Henry David Thoreau (7/12/1817-5/6/1862) is regarded as the prototypical American Individualist, leaving civilization to "simplify, simplify" in a cabin alongside Walden Pond, refusing to pay a poll tax to protest slavery and the war with Mexico, and authoring the libertarian classic, Civil Disobedience (originally published as Resistance to Civil Government).
Civil Disobedience begins with his Jeffersonian statement of faith:
"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. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient."
Thoreau was willing to accept a government which
"must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual."
Walden, or Life in the Woods is a testament to nature, to humanity and to self-discovery, as is his essay, Life Without Principle. Thoreau had a natural affinity for the land, and working as a surveyor fit his personality, for it allowed him the opportunity and time to explore nature. What it would bring to him, and to those who would read Walden (1854), Walking (1862) The Maine Woods (1864) and Cape Cod (1867) would be an abiding love of the natural wonders of the land.
Why do Thoreau's ideas continue to echo throughout the radical community? As Laurence Rosenwald commented:
"...Thoreau also sees what Emerson does not, namely, that with regard to paying taxes, it is impossible not to act, in one way or another. One can pay the tax, and thereby support the state, or refuse the tax, and defy the state. Thoreau's civil disobedience, then, is the choice he makes when he has no choice but to act; it is not only action, but necessary action, unwilling action, action that is thrust upon the actor. The tax collector comes to the door, and Thoreau has to choose whether to pay. What he does has much in common with what Rosa Parks did in 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a white bus rider in Montgomery, Alabama... Rosa Parks... committed civil disobedience without going a single step out of her way; in fact, she committed it precisely by trying to proceed along her way, seeking not to be arrested but simply to go home."
Thoreau, although supporting non-violent action, was not a complete pacifist and supported John Brown's actions:
"It was [Brown's] peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him... I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable." ("A Plea for Captain John Brown," Reform Papers (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1973. pp. 132-3)
Thoreau has been an icon for environmentalists and ecologists of all stripes, for libertarians and anarchists of all stripes, and for all of humanity. His writings and ideas will outlast us all. We are certainly the richer for it.
Just a thought.
cross-posted at Liberty & Power Blog