Nineteenth-century American author, noted for the essay "Civil Disobedience"
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  • Henry David Thoreau

    Henry David Thoreau (12 July 1817 – 6 May 1862) was an American essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor and historian. A leading transcendentalist, Thoreau is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay "Civil Disobedience" (originally published as "Resistance to Civil Government"), an argument for disobedience to an unjust state.


    Henry David Thoreau, by Rick Anthony Furtak, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 30 Jun 2005
    Major sections: Life and Writings - Nature and Human Existence - The Ethics of Perception - Friendship and Politics - Locating Thoreau - Bibliography; last substantive revision 8 Aug 2014
    "Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was an American philosopher, poet, and environmental scientist whose major work, Walden, draws upon each of these identities in meditating on the concrete problems of living in the world as a human being. He sought to revive a conception of philosophy as a way of life, not only a mode of reflective thought and discourse. Thoreau's work was informed by an eclectic variety of sources."
    Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), by Robert Michael Ruehl, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    Major sections: Biographical Information - Subjectivity, Philosophy, and Writing - Education and Uncommon Sense - Nature and Ontology - Religion and the Wild - An Ethic of Preservative Care - Disobedient Politics - Conclusion
    "The American author Henry David Thoreau is best known for his magnum opus Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854); second to this in popularity is his essay, 'Resistance to Civil Government' (1849), which was later republished posthumously as 'Civil Disobedience' (1866). ... Thoreau gravitated toward Stoic philosophy, Hindu and Buddhist insights, and European idealism and romanticism; he was an eclectic thinker weaving together various philosophies to formulate his own unique strain of American thought."
    Thoreau, Henry David (1817-1862), by Jeff Riggenbach, The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, 15 Aug 2008
    Biographical essay
    "Henry David Thoreau was an American naturalist, a lecturer, and an abolitionist. Thoreau was the author of perhaps the most radical and influential essay in the history of American political philosophy, 'Civil Disobedience.' This series of reflections on a night Thoreau spent in the Concord, Massachusetts, jail for tax resistance proclaimed 'that government is best which governs not at all' and urged its readers to 'withdraw their support, both in person and property' from governments that make and enforce unjust laws. The essay had a profound impact on two of the 20th century's greatest political activists—Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr."
    Related Topic: Government


    12 Jul 1817, David Henry Thoreau, in Concord, Massachusetts


    6 May 1862, in Concord, Massachusetts

    Web Pages

    Henry David Thoreau |
    Links to essays, columns and other resources about Thoreau, and to some of his writings


    Henry David Thoreau: Founding Father of American Libertarian Thought, by Jeff Riggenbach, 15 Jul 2010
    Biographical essay, transcript of "The Libertarian Tradition" podcast
    "Henry David Thoreau was born David Henry Thoreau on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts, a small country town about 20 miles northwest of Boston. ... His published work mostly reflects his interest in nature and natural history and his tendency to reflect on the larger implications of everyday rural life. His body of writing on political matters makes up a relatively small portion of his total production. But, arguably, it is that political writing that is primarily responsible for his enduring reputation."
    Henry David Thoreau and "Civil Disobedience," Part 1, by Wendy McElroy, Future of Freedom, Mar 2005
    After some background and biographical material, describes the event (Thoreau's imprisonment) that led to writing "Civil Disobedience" and Thoreau's reaction to those who paid the tax on his behalf, his jailers, his neighbors and Ralph Waldo Emerson
    "Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was an introspective man who wandered the woods surrounding the small village of Concord, Massachusetts ... How, then, did he profoundly influence such political giants as Mohandas Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, and Martin Luther King Jr.? The answer lies in a brief essay that has been variously titled but which is often referred to simply as 'Civil Disobedience' (1849). Americans know Thoreau primarily as the author of the book Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) but it is 'Civil Disobedience' that established his reputation in the wider political world."
    Henry David Thoreau and "Civil Disobedience," Part 2, by Wendy McElroy, Future of Freedom, Apr 2005
    Examines several of the initial themes in "Civil Disobedience", including government injustice, the individual as the source of power and authority, war and the military and the reasons why people obey the state
    "... Henry David Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience' essay is not tied to a particular religion or to a specific issue. It is a secular call for the inviolability of conscience on all issues, and this aspect may account for some of the essay's enduring legacy. ... This is the key to Thoreau's political philosophy. The individual is the final judge of right and wrong. More than this, since only individuals act, only individuals can act unjustly."
    Henry David Thoreau and "Civil Disobedience," Part 3, by Wendy McElroy, Future of Freedom, May 2005
    Further examination of themes in "Civil Disobedience", including unjust laws, politicians and reformers, voting, when to resist the state and the influence on Gandhi
    "Lawyers and the courts are part of the state’s defensive machinery. ... Such courts offer no protection to Thoreau, who refuses to respect their authority. But he takes his refusal one step further. He not only rejects unjust laws but also the men who enact them. He withdraws his support from politicians who 'rarely make any moral distinctions [and] are as likely to serve the Devil, without intending it, as God.'"
    Henry David Thoreau - Hero of the Day, The Daily Objectivist, 2000
    Excerpted from "Civil Disobedience"
    "I heartily accept the motto, 'That government is best which governs least'; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe--'That government 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."
    "If 1,000 Men Were Not to Pay Their Tax Bills This Year…", by Carl Watner, Reason, Sep 1983
    Discusses the 1846 incident that led Thoreau to spend a night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax and the influence of his friends Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane as well as those Thoreau influenced later
    "[Nathaniel Peabody] Rogers ... feared that Garrison's approach would lead to the institutionalization of the anti-slavery societies, rather than the moral awakening of the individual person. It was the latter stance that attracted a transcendentalist like Thoreau. His ideas and those of his teacher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, placed primary emphasis on individual reformation. 'Above all be true to your own conscience' might have been their watchword. So when Thoreau felt called to action, it was natural that he adopted an individual rather than an organized approach to protest."
    Module 9: Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience and William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator
    Ninth module of the Cato Home Study Course, includes link to listen or download audio program (two parts, 1:015:32 and 1:07:13), questions and suggested readings
    "Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) ... was a deep believer in the demands of conscience over the demands of the state. His refusal in July 1846 to pay a tax led him to write the essay Civil Disobedience, which was to exercise a great influence on subsequent generations of thinkers. ... Obligations to pay taxes to the state or to submit to its authority normally fall into the second category of particular obligations. Thoreau insists that he did not consent to them, and that he therefore is not bound by them and instead follows the demands of his own conscience (notably his opposition to the enforcement of slavery and to the war with Mexico)."
    Related Topic: William Lloyd Garrison
    Protesting the Tax Protesters, by James Ostrowski, 1 Jan 2007
    Presents several arguments against tax protesting, concluding with a suggested approach to fighting against confiscatory taxation
    "Tax protesters are not exercising civil disobedience as Henry David Thoreau did. That would be an entirely different strategy. Civil disobedience involves deliberately violating an unjust law so as to arouse public sentiment against it. That is not what tax protesters are doing."
    Thoreau and "Resistance to Civil Government", by Gary M. Galles, Mises Daily, 19 Sep 2002
    Presents several excerpts from "Resistance to Civil Government" together with a short introduction and concluding reflexion
    "Henry David Thoreau is best known for Walden, which chronicles his experiment in simple, self-sufficient living. Less remembered, however, is that while living at Walden Pond, he was imprisoned for refusing to pay his poll tax as a statement of protest against slavery and what he saw as an unjust war with Mexico. After someone else paid his tax, he was released, but he gave an 1848 lecture on 'Resistance to Civil Government'--since published as 'Civil Disobedience'--to explain his action."
    Related Topic: Nonviolent resistance
    Thoreau And The Modern American Housewife, by Frances Brown, Reason, Aug 1962
    A 1960's housewife tells of her "friendship" with Thoreau, from having to read Walden in college, through jobs, marriage, wanting a new house, children growing up and how Henry's advice coloured her decisions
    "Today I went to town and bought two copies of Walden, and I mailed one to each of the boys, enclosing this note:
    I would like for you to become better acquainted with my dear friend, Henry David Thoreau. The reading of this book started a new era in my life; it helped me to con­sider my values before I acted. I hope it can bring to you some of the hap­piness it has brought to me.


    Iconoclastic Individualism - Henry David Thoreau (part 1), by MemeScythe, 28 Mar 2008
    Biographical, focusing mostly on Thoreau's refusal to pay the poll tax and the essay on civil disobedience

    The introductory paragraph uses material from the Wikipedia article "Henry David Thoreau" as of 14 Jul 2018, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.