Henry David Thoreau Research Paper

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Writer, naturalist, theorist of civil disobedience, and anti-slavery activist, Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, and lived there most of his life. A graduate of Harvard College, his most formative intellectual experience was his friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). The central figure of New England transcendentalism, Emerson famously called on individuals to dispense with traditional religious and intellectual authorities and seek truth and divinity for themselves. Thoreau spent his life answering Emerson’s call to establish “an original relation to the universe” (Emerson 1983, p. 7).

Thoreau’s most concerted effort to connect directly with the universe was his two-year sojourn in the woods at Walden Pond. Thoreau lived in a cabin of his own making, sustained himself by his own labor, looked inward, and observed nature. He recounted his experience magisterially in Walden (1854): “I went to the woods because I wished 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” (Thoreau 2004b, p. 90). Walden urges mental awakening and original perception; it also urges simple living so that one may free oneself from the relentless acquisition of material goods and the unquenchable thirst for riches.

In 1846, Thoreau had a brush with the law that spawned his other great contribution to American letters. Walking through town, he ran into the tax collector, who demanded that he pay his poll tax. Thoreau refused because he did not want his money going to support the Mexican War, which Thoreau saw as an indefensible attempt to extend the reach of American slavery. The tax collector threw Thoreau in jail; the next day an acquaintance paid the tax for Thoreau, much to Thoreau’s irritation. Thoreau’s night in jail became the occasion for “Resistance to Civil Government”—his 1849 essay defending his refusal to pay the tax and arguing that morally unconscionable laws are not binding. Eventually re-titled “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau’s essay is the foun-dational text of the modern doctrine of civil disobedience: Citizens may justifiably defy laws which break with higher moral laws or with the moral foundations of the polity. In the twentieth century, Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi and American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. drew inspiration from Thoreau in formulating their respective theories of nonviolent resistance. Unlike Gandhi and King, however, Thoreau was not a committed pacifist.

Thoreau gave three more noteworthy antislavery addresses before his death. In “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854), Thoreau excoriated the recently passed Fugitive Slave Law, which required free states such as Massachusetts to assist slave-owners in the recovery of their property. In “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1859) and “The Last Days of John Brown” (1860), Thoreau defended Brown’s failed raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, which was part of Brown’s broader attempt to incite a slave insurrection throughout the South. Despite his hatred of slavery, the carnage of the Civil War greatly disturbed Thoreau. Falling ill just before its outbreak in 1861, he said he “could never recover while the war lasted” (Harding 1992, p. 451). Thoreau never did, dying of tuberculosis at the age of forty-four.


  1. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1983. Essays & Lectures, ed. Joel Porte. New York: Library of America.
  2. Harding, Walter. 1992. The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  3. Rosenblum, Nancy L. 1996. Introduction. In Thoreau: Political Writings, ed. Nancy L. Rosenblum, vii–xxxi. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Thoreau, Henry David. 2004a. The Higher Law: Thoreau on Civil Disobedience and Reform, ed. Wendell Glick. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  5. Thoreau, Henry David. [1854] 2004b. Walden, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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