Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

A prominent American philosopher, essayist, lecturer, and leading figure in the transcendentalism movement. Emerson and Thoreau met in the late 1830s in Thoreau’s hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, where Emerson had recently moved. Emerson took a keen interest in the younger Thoreau, befriending and mentoring him for many years until the two eventually had a falling out. Emerson introduced Thoreau to transcendentalism as well as to important literary figures and thought leaders including Ellery Channing and Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well as to Margaret Fuller, who edited the transcendentalist journal The Dial, which published some of Thoreau’s earliest essays. Thoreau lived with Emerson and his wife from 1841-1844, serving as their children’s tutor, assisting Emerson editorially, and serving as a general handyman. It was on Emerson’s property in the woods outside of Concord that Thoreau built the small house where he would live in relative isolation, which he used as the basis for his best-known work, Walden.

Samuel Staples (1813-1895)

Local constable in Concord, Massachusetts, who upon encountering Thoreau in July of 1846 asked him to pay six years of unpaid poll taxes, which are taxes that were assessed to every adult in some states. Thoreau’s refusal to pay the tax in protest against slavery and the Mexican-American War and the subsequent night he spent in jail are described in Section Three of Civil Disobedience.

Daniel Webster (1792-1852)

Daniel Webster was a well-known American orator, lawyer, and politician. As a U.S. Senator representing Massachusetts, he was an eloquent defender of a strong national government. Webster opposed the war with Mexico, but was instrumental in passing the Compromise of 1850 on slavery, for which many anti-slavery Northerners denounced him. He also served as Secretary of State for three presidents. Thoreau cites Webster as an example of the inherent shortcomings of lawyers and elected representatives in a democracy who are predisposed to protecting the status quo. He declares Webster is a follower and not a leader, that he acts defensively and not aggressively, and says that he has an overabundance of prudence and a lack of wisdom.

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