Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, and the Underground Railroad
A Calliope Fact Sheet
Copyright Calliope Film Resources, Inc.
Introduction (below): 1820s-1840s ||| Part I: Slavery and Civil Disobedience
Students: Not sure
what the Underground Railroad actually was?
Click here for a good definition.
Introduction: 1820s through
1840s -- Boston, Concord, and Abolition
The 1820s: Black Bostonians and antislavery.
the industrial hub of the nation's northern
the heart of the American Revolution for freedom.
- Even in Thoreau's time, a "rigorous separation of races"
made Boston the most segregated city in the North.
- Boston's diverse and active black population numbered around
2,000 souls throughout the period 1820-1850 (3 percent of Boston's
Black Bostonians. Blacks born in America's north and
south, as well as those of African, West Indian and European
nationalities - had long acted as a driving force behind struggles
to improve the condition of African Americans nationally, particularly
struggles over civil rights and abolition. As early as 1826,
blacks had formed the Massachusetts General Colored Association,
calling for immediate emancipation and racial equality.
As is well known, hostilities over slavery began to divide
the nation around the 1820s. The 1820s began with Congress' passage
of the Missouri Compromise (1821, ending a crisis over
the extension of slavery into new states), but the 1830s opened
on notes of antislavery militance that heightened the struggle:
- Above all, Nat Turner's Rebellion in Virginia (1831),
- The Boston publication of David Walker's fiery Appeal...
to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829)
- The Boston publication of the first issue of William Lloyd
Garrison's newspaper The Liberator (1831)
Boston's influential industrialists, whose textile mills in
Lowell and Lawrence depended on slave-harvested cotton, opposed
abolition. Nevertheless, antislavery and abolitionism found fertile
soil in the minds and hearts of Boston's people, and Concord's.
In the words of historian Benjamin Quarles, "In
1830 a great majority of [America's] 320,000 free Negroes were
in the habit of regarding all whites as their enemies. The abolitionists
changed this stereotype." (Note
1832: The struggle grows sharper. With the founding
of the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832 in Boston,
a new level was reached. To New England's antislavery activists
- black and white, transcendentalist or unlettered - the founding
of the society by William Lloyd Garrison, the widely respected
white abolitionist, in Boston's African Meeting House was a milestone.
Douglass and W. L. Garrison
- - - a 10-year partnership as abolitionists.
The Anti-Slavery Society provided the first important platform,
and the first hope, for an integrated abolitionist movement
that would be stronger and more effective. As James Oliver Horton
writes, "Most [black Bostonians] agreed that Garrison's
newspaper and its promise of white support would bring new power
to their long struggle against slavery in America." (Note 2.)
1840-1845: White Abolitionism in Concord. By the 1840s,
Concord was a center of
thought and action. The town's Lyceum (or adult education center)
in its first years debated topics including "Is the Union
threatened by the present aspect of affairs?" -- "Would
it be an act of humanity to emancipate at once all slaves?"
(Note 3.) -
and "Is it ever proper to offer forcible resistance?"
(Thoreau, right, and his brother defended the
affirmative. Note 4.)
Before retiring to
the shore of Walden Pond, Henry Thoreau served as an officer
of the Lyceum in 1842-44, seeing to it that audiences absorbed
abolitionist principles from Ralph Waldo Emerson (left),
Theodore Parker, Horace Greeley, and Wendell Phillips, among
The town's Female Anti-Slavery Society, founded in
1837, had an outspoken early member in Henry's mother Cynthia
Dunbar Thoreau, among other progressive townswomen. Her family's
continuing activism in the underground railroad, and that of
Henry Thoreau, are described in a later section.
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Part I. Slavery
and Civil Disobedience
1846: Rejecting the law of the land. In July 1846, Thoreau's
stay at Walden Pond was interrupted by his famous one-night imprisonment
in a whitewashed jail cell in the town of Concord. Opposed to
slavery, Thoreau had protested for several years by refusing
to pay his poll tax. (He paid other taxes willingly.)
A Wave of Protest. Thoreau's individual resistance
was part of a mounting wave of reform activism that had begun
in the 1840s.
- The idea of tax refusal as a protest tactic was being
raised in free black communities. Declaring "No
privileges - no pay" as early as 1841, Massachusetts
antislavery activist Charles Lenox Remond "anticipated
Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience' and argued that African Americans
should be willing to go to jail rather than pay taxes to institutions
that discriminated against them." (Note
- Also, radical abolitionists were beginning to view the Constitution,
which supported slavery, as an invalid document. Some who preferred
individual protest instead of organized activism had already
seized upon the practice of conscientious refusal to pay the
poll tax. Three years before Thoreau, his close friend Bronson
Alcott, philosopher and educator, had been arrested by the
same Concord constable for exactly the same act of protest. [Click here
to read a good
Thoreau's motive. By refusing to pay the government,
Thoreau intended to stay in jail and set an example to his community.
(When the constable, Sam Staples, offered to personally lend
Henry the amount owed, Thoreau refused.) This plan backfired
when the debt (and future taxes) were paid by a relative (probably
Henry's Aunt Maria) - freeing the angry Thoreau the very next
morning. Surely, only one night in jail fell far short
of Thoreau's heroic intention.
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"Civil Disobedience." As a way of perpetuating
the example he could not set in person, Thoreau told about his
experience in 1848 in a lecture "on the relation of the
individual to the State" at the Concord Meeting Hall, to
satisfy curious townsmen about his jail time. This lecture led
to the essay we know as "Civil Disobedience." [More
on the writing of "Civil Disobedience."]
- That essay was published (as "Resistance to Civil Government")
by the Concord educator and activist Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
in 1849 in the first (and only) issue of the journal Aesthetic
Papers - not exactly a wide-reaching publication.
- It was not published again until after Thoreau's death (re-titled
"On the Duty of Civil Disobedience," 1863).
- In the 20th century, in Mahatma Gandhi's India and Martin
Luther King's America, "Civil Disobedience" would become a national and international
example, extending Thoreau's individual model onto huge scales
of mass action.
For the rest of his life, Thoreau was engaged in the cause
(but not the organizations) of abolitionism. Essentially, Thoreau
upheld individuals' responsibility to live their lives well. That included opposition to government when it interferes
seriously with that pursuit.
Thoreau's refusal of government did not stop with the passive
resistance that we identify with his tax protest in "Civil
Disobedience." As the storm clouds of slavery gathered and
darkened, Thoreau angrily began to side with those who believed
that violence was necessary to win against an unjust institution.
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Thoreau's Question: Where Does
Thoreau writes in "Civil Disobedience":
"Can there not be a government
in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong,
but conscience? -in which majorities decide only those questions
to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen
ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience
to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then?"
Looking back from today's standpoint, of course, we can easily
see that slavery was unjust and morally evil, and that its supporters
had to be defeated. But in the 1840s and 1850s, white Americans
had no unified viewpoint about it. In fact, an important goal
of anti-slavery activists was "moral suasion" (persuasion).
In other words, they hoped that their example would serve as
a model for the majority of undecided or pro-slavery individuals.
But setting a personal example took too long to bring about social
change. How long must the abolition of slavery be delayed? Soon,
many moderate "anti-slavery" believers became more
active opponents -- "abolitionists."
And the most radical abolitionists wanted slavery abolished immediately.
Black Americans had far fewer differences of opinion
about slavery. Virtually all had experienced some effects of
the "peculiar institution," slavery. Virtually all would agree with the declaration
of David Walker (1829): "Have you not, Americans, having
subjected us under you, added to these miseries, by insulting
us in telling us to our face, because we are helpless, that we
are not of the human family?" (Note
By focusing on individual conscience, Thoreau raises
important questions for discussion.
- How does a single individual recognize what is wrong and
what is right?
- At what point, and by what right, does a person's conscience
carry more authority than the law?
- What is accomplished by acts of civil disobedience?
- What is important about the idea of civil disobedience in
our own time?
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Thoreau opposes "Manifest
Destiny." In addition to rejecting slavery, "Civil
Disobedience" also criticizes expansionist warfare.
Although Thoreau went to jail in mid-1846 as punishment for his
individual antislavery tax boycott, the essay resulting from
it, written during the year that war broke out, further condemns
the American war on Mexico (1846-48 - for details, read
Note 8). Thoreau
considers the war against Mexico to be an evil comparable to
slavery itself - in fact, extending slavery into new U.S.
This double outrage inspired Thoreau's most memorable statements
as a conscientious objector. Important
I cannot for an instant recognize
that political organization as my government which is the slave's
government also. ...When a sixth of the population of a nation
which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves,
and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign
army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too
soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.
Before Thoreau, only American Quaker writers had urged civil
disobedience against war and slavery. In contrast, Thoreau's
essay is rooted in individual conscience rather than a
religious principle ─ "Under
a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just
man is also a prison." (Note
10.) As a secular (non-religious) statement of the inviolability
of conscience, Thoreau's first-person narrative is alive with
personal conviction. This is a big part of the reason that "Civil Disobedience"
has won wide audiences.
Beyond "Civil Disobedience"
Yet "Civil Disobedience" was never Thoreau's final
word on resistance against injustice and oppression. His strongest
criticisms of America's constituted society lay in the future--
- ...In his activities with Concord's Underground Railroad,
- ...In his public addresses:
- "Slavery in Massachusetts"
- "Life Without Principle"
- Thoreau's defenses of John Brown.
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Parts II, III and IV
of this study will examine how, as the 1850s brought home the
reality of slaveholders' growing power (see list below), Thoreau's
abolitionist convictions changed.
- The enactment of the nationwide Fugitive Slave Law (1850)
- The Boston rescue of Shadrach Minkins (1851)
- The failed rescue and subsequent rendition of Anthony Burns
- The Supreme Court's "Dred Scott" decision (1857)
denying citizenship to blacks
- John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry (1859)
Part II: Defiance and Resistance,
Part III: The Turning Point, 1854
Part IV: The Twilight of Politics, 1859
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