Thoreau's "Disobedience"

May 14: Henry David Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government" (later re-titled "Civil Disobedience") was published on this day in 1849.  Though an anthem for the idea of principled, independent behavior, Thoreau's essay was inspired by two specific historical events: the nation's ongoing battle over slavery and its recent land-grabbing war with Mexico. In his essay, as in the original public talk delivered months earlier in Concord, Thoreau chose to localize these national issues, shifting his target from the action taken by government to the inaction of his neighbors:

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. I quarrel not with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home, co-operate with, and do the bidding of those far away, and without whom the latter would be harmless. …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; who esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say they know not what to do, and do nothing….

Bronson Alcott attended the original Concord talk, and reported in his journal that there was "an attentive audience." Thoreau's own journal indicates that he did not always enjoy lecturing, but he did it often enough—some sixty talks over two decades, most often on his Walden experiences.  Some who heard him speak wanted their money back; some heard "a mingled web of sage conclusions and puerility"; one reviewer concluded that Thoreau was good for "an occasional ramble through the domains of thought, wit, and fancy… but to your slow plodder, who clings to the beaten track as his only salvation, he is incomprehensible."

 

To all, Thoreau responded that his talks were on his terms: "If you wish to know how I think, you must endeavor to put yourself in my place. If you wish me to speak as if I were you, that is another affair."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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