? Hardly one.”[129]

Even though the American constitution allows for amendments, Thoreau had no faith in the American system to affect any real change, at least not in the timely matter so necessary for such an urgent cause. Sure, people can vote, but that does not guarantee that anything good will come from the polls:

[The majority rules] not because they are more likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men under stand it. 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? 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? . . . The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.[130]

Thus, Thoreau encouraged his fellow men to “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority.”[131] True justice is achieved not by collective action or majority rule, but when individuals tune into and act according to their consciences. As a transcendentalist, Thoreau had complete faith that men could commune with Truth and Justice, if only they take the necessary steps to transcend the small matters of economics, society, and politics. It is Thoreau’s personal sovereignty.

Here it becomes clearer what Thoreau thought politically. He was not an anarchist. Anarchy is a word derived from ancient Greek. It’s meaning, literally, is no ruler. Thoreau did not believe that men should be without rulers; he simply believed that no man was fit to rule anyone other than himself: “I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I.”[132] It’s simply a matter, for Thoreau, that no man can do better for another than one’s own conscience.

Thoreau even admits that there are occasions upon which a government, acting as the agent of majority will, can act. However, questions of right and wrong are not to be left to the state, but to the individual geniuses of men:

Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. . . . In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense, but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. . . . A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences . . . and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.[133]

By deferring to government edicts or majority rule on questions of morality, “the mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but of machines.”[134] Consider the following passage from “Slavery in Massachusetts”:

The majority of the men of the North, and of the South and East and West, are not men of principle. If they vote, they do not send men to Congress on errands of humanity; but while their brothers and sisters are being scourged and hung for loving liberty, while—I might here insert all that slavery implies is this—it is the mismanagement of wood and iron and stone and gold which concerns them. Do what you will, O Government, with my wife and children, my mother and brother, my father and sister, I will obey your commands to the letter. It will indeed grieve me if you hurt them, if you deliver them to overseers to be hunted by hounds or to be whipped to death; but, nevertheless, I will peaceably pursue my chosen calling on this fair earth, until perchance, one day, when I have put on mourning for them dead, I shall have persuaded you to relent. Such is attitude, such are the words of Massachusetts.[135]

In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau does not reject government as an institution, but he instead qualifies the conditions by which he will accept government. Because he opposed slavery, he elected not to pay the poll tax out of protest to the Mexican War. As a result, he spent an evening in jail. He explains:

It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot with, —the dollar is innocent, —but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance. In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases.[136]

And yet, Thoreau was clearly no anarchist, for he states: “I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject.”[137] However, “It is not my business to be petitioning the Governor or the Legislature and more than it is theirs to petition me.”[138]

In light of the conflict over slavery and the war against Mexico, which Thoreau believed was engineered by the slave power to extend the borders of American slavery, he gives his assessment of what must be done. Men must exercise their personal political sovereignty. A free and moral man “cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also:”[139]

All 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. But almost all say that such is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of ’75. If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should not make an ado about it, for I can do without them. All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counterbalance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer. In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not to soon for men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army. [140]

The proliferation of slavery and the aggressive war against Mexico were evidence of the United States’ government’s moral degeneracy. What had been a country founded upon principles of liberty and anti-imperialism had become the world’s largest slave power and had embarked upon a war of conquest. Thoreau observed and lamented this irony in a lengthy but pertinent entry into his journal. The selection is part of a longer rant regarding Massachusetts’s compliance with fugative-slave laws:

In ’75 2 or 300s of the inhabitants of Concord assembled at one of the bridges with arms in their hands to assert the right of 3 millions to tax themselves, & have a voice in governing themselves— About a week ago the authorities of Boston, having the sympathy of many of the inhabitants of Concord assembled in the grey of the dawn, assisted by a still larger armed force—to send back a perfectly innocent man—and one whom they knew to be innocent into a slavery as complete as the world ever knew. . . . They sent him back I say to live in slavery with other 3 millions mark that—whom the same slave power or slavish power north & south—holds in that condition. 3 millions who do not, like the first mentioned, assert the right to govern themselvs [sic] but simply to run away & stay away from their prison-house.

Just a week afterward those inhabitants of this town who especially sympathize with the authorities of Boston in this their deed caused the bells to be rung & the cannons to be fired to celebrate the courage & the love of liberty of those men who assembled at the bridge. As if those 3 millions had fought for the right to be free themselves—but to hold in slavery 3 million others.[141]

Furthermore, Thoreau had no faith in the system to correct itself. The Fugitive-Slave Act provided for legal tribunals to determine the veracity of a slaveholder's claim to a runaway. However:

It has come to this that the friends of liberty the friends of the slave have shuddered when they have understood, that his fate has been left to the legal tribunals so called of the country to be decided. The people have no faith that justice will be awarded in such a case—the judge may decide this way or that, it is a kind of accident at best—It is evident that he is not a competent authority in so important a case. [142]

He made a mockery of the entire political system when he wrote in his journal, and later included in “Slavery in Massachusetts”:

Much as has been said about American slavery, I think that commonly we do not yet realize what slavery is—If I were seriously to propose to congress to make mankind into sausages, I have no doubt that most would smile at my proposition and if any believed me to be earnest they would think that I proposed something much worse than Congress has ever done. But gentlemen if any of you 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 then to enact the fugitive-slave law—I shall here 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.[143]

In fact, there was but one thing for sovereign men to do. Act according to conscience, and resist immoral statutes:

I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves Abolitionists should at once effectively withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts and not wait. . . . I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for another one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.[144]

In his journal, he elaborated,

I hear a good deal said about trampling this law [fugitive-slave law] under foot—Why one need not go out of his way to do that—This law lies not at the level of the head or the reason-Its natural habitat is the dirt. It was bred & has its life only in the dust & mire—on a level with the feet & he who walks with freedom . . . will inevitably tread on it & so trample it under foot.[145]

Violating law, however, comes with a price. Lawbreakers are criminals, no matter how conscientious their intentions; and “they who assert the purest right . . . consequently are the most dangerous to a corrupt state.”[146] “A people,” he says, “as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may.”[147] Continuing his theme of cost, he states,

Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may. (672)

Too many Americans were not willing to face the cost of resistance, for they were neither economically nor socially sovereign. For free men, “It costs us nothing to be just.”[148]

Even Thoreau understood the dangers of resisting the state. He went to jail for not paying his poll-tax, and he could have stayed imprisoned much longer had not “some one interfered and paid that tax.”[149] It was an interference in Thoreau’s conflict with the state, for that tax to be paid. The tax was almost certainly paid by a friend or family member, who, out of compassion, sought to achieve Thoreau’s release, but:

If others pay the tax which is demanded of me, from a sympathy with the state, they do but what they have already done in their case, or rather they abet injustice to a greater extent than the State requires. If they pay the tax from a mistaken interest in the individual taxed, to save his property, or prevent his going to jail, it is because they have not considered wisely how far they let their private feelings interfere with the public good.[150]

Thoreau risked further legal troubles when he assisted runaway slaves in their escapes into Canada, but he did so, as he said, cost as it may.

“Under a government which imprisons any injustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”[151] Here, Thoreau is not just talking about his own unjust imprisonment, but about all forms of imprisonment, including slavery. He knew the risks: “if I put my head deliberately into the fire, there is no appeal to fire or to the Maker of fire, and I have only myself to blame.”[152] The burden of cost, however, was heavier, to Thoreau, should he follow the unjust laws. Imprisonment allowed him to keep his virtue. Freedom meant that he had compromised his principles and done nothing. The solution is “Action from principle,”[153] meaning:

Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes them worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? . . . Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and produce Washington and Franklin rebels? . . . If it [the government] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.[154]

The man who believes that he can rid the world of evil is either a very foolish or a very dangerous man indeed:

It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.[155]

“Some,” he says,

are petitioning the state to dissolve the Union, to disregard the requisitions of the President. Why do they not dissolve it themselves,—the union between themselves and the state,—and refuse to pay their quota into its treasury? Do not they stand in the same relation to the state that the state does to the Union?[156]

Ultimately, “Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform.”[157] But “A brave man always knows the way no matter how intricate the roads.”[158]

“Perhaps,” he confesses,

I do not know what are the duties of a Governor; but if to be a Governor requires to subject one’s self to so much ignominy without remedy, if it is to put a restraint upon my manhood, I shall take care never to be Governor of Massachusetts. . . . What I am concerned to know is, that that man’s influence and authority were on the side of the slaveholder, and not of the slave,—of the guilty, and not of the innocent,—of injustice, and not of justice.[159]

For those who argued that the matter was complicated because it was a legal and constitutional matter, Thoreau scoffed,

The judges and lawyers . . . and all men of expediency, . . . consider, not whether the Fugitive Slave Law is right, but whether it is what they call constitutional. Is virtue constitutional, or vice? Is equity constitutional, or iniquity? In important moral and vital questions like this, it is just as impertinent to ask whether a law is unconstitutional or not, as to ask whether it is profitable or not. They persist in being the servants of the worst of men, and not the servants of humanity. The question is, not whether you or your grandfather, seventy years ago, did not enter into an agreement to serve the Devil, and that service is not accordingly now due; but whether you will not now, for once and at last, serve God—in spite of your own past recreancy, or that of your ancestor—by obeying that eternal and only just CONSTITUTION, which He, and not any Jefferson or Adams, has written in your being[160]

The text of “Slavery in Massachusetts” breathes life into Thoreau’s opposition to the state, and reluctance to accept any politics at all:

The amount of it is, if the majority vote the Devil to be God, the minority will live and behave accordingly—and obey the successful candidate, trusting that, some time or other, by some Speaker’s casting-vote, perhaps, they may reinstate God. This is the highest principle I can get out or invent for my neighbors. These men act as if they believed that they could safely slide down a hill a little way—or a good way—and would surely come to a place, by and by, where they could begin to slide up again. This is expediency, or choosing that course which offers the slightest obstacles to the feet, that is, a downhill one. But there is no such thing as accomplishing a righteous reform by the use of “expediency.” There is no such thing as sliding up hill. In morals the only sliders are backsliders. . . . (708-709) Will mankind never learn that policy is not morality—that it never secures any moral right, but considers merely what is expedient? Chooses the available candidate—who is invariably the Devil—and what right have his constituents to be surprised, because the Devil does not behave like an angel of light? What is wanted is men, not of policy, but of probity—who recognize a higher law than the Constitution, or the decision of the majority. The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls—the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning. . . . Let each inhabitant of the State dissolve his union with her, as long as she delays to do her duty. . . . 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.[161]

In the end, “The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free. They are the lovers of law and order who observe the law when the government breaks it.”[162] “Is it not possible that an individual may be right and a government wrong? Are laws to be enforced simply because they were made? or declared by any number of men to be good, if they are not good?”[163] And “Whoever can discern 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 the judge.”[164] A pure transcendentalist, in this respect, he also adds that his “countrymen . . . are to be men first, and Americans only at a late and convenient hour. No matter how valuable law may be to protect your property, even to keep soul and body together, if it do not keep you and humanity together.”[165]

If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, “But what shall I do?” my answer is, “If you really wish to do anything, resign your office.” When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.[166]

That few take this step leads him to announce, “It is not many moments that I live under a government, even in this world.”[167]

The ultimate expression of Thoreau’s politics comes as the conclusion to “Civil Disobedience,” and this section will end likewise:

There will never be a really free 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. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. 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.[168]


Henry David Thoreau lived and died a sovereign man. As a republican, he understood that man’s nature required this; and “If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.”[169] He was, as Hawthorn observed, “full of peculiar thought, and . . . the characteristics of a man who has lived an individual life, based upon his own ideas.”[170] As Thoreau himself bragged, “I delight to come to my bearings, . . . not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, . . . to travel the only path I can, and that on which no power can resist me.”[171]

He practiced economic sovereignty, managing to rid himself of superfluous wants. Having done so, he could devote the bulk of his time to contemplative and enriching activities. He was also beholden to no society: “No opposition or ridicule had any weight with him. He coldly and fully stated his opinion. . . . It was of no consequence, if every one present held the opposite opinion.”[172] As a master of social sovereignty, he was thus free to attend to his own needs, follow his own genius, and commune with his true society, mother nature:

When I am vexed I only ask to be left alone with it. Leave me to my fate. . . . Floating in still water, I too am a planet, and I have my orbit, in space, and am no longer a satellite of the earth. . . . We do not avoid evil by hurry-skurry and fleetness in extenso, but by rising above or diving below its plane. As the worm escapes drought and frost, by boring a few inches deeper, but the grasshopper is overtaken and destroyed.[173]

Politically, he knew no institution worthy of governing him or any other free man. He was perfectly able and willing to stand alone, bathed in the righteousness of his own ego.

That he was economically sovereign did not mean that he had no wants, but that his wants did not govern him. Likewise, his social sovereignty did not mean that he could not enjoy and make use of the company of others, but that he could, if he needed, follow his own way. Thoreau was also not opposed to the state, but he was opposed to being governed against his conscience. The state, to Thoreau, was an expediency,[174] not a moral compass.

In his eulogy of Thoreau, Emerson declared that “No truer American existed than Thoreau.”[175] Perhaps this is true, so far as being an American is rooted in the principles of republicanism. Emerson concludes the eulogy with: “His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”[176] As Thoreau said:

A man’s life should be a stately march to a sweet but unheard music, and when to his fellows it shall seem irregular and inharmonious, he will only be stepping to a livelier measure; or his nicer ear hurry him into a thousand symphonies and concordant variations. There will be no halt ever but at most a marching on his post, or such a pause as is richer than any sound, when the melody runs into such depth and wildness, as when the melody runs into such depth and wildness, as to be no longer heard, but implicitly consented to with the whole life and being. He will take a false step never, even in the most arduous times; for then the music will not fail to swell into greater sweetness and volume, and itself rule the movement it inspired.[177]

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[1] The Objectivist Lyceum was a student-sponsored club composed of libertarian disciples of Ayn Rand. It sponsored weekly discussion on established topics. I believe the topic of this discussion was “Is Christianity Red?”—the implication being that socialism is in part the byproduct of Christian charity. It had not occurred to the affirmative side of the discussion that the most infamous socialists in history have been atheists.

[2] Henry David Thoreau, “Life Without Principle,” in Walden and Other Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Brooks Atkinson, ed. (New York: New Modern Library, 1992) 758.

[3] Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Letters, 1857-1864, vol. XVIII, The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Woodson, James A. Rubino, L. Neal Smith, and Norman Holmes Pearson, eds. (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1987) 605.

[4] Rush Limbaugh, The Way Things Ought to Be (New York: Pocket Star, 1992).

[5] Brooks, Atkinson, ed., "Forward" in Walden and Other Writings of Henry David Thoreau (New York: New Modern Library, 1992) v.

[6] Qtd. in Borst, Raymond R., ed. The Thoreau Log: A Documentary Life of Henry David Thoreau 1817-1862 (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1992) 316-17.

[7] Ibid., 317.

[8] Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Letters, 1843-1853, vol. XVI, The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Woodson, L. Neal Smith, and Norman Holmes Pearson, eds. (Ohio State University Press, 1985) 106.

[9] Qtd. in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 6, Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1914) 371. Also in Borst, 90.

[10] Emerson, Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 3, Ralph L. Rusk, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983) 75. Also in Borst, 79

[11] Nathaniel Hawthorne, Letters, 1857-1864, Vol. XVII, The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Woodson, et al., eds. (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1987) 107.

[12] For information on this and the Protestant work ethic, consult Perry Miller, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (New York: Longman, 1999).

[13] Abraham Lincoln, "The Gettysburg Address," 1863.

[14] Emerson, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 6., Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, eds., (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1911) 298. Also in Borst, 84.

[15] All quotes in this paragraph are from Jefferson, "The Declaration of Independence."

[16] Thoreau, Henry David, Walden, in Walden and Other Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Brooks Atkinson, ed. (New York: New Modern Library, 1992) 23.

[17] This is the driving thesis behind Walden and Thoreau’s speech-turned-essay, “Life Without Principle.”

[18] Thoreau, Walden, 29.

[19] Ibid., 35.

[20] Ibid., 46-53, 56-59, 65-66, 86-87, etc. I include the et cetera because, in fact, I could cite nearly the entire text of Walden to support my assertion.

[21] Thoreau, Walden, 42, 80.

[22] Ibid., 86.

[23] Thoreau, Walden, 11-12.

[24] Ibid., 65-66.

[25] Ibid., 67.

[26] Thoreau, “Life Without Principle,” 748.

[27] Thoreau, "Life Without Principle," 748.

[28] Thoreau , Walden, 10.

[29] Thoreau , “Life Without Principle,” 748.

[30] Ibid., 749.

[31] Ibid., 750.

[32] Thoreau , Walden, 6. Emphasis added.

[33] Thoreau , “Life Without Principle,” 752.

[34] Thoreau , Walden, 31.

[35] Thoreau , “Life Without Principle,” 752.

[36] Ibid., 751.

[37] Thoreau , Walden, 17.

[38] Thoreau , Walden., 18-19. Notice how Thoreau plays with the word “business.”

[39] Henry David Thoreau, Journal Vol. I: 1837-1844. Ed. John C. Broderick, et al., eds., (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981) 347.

[40] Thoreau , “Life Without Principle,” 764.

[41] Thoreau , Walden, 13.

[42] Ibid., 46. This is but one sample of Thoreau’s financial records. There are more in Walden.

[43] Borst, 137.

[44] Henry David Thoreau, Journal XI, Vol. XVI, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Bradford Torrey, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906) 214.

[45] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals and Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. VII. Ed. By A.W. Plumstead and Harrison Hayford (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969) 201-202.

[46] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals and Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. IX, Ralph H. Orth and Alfred R. Ferguson, eds. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971) 103.

[47] Borst, 156.

[48] Ibid., 328.

[49] Ibid., 334.

[50] Qtd. in Borst., 145.

[51] Ibid., 145..

[52] Emerson, The Journals and Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. IX, 400.

[53] Thoreau , Walden, 86.

[54] Thoreau , Journal 1, 291.

[55] Qtd. in Borst, 138.

[56] Thoreau , Walden, 5.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid., 6.

[59] Ibid., 8.

[60] Ibid., 53.

[61] Thoreau, Walden, 53.

[62] Ibid., 54.

[63] Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” Walden and Other Writings of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Brooks Atkinson (New York: The Modern Library, 1992) 662.

[64] Ibid., 663.

[65] From Microsoft Word.

[66] Qtd. in Borst, 26.

[67] Qtd. in Borst, 27.

[68] Anecdote and qt. are from Robert A. Gross, “‘That Terrible Thoreau’: Concord and Its Hermit,” in William E. Cain, ed. A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 182.

[69] Walden, 3.

[70] Ibid., 75.

[71] Thoreau’s “metaphysics” are rooted in transcendentalism, but Thoreau’s writings are not the best source for understanding transcendentalism. Anyone interested in 19th century transcendentalism in America must read Ralph Waldo Emerson and A. Bronson Alcott. However, though his was not the watershed of American transcendentalism, Thoreau’s life may be the finest example of transcendentalism in action.

[72] Thoreau, “Journal X,” The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, vol. XVI, Bradford Torrey, ed. (Boston:Houghton, Mifflin,1906) 369

[73] Hawthorne, “Letters XVII, 1853-1856,” The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, vol. XVII, (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1987) 279-280.

[74] Thoreau, Walden 7.

[75] Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Letters, 1813-1843” The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, vol. XVI. Thomas Woodson, L. Neal Smith, and Norman Holmes Pearson, eds. (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1985) 248.

[76] Thoreau, “Walking,” 659.

[77] Emerson, “Nature,” Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, William H. Gilman, ed.(New York: Penguin Books, 1983) 193. Thoreau lived in the shadow of Emerson, with many accusing him of being little more than a facsimile of his mentor.

[78] Thoreau, “Walking,” 627.

[79] Thoreau, Journal 1, 307.

[80] Thoreau, “Walking,” 637.

[81] Ibid., 656.

[82] Ibid., 628.

[83] Ibid., 632.

[84] Thoreau, “Walking,” 629, 633.

[85] Ibid., 634.

[86] Ibid., 652.

[87] Ibid., 655.

[88] Emerson, The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol 4, Ralph L. Rusk, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939) 388.

[89] Hawthorne, “The American Notebooks,” The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, vol. VIII, Claude M. Simpson, ed. (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1972) 354.

[90] Qtd. in Borst, 142.

[91] When one closely examines Thoreau and what his contemporaries thought of him, the “Allegory of the Cave” comparison become even more evident.

[92] Thoreau, “Walking,” 649.

[93] Ibid., 653.

[94] Ibid., 657.

[95] Thoreau, "Walking," 658.

[96] Qtd. in Robert D. Richardson, Jr. Henry David Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1986) 101.

[97] Thoreau, Walden, 67.

[98] Emerson, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson 1820-1872, vol. VI, Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, eds., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911) 298.

[99] Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. VIII 1841-1843, William H. Gilman and J.E. Parsons, eds., (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970) 375.

[100] Thoreau, Journal, vol. 1, 120.

[101] Qtd.. in Borst 212.

[102] Ibid., 153.

[103] Thoreau stopped paying his tax well before the Mexican War, and it wasn't even a federal tax.

[104] Thoreau, “Journal IX,” The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, vol. XV, ed. Bradford Torrey (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906) :214-216.

[105] Hawthorne, “The American Notebooks,” 371.

[106] Thoreau, Walden, 69

[107] Ibid., 71.

[108] Thoreau, “Journal XI,” The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Bradford Torrey, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflen, 1906) 379-380.

[109] Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson vol. XI. A.W. Plumstead & William H. Gilman eds. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975) 262.

[110] Qtd. in Borst, 462.

[111] From Thoreau’s poem “The Rosa Sanguinea,” in Henry David Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems. Elizabeth Hall Witherell, ed. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2001) 641.

[112] Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” 667.

[113] Ibid., 680.

[114] This is a quote from Civil War history, uttered by the commander of the Union navy as it entered Mobile Bay.

[115] Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” 681-682.

[116] Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” 690, 692-293.

[117] Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” 684.

[118] Ibid., 682. Note Thoreau’s use of the word “cost.”

[119] Ibid., 676, 678. And Journal vol. 8, 1854, ed. Sandra Harbert Petrulionis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002) 210. Ironically, the slave states would become the ones to practice secession.

[120] Emerson, “Henry Thoreau,” in Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, William H. Gillman, ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1983) 435.

[121] Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” 682.

[122] Ibid., 668. Note the emphasis Thoreau places upon the words “at once.”

[123] Emerson, “Henry Thoreau,” in Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Penguin, 1983) 423.

[124] Thoreau, Journal vol. 8, 1854, 219-224; and William E. Cain, ed., William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight Against Slavery: Selections from the Liberator (New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1995) 35-36.

[125] Thoreau, Journal vol. 8, 1854, 210. Also in Borst, 293.

[126] Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” 673.

[127] Ibid., 672.

[128] Ibid., 676.

[129] Ibid., 674.

[130] Ibid., 668-669.

[131] Ibid., 679-680.

[132] Ibid., 692.

[133] Ibid., 669.

[134] Ibid., 669.

[135] Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” 707.

[136] Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” 687.

[137] Ibid.

[138] Ibid., 677.

[139] Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience," 670.

[140] Ibid., 670-671.

[141] Thoreau, Journal vol. 3, in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, ed. John C. Broderick, et al. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) 203-204.

[142] Ibid., 205.

[143] Ibid.

[144] Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” 678.

[145] Thoreau, Journal, vol. 3, 203.

[146] Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” 680.

[147] Ibid., 671-672.

[148] Thoreau, “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” 717

[149] Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” 684.

[150] Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience," 688

[151] Ibid., 679.

[152] Ibid., 689.

[153] Ibid., 676.

[154] Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience," 676-677.

[155] Ibid., 675.

[156] Ibid., 676.

[157] Ibid., 675

[158] Thoreau, Journal, vol. 3, 258.

[159] Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” 700.

[160] Ibid., 708.

[161] Ibid., 708-709,711.

[162] Thoreau, "Slavery in Massachusetts," 703.

[163] Thoreau, “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” 741.

[164] Thoreau, "Slavery in Massachusetts," 704.

[165] Ibid., 707-708.

[166] Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” 680.

[167] Ibid., 690.

[168] Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience," 693.

[169] Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” 684.

[170] Hawthorne, Letters XVII, 514.

[171] Qtd. in Leonard N. Neufeldt, The Economist: Henry Thoreau and Enterprise (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) 35.

[172] Emerson, "Henry Thoreau," 425.

[173] Thoreau, Journal vol. 1, 156, 168, 172.

[174] Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” 665.

[175] Emerson, 426.

[176] Ibid., 439.

[177] Thoreau, Journal vol. 1, 146.


  1. Run-on DMC8:00 PM

    Esteemed colleague,
    I believe that your post was a bit long-winded for all but the most dedicated reader.

    Unfortunately, I'm not a very dedicated reader, so I must ask:


  2. It's a matter of chores. When you've got other crap to do, sitting down and writing isn't too difficult.

    Stay tuned next weekend for when I must avoid all of the crap I need to do then and the stuff that I put off on this weekend too.

  3. bryan7:25 PM

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