Thoreau’s "Disobedience"

May 14:Henry David Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” (laterre-titled “Civil Disobedience”) was published on this day in1849.  Though an anthem for theidea of principled, independent behavior, Thoreau’s essay was inspired by twospecific historical events: the nation’s ongoing battle over slavery and itsrecent land-grabbing war with Mexico. In his essay, as in the original publictalk delivered months earlier in Concord, Thoreau chose to localize thesenational issues, shifting his target from the action taken by government to theinaction of his neighbors:

Practically speaking, theopponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politiciansat the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are moreinterested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are notprepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may. I quarrel not with far-off foes, but with thosewho, near at home, co-operate with, and do the bidding of those far away, andwithout whom the latter would be harmless. …There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to thewar, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who esteemingthemselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands intheir pockets, and say they know not what to do, and do nothing….

Bronson Alcott attendedthe original Concord talk, and reported in his journal that there was “anattentive audience.” Thoreau’s own journal indicates that he did notalways enjoy lecturing, but he did it often enough—some sixty talks over twodecades, most often on his Walden experiences.  Some who heard him speak wanted their money back; some heard”a mingled web of sage conclusions and puerility”; one reviewerconcluded that Thoreau was good for “an occasional ramble through thedomains of thought, wit, and fancy… but to your slow plodder, who clings to thebeaten track as his only salvation, he is incomprehensible.”

To all, Thoreau respondedthat his talks were on his terms: “If you wish to know how I think, youmust endeavor to put yourself in my place. If you wish me to speak as if I wereyou, that is another affair.”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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