Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, 1817, the third child of John Thoreau and Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau. The freethinking Thoreaus were relatively cultured, but they were also poor, making their living by the modest production of homemade pencils. Despite financial constraints, Henry received an elite education, first at Concord Academy and then at Harvard College in nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts. His education there included ancient and modern European languages and literatures, philosophy, theology, and history. Graduating from Harvard in 1837, Thoreau returned to Concord to teach in the local grammar school but resigned abruptly in only his second week on the job, declaring himself unable to inflict corporal punishment on misbehaving pupils. In the ensuing months, Thoreau sought another teaching job unsuccessfully.

It was around this time that Thoreau met Ralph Waldo Emerson, a prominent American philosopher, essayist, and poet who had recently moved to Concord. The friendship between the two would eventually prove the most influential of Thoreau’s life. The following June, Thoreau founded a small progressive school emphasizing intellectual curiosity over rote memorization, and after a period of success for the school, his brother John joined the venture. After several years, John’s failing health and Henry’s impatience for larger projects made it impossible to continue running the school.

During this period, Thoreau assisted his family in pencil manufacturing, and worked for a time as a town surveyor. He also began to keep an extensive journal, to which he would devote considerable energy over the next twenty-five years. His writing activities deepened as his friendship with Emerson developed and as he was exposed to the transcendentalist movement, of which Emerson was the figurehead. Transcendentalism drew heavily on the idealist and otherworldly aspects of English and German Romanticism, Hindu and Buddhist thought, and the tenets of Confucius and Mencius. It emphasized the individual heart, mind, and soul as the center of the universe and made objective facts secondary to personal truth. It construed self-reliance, as expounded in Emerson’s famous 1841 essay by that same title, not just as an economic virtue but also as a whole philosophical and spiritual basis for existence. And, importantly for Thoreau, it sanctioned a disavowal or rejection of any social norms, traditions, or values that contradict one’s own -personal vision.

With his unorthodox manners and irreverent views, Thoreau quickly made a name for himself among Emerson’s followers, who encouraged him to publish essays in The Dial, an emerging Transcendentalist magazine established by Margaret Fuller. Among these early works were the first of Thoreau’s nature writings, along with several poems and a handful of book reviews. Thoreau began to enjoy modest success as a writer. His personal life was marred by his rejected marriage proposal to Ellen Sewall in 1840, who was forced to turn down Thoreau (as she had turned down his brother, John, before him) because of pressure from her family, who considered the Thoreaus to be financially unstable and suspiciously radical. Disappointed in love, devastated by the 1842 death of his brother, and unable to secure literary work in New York, Thoreau was soon back in Concord, once again pressed into service in the family pencil business.

During the early 1840s, Thoreau lived as an all-around handyman for the Emersons at their home, maintaining the house and garden, assisting Emerson editorially, and provided companionship to Emerson’s second wife, Lidian. Thoreau and Lidian developed an intimate, but wholly platonic friendship. It was on Emerson’s land at Walden Pond that Thoreau, inspired by the experiment of his Harvard classmate, Charles Stearns Wheeler, erected a small dwelling in which to live closer to nature. On July 4, 1845, his cabin complete, Thoreau moved to the woods by Walden Pond. He spent the next two years there composing the initial drafts to two of his best-known works: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, first published in 1849, and Walden; or, Life in the Woods, first published in 1854. Thoreau’s isolation during this period is sometimes exaggerated. He lived within easy walking distance of Concord, and received frequent visitors in his shack, most often his close friend and traveling companion William Ellery Channing. It was also during this period that Thoreau had his famous July 1846 encounter with Concord constable Samuel Staples that led first to Thoreau’s arrest and overnight incarceration and later to the creation of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience essay.

When Emerson went to Europe for an extended stay in the autumn of 1847, Thoreau left Walden to keep house with Lidian again for nearly two years. After Emerson’s return, tensions between the two men caused a rift in their friendship. Thoreau left the Emerson residence and returned to his family home, where he would remain for the rest of his life and resumed work in the pencil business.

As the slavery debate came to a head in the 1850s, Thoreau took on a vocal role in the burgeoning abolitionist movement. He assisted fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad, and later took an unpopular stand by announcing his support for the martyred John Brown, who in 1859 had sought to incite a slave rebellion in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. But during a protracted bout of tuberculosis in the late 1850s, Thoreau largely retreated from public concerns. He began a study of growth rings in forest trees and visited Minnesota on a walking tour in the spring of 1861. But his illness finally overcame him, and he died at home in Concord on May 6, 1862, at the age of forty-four.

Background on Civil Disobedience

Throughout his life, Thoreau emphasized the importance of individuality and self-reliance. He practiced civil disobedience in his own life including his refusal to pay taxes in protest of slavery and the Mexican War resulting in a night in the Concord jail in July of 1846. It is thought that this night in jail prompted Thoreau to write Civil Disobedience. Thoreau delivered the first draft of the treatise in which he publicly expounded his reasons for resisting state authority as an oration to the Concord Lyceum in 1848. The text was published in 1849 under the title Resistance to Civil Government.

The major issue being debated in the United States during Thoreau's life was slavery, and it plays a prominent part in Thoreau's famous 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 through 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 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 our "Manifest Destiny" to seize all the land we could—and as a result the United States gained California and much of the present American Southwest. Thoreau and other opponents of the war argued that the campaign constituted an unnecessary act of aggression and that it was pursued based on arrogance rather than any philosophically justifiable reasons.

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