Henry David Thoreau
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Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, and the Underground Railroad

A Calliope Fact Sheet
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Student Permission

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.

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:

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.


   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.

  Frederick Douglass and W. L. Garrison
- - - a 10-year partnership as abolitionists.
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 1.)

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 reformist 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 many speakers.

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.

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."]

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.

Important Point: 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 Conscience Begin?

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?" (Note 6.)

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 7.)

By focusing on individual conscience, Thoreau raises important questions for discussion.

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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. territory..

This double outrage inspired Thoreau's most memorable statements as a conscientious objector. Important Quote:

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. (Note 9.)

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--

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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 (1854)
  • 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, 1850-1854
Part III: The Turning Point, 1854
Part IV: The Twilight of Politics, 1859

Students! You have our permission to quote from (not copy from) these pages about Thoreau, abolitionism, and the Underground Railroad -- provided that you acknowledge it in your bibliography as follows. And don't forget the references in the footnotes.

Calliope Film Resources. "Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and the Underground Railroad." Copyright 2001 CFR. http://www.calliope.org/thoreau/thurro/thurro1.html
[And add the date on which you visited this web page.]

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Updated Feb. 20, 2010