Henry David Thoreau: A Wayward American

Joseph “TJ” Zazzara

Henry David Thoreau: A Wayward American


Henry David Thoreau, as one of the most influential American political, moral, and philosophical figures of the nineteenth century, is an overtly controversial figure. His breadth of work ranged from writing poetry, to political discourse, and even to the development of an entirely new conception of the world through transcendentalism. In particular his works on the nature of government and its appendages make him a wayward figure. His encouragement of civil disobedience and noncompliance during a time characterized by aggressive militarist expansion and entrenched institutionalized slavery make him a particularly ideologically deviant figure for his time. Thoreau’s most influential works include the autobiographical novel Walden, his essay Slavery in Massachusetts, and his essay on the nature of government, Civil Disobedience. However, Thoreau was a prolific writer and his extensive body of work covers an array of topics ranging from discussions of poverty, spiritual discovery, slavery, anarchism, and environmentalism. Thoreau, through his beliefs and actions, can be considered a case study in how waywardness can be mobilized as a positive and constructive social force.

Thoreau dealt extensively with the issue of just governance and the way in which unjust actions can be responded to constructively. In his essay Civil Disobedience, Thoreau posits “I heartily accept the motto, — “That government is best which governs least” (1). In essence, Thoreau rejected the increased centralization that characterized, and continues to characterize, the political system within which all modern governments have been established. Thoreau felt that the nature of contemporary political discourse inevitably led to increasingly predatory centralization and the loss of moral integrity. He believed that “This American government – what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will.” (2). Thoreau placed his faith squarely in the hands of the individual, he considered himself a proponent of the American spirit and of the American people. However, he felt that the structure of the government was such that the will of a single man, or a small group, had the ability to accumulate undue influence.

Falling in line with his belief that the American system is a tradition, one which is held against the possibility of other systems, Thoreau advocated for both active and passive resistance against unjust actions. In order to combat governmental corruption and other systemic wrongs Thoreau advanced a platform that focuses on the consciousness of the individual and in civil disobedience. Slavery and the Mexican American War would prove to be two of the most contentious contemporary conflicts that shaped Thoreau’s philosophy. However his reasoning about the cause of these injustices places blame on both the inherently corrupt government and those “who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may… There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them” (10). This even-tempered stance makes up a large part of why Henry David Thoreau is a wayward American; his philosophy is not exclusionist or exceptionalist in construction and recognizes the truly complex nature of cause and effect. To Thoreau, it is as much an issue of allowing atrocities and injustices to occur as it is to recognize and act against them. This unique mindset becomes evident in his discussion of the abuses and injustices of slavery. Thoreau believed that blame should not solely be cast on the southern aristocracy for the institution of slavery, but some of the burden of responsibility rests on those who allow the institution to continue.

The environment was one of Thoreau’s greatest passions and he was an early advocate for outdoor recreation and environmentalism. Walden, Thoreau’s autobiography and an experiment in living “well,” operates as a means of expressing his philosophical views through a telling of his time spent in an ascetic cabin in the woods. Thoreau believed that “most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the facetious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them” (Economy, 6). In order to seek out these finer fruits, Thoreau lived in his English-style 10’ x 15’ cottage near Walden Pond in Massachusetts. His experiment functioned as both a spiritual journey for himself and a stage upon which to prove the validity of his philosophical tenants. His time in the cabin can be interpreted as a sort of theatrical show of his ideology. Over the course of his endeavor (which lasted for two years, two months, and two days), Thoreau came to the ultimate conclusion that “if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him stop to the music which he hears, however measured or far away” (Conclusion, 10). In essence, he felt that his path was not the only one by which one could act with consciousness and compassion. However, this does not mean that a critical eye should not be applied to the paths of others if they operate to impede on either freedom or the natural world; social critique and civil disobedience play prominently into Thoreau’s ideology.

As one of the most sensational literary and spiritual figures of the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau can be considered an exceptional and exemplary wayward American. His philosophies promoted constructive social critique based upon an adherence to freedom from oppression and coercion in any form. While his status as an early proponent of anarchism is a subject of modern debate, his philosophies certainly have some of the qualities of anarchism. His strict opposition to the pervasiveness of slavery in America combined with the aggressive and conquest driven Mexican American war also establish him as one of the earliest American anti-war activists to espouse non-violent dissent. Thoreau, through his beliefs and actions, operates as a case study in how waywardness can be mobilized as a positive and constructive social force in America.

Suggested Reading:

Walden interior

Walden Cabin Replica

The cabin in which Thoreau resided in Walden was purposefully devoid of space and comfort. Thoreau felt that he should live as close to the natural environment as he was able to if he wished to gain any insights of value. This modern recreation of the Cabin highlights this ascetic element and lacks anything beyond simple iconoclastic furniture. 
anit-slavery bil

No Slavery!

Henry David Thoreau was an avid and lifelong abolitionist; Thoreau spoke at this meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society along with other noted abolitionists such as Sojourner Truth and Llyod Garrison. In his concluding speech, Garrison dramatically burnt a copy of the Fugitive Slave Act which had been passed in 1793.

Trees along Walden’s Shore

Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts serves as the site of Thoreau’s journey in Walden. The natural environment of the region proved to be incredibly inspiring to Thoreau and he gathered many ecological samples to be sent to Harvard in his time spent there.
  • Scott, David. “rewalking Thoreau and Asia: ‘Light from the East’ for ‘A Very Yankee Sort of Oriental’. “Philosophy East and West. 57. no. 1 (2007): 14-39.
  • Turner, Jack. “Performing Conscience: Thoreau, Political Action, and the Plea for John Brown.” Political Theory. 33. no. 4 (2005): 448-471.
  • Woodson, Thomas. “Thoreau on Poverty and Magnanimity.” PMLA. 85. no. 1 (1970): 21-34.
This entry was posted by josephzazzara.

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