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Henry David Thoreau

(1817-1862), American

Biography

Henry David Thoreau was a philosopher and writer best known for his attacks on American social institutions and his respect for nature and simple living. He was heavily influenced by the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who introduced Thoreau to the ideas of transcendentalism, a philosophy central to Thoreau's thinking and writing. In addition to Civil Disobedience (1849), Thoreau is best known for his book Walden (1854), which documents his experiences living alone on Walden Pond in Massachusetts from 1845 to 1847. Throughout his life, Thoreau emphasized the importance of individuality and self-reliance. He practiced civil disobedience in his own life and spent a night in jail for his refusal to pay taxes in protest of the Mexican War. (Thoreau was opposed to the practice of slavery in some of the territories involved.) It is thought that this night in jail prompted Thoreau to write Civil Disobedience. Thoreau delivered the first draft of the treatise as an oration to the Concord Lyceum in 1848, and the text was published in 1849 under the title Resistance to Civil Government.

The two major issues being debated in the United States during Thoreau's life were slavery and the Mexican-American War. Both issues play a prominent part in Thoreau's essay. By the late 1840s, slavery had driven a wedge in American society, with a growing number of Northerners expressing anti-slavery sentiments. In the 1850s, the country became even more polarized, and the introduction of slavery-friendly laws such as the Fugitive Slave Law, prompted many abolitionists to protest the government's actions via various forms of civil disobedience. (Slavery was only to come to an end a generation later when the abolitionist North would win the Civil War [1861-1865], Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation would free all slaves in Confederate territory. Eventually, the 13th Amendment would ban slavery everywhere.) In addition to this domestic conflict, the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) proved to be a point of much contention. Precipitated by boundary disputes between the United States and Mexico, the war was ultimately fought in order to expand American territory—many Americans felt it was their "Manifest Destiny" to seize all the land they could—and as a result the United States gained much of the present American Southwest, including California, Nevada, and Utah. Thoreau and other opponents of the war argued that the campaign constituted an unnecessary act of aggression and that it was pursued on the basis of arrogance rather than any philosophically justifiable reasons.

Civil Disobedience enjoyed widespread influence, both in the United States and abroad. Most famously, the work inspired Russia's Leo Tolstoy and India's Mahatma Gandhi. Later, it lent force to the American Civil Rights Movement. Thoreau died of complications from tuberculosis, which he contracted in 1835, in 1862.

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SparkNotes

Henry David Thoreau Quotes

I hardly know an intellectual man, even, who is so broad and truly liberal that you can think aloud in his society.

In wildness is the preservation of the world.

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.

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.

A living dog is better than a dead lion.

Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul.

If a thousand [citizens] were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.

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.

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?

Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one.

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Essays

  • The Service

    (1840)

  • A Walk to Wachusett

    (1842)

  • Paradise (to be Regained)

    (1843)

  • Sir Walter Raleigh

    (1844)

  • Herald of Freedom

    (1844)

  • Wendell Phillips Before the Concord Lyceum

    (1845)

  • Reform and the Reformers

    (1846–48)

  • Thomas Carlyle and His Works

    (1847)

  • Resistance to Civil Government, or Civil Disobedience, or On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

    (1849)

  • An Excursion to Canada

    (1853)

  • Slavery in Massachusetts

    (1854)

  • A Plea for Captain John Brown

    (1859)

  • Remarks After the Hanging of John Brown

    (1859)

  • The Last Days of John Brown

    (1860)

  • Walking

    (1861)

  • Excursions

    (1863)

  • Life Without Principle

    (1863)

  • A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers

    (1866)

Novels

  • A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

    (1849)

  • Walden

    (1854)