Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau's Stance on Abolition
Shannon Riley, Virginia Commonwealth University
Thoreau says in Walden, "It is never too late to give up your prejudices." Athough he is advocating that man in society should relinquish his prejudices through revelation from nature, it can also be interpreted as advocating anti-slavery beliefs. Indeed, this social reformer spent a good portion of his life trying to encourage others to relinquish their own prejudices regarding the issues of abolition.
As a Transcendentalist, Thoreau professed individualism, self-reliance, and Reason. Therefore, he was reluctant to be labled or attach himself to a group. "We are accountable only to God for our behavior, and thus have a duty to ourselves and others to follow what is deemed right, rather than what is created by fallible laws." He believed that one of those fallible laws was the controversial Slavery Act, and he believed that men should follow their hearts and consciences with regard to this law rather than obeying it or even believing in it. In Slavery in Massachusetts Thoreau pleaded,
Will mankind never learn that policy is not morality—that it never secures any moral right, but considers merely what is expedient . . . . The fate of the country does not depend on who you vote for at the polls . . . 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.
But the one movement which he finally could not resist allying himself to was the abolition of slavery. He was one of the most respected and simultaneously controversial abolitionists of his generation. He wrote in Walden a rather broad definition of slavery,
I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous, I may almost say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both north and south. It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.
Thoreau clearly felt that government was far too invasive on the individual, and did not operate in the best interest of its citizens. In "Civil Disobedience" Thoreau writes: "Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with any thing which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; aye it divides the individual, separating the diabolical from the divine."
He became an impassioned and moving speaker on abolition, initially reluctant and uncomfortable in the spotlight.In "Thoreau and Transcendental Politics" James Goodwin writes: "While it is true that he refused to pay the poll tax, spent a night in jail, spoke against slavery, and assisted fugitive slaves, Thoreau practiced his beliefs primarily in writing . . . .Although Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., credited Thoreau as an inspiration to their mass campaigns of passive resistance, in crucial instances his thought appears to be more closely aligned to a doctrine of individual nihilism than to the philosophy of mass nonviolence."
The enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and vehement support of the activities of John Brown were often the driving forces of his fiery lectures. On October 16, 1859, John Brown led 21 men on an assault at Harper's Ferry in an attempt to rouse slaves to fight for their freedom and provide the necessary gun power to do so. They were blocked in the Harper's Ferry fire house until the Virginia militia arrived. General Robert E. Lee and Lt. Jeb Stuart ordered Brown to surrender which he vehemently refused. Lee then ordered his troops to charge the building. One marine was killed and another wounded, and 11 of Brown’s men were killed, including two of his sons. He and the five survivors were tried for treason in Virginia and found guilty. Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859. Directly before his death, he handed someone a note that read, "The sins of this country can only be purged with blood." Thoreau moved into the political forefront only with his defense of John Brown, immediately after the arrests at Harper’s Ferry. The little national fame he achieved was as an eccentric Emersonian social experimenter and a firebrand champion of Brown. (Baym,et al, 626). Upon considering the callous and insensitive remarks made by his neighbors in hearing the news of the death of Brown, Thoreau wrote,
One of the townsmen observed, "He died as the fool dieth" . . . .Others said disparagingly that "he threw his life away" because he reisisted the government. I hear another ask, Yankee-like, "What will he gain by it?" as if he expected to fill his pockets by this enterprise. Such a one has no idea of gain but in this worldly sense. If it does not lead to a "surprise" party, if he does not get a new pair of boots, or a vote of thanks, it must be a failure. "But he won't gain any thing by it." Well, no, I don't suppos he could get four-and-sixpence a day for being hung, take the year round; but then he stands a chance to save a considerable part of his soul--and such a soul!--when you do not. No doubt you can get more in your market for a quart of milk than for a quart of blood, but that is not the market that heroes carry their blood to.Journal, Thoreau writes about a number of times he assisted fugitive slaves on their way north. He hid them, drove them to the train station, bought their tickets, and sometimes even accompanied them to the next station.
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