Henry D. Thoreau was arrested and imprisoned in Concord for one night in 1846 for nonpayment of his poll tax. This act of defiance was a protest against slavery and against the Mexican War, which Thoreau and other abolitionists regarded as a means to expand the slave territory. Individual resistance to the State has a long historical foreground, reaching back to Sophocles' play Antigone, through many episodes of religious dissent against authority, to Thoreau's friend Bronson Alcott's arrest in 1843 who also refused to pay his poll tax.
Thoreau's classic essay popularly known as "Civil Disobedience" was first published as "Resistance to Civil Government" in Aesthetic Papers (1849). Thoreau has no objection to government taxes for highways and schools, which make good neighbors. But government, he charges, is too often based on expediency, which can permit injustice in the name of public convenience. The individual, he insists, is never obliged to surrender conscience to the majority or to the State. If a law "is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another," he declares, "then, I say, break the law." The essay makes it clear that this stance is not a matter of whim but a demanding moral principle.
The appeal of civil disobedience in the North grew in the wake of the Compromise of 1850, which included the hated Fugitive Slave Law, requiring all citizens to aid in the return of escaped slaves to their owners. Though civil disobedience is usually associated with passive resistance, Thoreau came to endorse the more direct action of John Brown, whose ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was intended to incite a slave insurrection.
Thoreau's essay has had a profound influence on reformers worldwide, from Tolstoy in Russia and Gandhi in South Africa and India; to Martin Luther King, Jr's civil rights movement and the opposition to the Vietnam War in the United States; to recent demonstrations for civil rights in the former Soviet Union and China.
Walden, in fullWalden; or, Life in the Woods, series of 18 essays by Henry David Thoreau, published in 1854. An important contribution to New EnglandTranscendentalism, the book was a record of Thoreau’s experiment in simple living on the northern shore of Walden Pond in eastern Massachusetts (1845–47). Walden is viewed not only as a philosophical treatise on labour, leisure, self-reliance, and individualism but also as an influential piece of nature writing. It is considered Thoreau’s masterwork.
Walden is the product of a two-year period when Thoreau lived in semi-isolation by Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. He built himself a little cabin and was almost totally self-sufficient, growing his own vegetables and doing the odd job or two. It was his intention at Walden Pond to live simply, to have time to contemplate, walk in the woods, write, and commune with nature. As he explains, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” The resulting book is a series of essays, or meditations, with titles such as “Economy,” “Sounds,” “Solitude,” “Visitors,” “Higher Laws,” “Brute Neighbours,” “Winter Animals,” and “Spring.” Thoreau’s style can at times be ponderous, but it is well worth the effort for the pearls of wisdom contained therein, which are often quoted: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” and “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”
Relatively neglected during Thoreau’s lifetime, Walden achieved tremendous popularity in the 20th century. Thoreau’s description of the physical act of living day by day at Walden Pond gave the book authority, while his command of an elegant style helped raise the work to the level of a literary classic. For readers concerned about the advent of a fast-paced, quick-fix society marked by excess, materialism, and superficiality, Walden’s message will perhaps seem more relevant and necessary now than when it appeared more than a century and half ago.