Charles Davis

Philosophy of History

Prof. Rohatyn


Henry David Thoreau: American Radical


            For some individuals, the constraints of society are considered so unbearable that a sort of self-imposed exile takes place.  These men are typically characterized by their intense individualism, an almost hermit-like detachment from society, and introspective demeanor.  Perhaps no man in recent history better fits this description than Henry David Thoreau; the archetypal American radical and the most influential individualist anarchist of the 19th century.

            An immensely important author, Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817.  While attending Harvard College, Thoreau studied a wide-range of liberal arts subjects, ranging from Greek grammar to intellectual philosophy, to the study of four modern languages.  Thoreau is known to have disliked the teaching methods employed at Harvard, saying that they taught “all the branches and none of the roots” of learning.  Upon his graduation in 1837, Thoreau returned to Concord where he worked as a schoolteacher.  However, Thoreau’s career as a teacher did not last very long, and in 1841 he moved in with the Emerson family for part-time work that would allow him to pursue his passion -- writing.  Along with Emerson, Thoreau would later be known as one of the most important figures in the American transcendentalist movement.[1]

            In 1845, Thoreau would build a small cabin alongside Walden Pond, where he would stay for more than two years, forming the basis for his his book, Walden.  This conscious act of seclusion would enable Thoreau to throw away the chains of materialism and societal pressure, allowing him to instead focus on refining his emerging philosophy of transcendentalism.  Thoreau didn’t simply dislike a few aspects of society; he rejected society in its entirety.  Thus, by moving into the solitude of a cabin by a lake, a mile from all neighbors, he was able to avoid what he saw as the destructive traits of society.  “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” wrote Thoreau in the opening chapter of Walden.  “What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.  From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.  A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.”[2]

            Thoreau preached a life of simplicity, where man could drop all of the baggage and corruption of society and attain a spiritual connectedness with the world and knowledge of the self.  “Most men,” stated Thoreau, “even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.”[3]  It would be much wiser to use one’s limited time on earth to attain spiritual enlightenment, Thoreau would say, then to spend the entirety of one’s life employed throwing rocks back and forth over a wall.  Stripped of the spiritual overtones that permeate much of his work, many of Thoreau’s criticism of society and the course of history seemingly echo that of Karl Marx.  Both viewed governments as exploitive tools of the elite or capitalist classes, bent on cultivating “good workers” to toil in factories, lacking any time to focus on the truly important things in life – like contemplating nature and on improving one’s position in society.  Furthermore, both are credited with developing new conceptions of

            In what is perhaps his most well known essay, “Resistance to Civil Government,” or, “Civil Disobedience,” as it is more popularly known, Thoreau passionately attacks not only the particular sins of the American government, but the concept of government as a whole.  Revising Thomas Paine’s famous quote from the revolutionary pamphlet, Common Sense, “[G]overnment even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one,”[4] Thoreau states that, “[G]overnment 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.”[5]  The essay, written after Thoreau went to jail upon his refusal to pay his poll tax, was an act of protest against what Thoreau saw as an unjust war versus Mexico.  The war, begun over a border dispute regarding the newly annexed Texas, was the first major application of the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny,” in which America was seen as having a God-given right to expand its borders from “sea to shining sea.”  The contemporary parallels one can draw from Thoreau’s opposition to the war and the modern movement that opposed to war with Iraq are numerous.  For one, both conflicts were seen by many as an abuse of power, as both President Bush and President Polk failed to get a congressional declaration of war, though Polk did receive one belatedly.  One can see the parallels with current events in Thoreau’s own timely words: “Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.”[6]  Contemporary antiwar groups, such as the War Resisters League, amongst others, continue Thoreau’s legacy by opposing war and refusing to pay taxes so long as they go towards building weapons of destruction.

            More than just a ranting diatribe against the government, “Civil Disobedience” is a scathing yet nuanced philosophical assault on the evils perpetrated by governments.  Not solely about the unjust war on Mexico, Thoreau also railed against politicians who did nothing to prevent the expansion of slavery, much less its continued existence in the United States.  Instead of simply arguing for reform through lobbying Congress and influencing public opinion, Thoreau argued for all men of conscience to break any law that they deemed to be unjust immediately and unapologetically.  For to obey a tyrannical law, Thoreau would argue, would be in effect assisting tyranny in and of itself.

            In many ways, Thoreau’s thoughts on government closely parallel those of fellow 19th century radical, Lysander Spooner.  Spooner, born in Massachusetts in 1808, was one of the earliest individualist anarchists in America, and was a fiery proponent of “Natural Law”, the belief that there are certain immutable laws of nature that hold precedence over mere man-made law.[7] Just like Thoreau, Spooner strongly believed in acts of civil disobedience when certain laws violated a person’s conscience as well as Natural Law.  And, just as Thoreau, Spooner put his words into action by openly defying Massachusetts law and opening his own law practice after studying under another lawyer for only three years, not the required five, as he saw the requirement as effectively barring the poor from competing with the rich who could more easily afford such training.  Spooner continued his defiance of the law when he, in 1844, decided to challenge the U.S. Postal Service’s legal monopoly on mail delivery by operating his own private mail carrier service.  Although financially successful, the venture was eventually forced to shutdown due to continual legal challenges from the government.  Later in life, Spooner’s experience in law would prove to be quite beneficial, when he wrote a blistering attack on the concept of the “social contract,” by which individuals supposedly grant their consent to be governed by being born into society, in his seminal essay, “No Treason.”  Using his training as a lawyer, Spooner tears apart the myth of the social contract;

            “The Constitution has no inherent authority or obligation. It has no authority or                    obligation at all, unless as a contract between man and man. And it does not so       much as even purport to be a contract between persons now existing. It purports,     at most, to be only a contract between persons living eighty years ago.”[8]

Published in 1870, one can see an echo of Thoreau throughout Spooner’s work.  The following statement from Thoreau, for instance, could just as easily be from Spooner:

            “Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the Union, to disregard the requisitions of the President.  Why do they not dissolve it themselves,--the union between themselves and the State,--and refuse to pay their quota into its treasury?  Do they not stand in the same relation to the State, that the State does to the Union?”[9]  Here, Thoreau takes the same arguments in favor of states rights and political decentralization, and takes them to their radical, though logical, extreme.

            The greatest testament to the quality of Thoreau’s political writings is the sheer number of people, from civil rights leaders to pacifists, who have publicly claimed him as a major influence in their lives.   One such person who cannot go without mention is Mohandas Gandhi, the nationalist Indian leader who preached the concept of nonviolent resistance as a means to end the British occupation of India.  Deeply inspired by “Civil Disobedience,” Gandhi took to heart the idea of resistance to injustice, and coupled it with the doctrine of pacifism; a concept Gandhi termed satyagraha, meaning “truth and firmness.”  On a scale that would have surely shocked Thoreau, Gandhi organized massive rallies and other forms of nonviolent protests against British occupation, eventually leading to Indian independence in 1947.  Gandhi’s activism proved once and for all that civil disobedience could be an effective means of stirring social change on a large scale.  Thoreau’s influence on Gandhi can’t be minimized; it permeates much of Gandhi’s writing, so much so, in fact, that the following statement reads as if it was written by Thoreau himself: “You assist an evil system most effectively by obeying its orders and decrees.  An evil system never deserves such allegiance.  Allegiance to it means partaking of the evil.  A good person will resist an evil system with his or her whole soul.”[10]  Many years after his death, Thoreau’s writings were indirectly responsible for the greatest triumph of nonviolent protest in modern times. 

            Whereas the focus of “Civil Disobedience” is a rather broad attack on the concept of government in general, Thoreau’s “Slavery in Massachusetts” is, as the title would suggest, a focused attack on the politicians of Massachusetts and their tacit support of slavery.  In the piece, Thoreau shows no sympathy for those politicians who “put off the day of settlement indefinitely,” and in fact actively promote the institution of slavery.[11]  Thoreau rightly saw that, “They who have been bred in the school of politics fail now and always to face the facts.”  Instead of taking the morally correct stand on slavery, the politicians in Massachusetts introduced “half measures and make-shifts,” failing to address the obvious moral question at the heart of the matter.  In the essay, one can further see Thoreau’s belief in a higher power, and in a transcendental natural law superior to man-made legislation.  His belief in natural law is evident when he writes, “Every moment that she [Massachusetts] hesitated to set this man [fugitive slave, Thomas Sims] free--every moment that she now hesitates to atone for her crime, she is convicted.  The Commissioner on her case is God; not Edward G. God, but simple God.”  He points out that while the politicians of Massachusetts may claim that their actions are completely consistent with the law of the land, they aren’t reconcilable with God’s transcendent supreme law.

            The overwhelming feeling of moral outrage one senses from “Slavery in Massachusetts” can be found in the later works of another anarchist who claimed Thoreau as a major influence: Emma Goldman.  A Russian-born immigrant, Goldman decided on a life of radical protest that eventually led to her deportation to Soviet Russia in 1919.  Goldman’s time in America was marked by continual run-ins with the law, including serving prison time for attempting to incite workers to revolt, distributing pro-birth control literature, and in 1917 she was imprisoned for two years and finally deported for setting up “No Conscription” leagues and speaking out against United States involvement in World War I.[12]  During her trial in 1917, she assailed her arrest as being a highly political tactic meant to destroy the antiwar movement, stating to the jury that her arrest was meant to not let her “interfere with the highly democratic effort of the Government to conscript its young manhood for the European slaughter.”[13]  She continued, defending her political beliefs, saying:

            [N]ever would I change my ideas because I am found guilty.  I may remind you of two great Americans, undoubtedly not unknown to you, gentlemen of the jury;           Ralph Waldo   Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. When Thoreau was placed in    prison for refusing to pay taxes, he was visited by Ralph Waldo Emerson and    Emerson said:  ‘David, what are you doing in jail? and Thoreau replied: ‘Ralph,       what are you doing outside, when honest people are in jail for their ideals?

In the preface of her book, Anarchism and Other Essays, historian Hippolyte Havel notes the influence that the likes of Thoreau and the transcendentalists had on Goldman: “[S]he was to learn that the idea of Anarchism found its highest expression through the best intellects of America: theoretically by Josiah Warren, Stephen Pearl Andrews, Lysander Spooner; philosophically by Emerson, Thoreau, and Walt Whitman.”[14]  In fact, in her essay entitled, “Anarchism: What It Really Stands For,” Goldman refers to Henry David Thoreau as “the greatest American Anarchist” and quotes him approvingly throughout the piece.[15]

            “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer,” writes Thoreau in the opening of his 1863 essay, “Life Without Principle.”[16]  One of his lesser-known works, the piece is a classic attack on those who would “gain the world, but lose their soul,” to paraphrase Mark 8:36.  Thoreau assails those who would focus on monetary gains over the spiritual, reflective life.  “If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day,” Thoreau writes, “he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer,” whereas those who are employed in essentially “throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back” are applauded for their labor.[17]  Not merely anti-business, Thoreau simply feels that “[t]o have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse.”[18]  Whereas Marx condemned the market system as a whole for the soul-destroying effects of menial labor, Thoreau isn’t ready to go as far, or if he is he never states it outright.  Instead, Thoreau focuses his critique on the individual, as opposed to the system in its entirety.  Rather than merely striving for what society deems a “good job,” Thoreau argues one should pursue the development of the whole self, not simply material wealth.

            In the wake of the major accounting scandals at the likes of Enron and WorldCom, Thoreau’s admonishment to not forget that there is more to life than financial gain is perhaps more relevant than ever.  Who can forget the technology/internet stock bubble and, in the words of Alan Greenspan, the “irrational exuberance” of but a few years ago?  Everyday one was reminded of how an exorbitant amount of money could be made with just a few well-timed stock investments.  Hell -- all it seemed to take to retire a millionaire by the age of 34 was a website and a sock puppet to hawk your goods, regardless of whether or not the operation actually made any money.  What would Thoreau have had to say of all the corporate scandals and crass materialism evident in modern America?  Well, one could envision his reaction being quite similar to his reaction to the California gold rush: “That so many are ready to live by luck, and so get the means of commanding the labor of others less lucky, without contributing any value to society!  And that is called enterprise!  I know of no more startling development of the immorality of trade, and all the common modes of getting a living.”[19]

            More comfortable sitting by a lake and contemplating life, Thoreau never fully developed a complete political philosophy in the way that Marx or Benjamin Tucker did.  Rather, Thoreau spoke as an individual that simply recognized the government for what it is – a criminal gang of thugs that just so happen to have the biggest and most deadly guns – and got upset about it.  Not prone to deep political theorizing, Thoreau’s writings nevertheless influenced many thinkers who would later further develop his critique of the state into a fully-cultivated political theory known loosely as individualist anarchism.  Like Marx, he rejected the common accepted view of the role of government in history, particularly in America, and his writings have led to countless people viewing their own government, and indeed, history itself, in an entirely new light.

            In these United States many people seem to scoff at history and view it as irrelevant to their lives.  In fact, in many cases people view the time in which they live to somehow be superior to all time before them -- as if history traveled in an ever-growing line toward progress and freedom, and that society had reached such a point that the debates of old no longer mattered.  However, to view history in such a way would, as the saying goes, condemn society to repeat the errors of the past.  A mere perusal of the works of “archaic” authors like Thoreau, Marx, and others will reveal that, far from being relegated to the “dustbin of history,” the present has much more in common with the past than the modern condescending imagination would believe.  Many of the same debates, from economics to the protection of civil liberties, have appeared throughout time, and much of modern thinking on these subjects is but a rehashing of the same arguments from centuries before.  When Thoreau denounces the soul-destroying effects of materialism and the spinelessness of politicians, do his words not ring true even now?  The truth is, modern society owes much to the works of past greats like Thoreau, and much can still be learnt and applied to life from his writings.

            Since his death in 1862, Thoreau’s works have only grown in stature.  His thoughts on government have influenced several generations of political activists and leaders beyond anything he could have possibly imagined.

[1] Elizabeth Witherell.  “The Life and Times of Henry D. Thoreau.”  13 April 2005


[2] Nina Baym, et al. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume B.

(New York: Norton, 2003), p. 1810

[3] Baym, p. 1809

[4] Thomas Paine, Common Sense, the Rights of Man, and Other Essential Writings  (New York: Penguin, 2003) p. 5

[5] Baym, 1792

[6] Baym, 1792

[7] Black Crayon.  17 April 2005


[8] George Smith. The Lysander Spooner Reader (New York: Fox & Wilkes, 1992), p. 54

[9] Baym, 1797

[10] Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas  (New York: Vintage, 2002), p. 321

[11] Baym, p. 1983

[12] Brian Basgen & Andy Blunden, “Glossary of People: Emma Goldman”, Encyclopedia of Marxism.  30 April 2003.  <>

[13] Emma Goldman, “An Address to the Jury,” 30 April 2003.


[14] Emma Goldman.  Anarchism and Other Essays.

(New York: Gordon Press Publishers, 1972)

[15] Goldman, p. 112

[16] Baym, p. 2016

[17] Baym, p. 2017

[18] Baym, p. 2018

[19] Baym, p. 2020