The Political Thinking and Influence of Henry David Thoreau
The extent and nature of Henry David Thoreau’s commitment to social reform has long been a matter of debate among scholars. Drawing on his well-know disdain for organized politics and his focus of self-reform, some have observed that "Thoreau was no social reformer" (Goodwin 157). On the other hand, such major anti-slavery statements as "Civil Disobedience," "Slavery in Massachusetts," and "A Plea for Captain John Brown," have been seen as evidence that Thoreau was deeply engaged in the "most important moral and political issues or his time" (Harding 418). How can Thoreau the solipsistic hermit for whom "the government is best which governs not at all," (Thoreau 1792) be reconciled with Thoreau the political activist "most beloved by reformers" (Cain 5), and influential in the careers of such social-minded figures as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King? For many scholars the key to understanding this apparent dichotomy lies in an exploration of Thoreau's particular understanding of the relationship between the transcendental self and society.
In this exploration critics have most often turned to "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau's most famous and influential statement on the individual's relation to the state. As Thoreau himself points out in the opening paragraph of “Civil Disobedience”, the “war in Mexico" (1972) is an important political context. In 1836 Texas declared its independence from Mexico and began petitioning for admission to the Union. Despite abolitionist opposition on the grounds that Texas's admission would greatly increase slaveholding influence in national politics, the state was admitted to the union on December 29th, 1845. However, because Mexico had never accepted Texas's independence, America declared war on May 11th, 1846, practically assured of a victory which would result in an even greater increase in slaveholding territory (Gougeon 200). Recognizing that "the slave power had now become aggressively active and threatened to dominate the entire Union" (Gougeon 201), Thoreau decided to withdraw his support from a government which allowed this to happen, stating: "I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also" (1794). As a result of not paying his poll tax, Thoreau was arrested on July 25th, 1846 (Rosenwald 154). His essay, "Civil Disobedience", originally delivered before the Concord Lyceum in January of 1848 as a speech entitled "The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government" (Gougeon 201), expresses the various political circumstances and convictions which culminated in Thoreau's now famous, and very influential, one night sojourn in the Concord Jail.
In order to better understand Thoreau's stance towards the State in "Civil Disobedience," it is important to understand something of his universal view: As Richard Drinnon observes, "The kernel of...