Henry David Thoreau was born in 1817 and lived most his life in Concord, Massachusetts, not far from Boston. As a young adult he attended Harvard and graduated at the top half of his class in 1837. The United States was experiencing an economic depression and jobs were not readily available, but he nevertheless was able to secure work at his father’s pencil factory.
Interestingly, the young Thoreau’s neighbor, the established writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, became his informal teacher in Transcendental ideas. Transcendentalism was an American philosophical movement with three core principals: individualism, idealism, and the “divinity of nature.”
Although Thoreau is probably best known for his seminal work, Walden, the text would never have been fully realized if not for the practice of Transcendentalist concepts.
Thoreau stayed in the house at Walden Pond for about two years, starting in 1845. In the summer of 1846, he spent one night in jail, and was inspired to write the text we are currently studying, Resistance to Civil Government (later known as Civil Disobedience). Thoreau was also an outspoken abolitionist, serving as a conductor on the underground railroad to help escaped slaves reach safety in Canada.
In 1862, Thoreau died of tuberculosis. He left behind many unfinished projects, including a comprehensive record of natural phenomena around Concord, and ironically, extensive notes on American Indians, of whom he had only a cursory and slightly stereotypical knowledge of despite his writings and observations.
Thoreau’s important legacy to us is that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy our consciences. It is chillingly fitting and more than timely that we continue to resist being made agents of injustice by our own government.
“Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”
— Henry David Thoreau