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Henry David Thoreau: Founding Father of American Libertarian Thought

[This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode “Henry David Thoreau.”]

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. Nancy Rosenblum of the Harvard University Department of Government writes in the “Introduction” to her very useful collection of Thoreau’s political writings that Concord at this time was

newly opened to the railroad, to the poor Irish immigrants who built it, to southern slaves escaping by it, and to the growing national economy. John Thoreau’s pencil-making business supported the family’s modest middle-class household. Cynthia Thoreau was a founder of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society and a reformer. For many years she ran their home as a boarding house for reform-minded tenants and a haven for fugitive slaves and abolitionists escaping to Canada.

The way we pronounce the name “Thoreau” today, by the way — though it’s closer to the name’s French roots, is not what Thoreau himself and the other members of his family probably said. All sources agree that they put the emphasis on the first syllable of their name. According to some, they pronounced it like the word “thorough.” According to others, they sounded the first “o” as it sounds in the words “more” and “store” — Thor′-o.

At any rate, young David Henry Thorough or Thor′-o went off to Harvard in 1833 at the age of 16. He graduated four years later, in 1837, at the age of 20, having taken a year off to teach grammar school in the small town of Canton, Massachusetts, around 15 miles southwest of Boston, probably to earn some money to help ease the burden on his parents, who were paying for his matriculation at Harvard.

When young Thoreau returned to Concord, he started signing himself Henry David Thoreau instead of David Henry Thoreau. He taught grammar school for a while and worked in his family’s pencil business. During this time he became acquainted with Ralph Waldo Emerson, a former clergyman turned poet, essayist, and itinerant inspirational speaker, who also had income from a substantial inheritance that had come his way upon the death of his first wife.

Emerson had moved to Concord from Boston in 1834, when Thoreau was at Harvard. Virtually from the moment they first met in 1837, Emerson took a strong interest in the younger man, encouraging his writing, helping to arrange opportunities for publication, generally serving as a teacher and mentor. In 1841, when Thoreau was 24, Emerson invited him to come and live in his house. Thoreau would tutor the children, keep the family garden, and serve as Emerson’s literary assistant, in return for his room and board and a small salary.

Thoreau accepted Emerson’s offer, and though his tenure in Emerson’s home was fairly brief — he moved on after two years — he never again worked at a regular job like schoolteacher or pencilmaker. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who met him in 1842 at Emerson’s house, wrote that though Thoreau seemed highly intelligent and had a Harvard education in an era when few men had any more schooling than the local grammar school could provide them, “he has repudiated all regular modes of getting a living, and seems inclined to lead a sort of Indian life among civilized men — an Indian life, I mean, as respects the absence of any systematic effort for a livelihood.”

What Thoreau really wanted to do was walk around the countryside, observing nature and making entries in his notebooks, which he would later write up in more finished form in his journal. As Nancy Rosenblum puts it, he liked “dividing his day between writing and walking the nearby fields and woods where he engaged in the systematic collection of botanical specimens and studies of temperature, ice, grasses, the succession of forests, and the dispersion of seeds.” He wanted to lead the life of a naturalist, natural historian, and homespun philosopher.

“There were few things that he [Thoreau] could not do.”Robert Louis Stevenson

But this is not to say that he had no practical skills. Actually, he was a man of many skills. Not only could he teach school and make pencils and tutor children and garden and serve as a literary man’s assistant, he could do all sorts of other work as well. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it in his 1880 essay on Thoreau, “there were few things that he could not do. He could make a house, a boat … or a book. He was a surveyor, a scholar,” and “he could do most things with unusual perfection.”

Van Wyck Brooks, in 1936 in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Flowering of New England, wrote of Thoreau that “there was nothing he could not do in the matter of painting and papering, building walls, repairing chicken-houses, pruning and grafting fruit-trees… [or] tinkering.”

Emerson wrote of him in 1862, the year of his death, that

he could pace sixteen rods more accurately than another man could measure them with rod and chain. He could find his path in the woods at night, he said, better by his feet than his eyes. He could estimate the measure of a tree very well by his eyes; he could estimate the weight of a calf or a pig, like a dealer. From a box containing a bushel or more of loose pencils, he could take up with his hands fast enough just a dozen pencils at every grasp.

After he left Emerson’s house in 1943 at the age of 26, Thoreau always made it clear that “he preferred, when he wanted money, earning it by some piece of manual labor agreeable to him, as building a boat or a fence, planting, grafting, surveying, or other short work, to any long engagement.”

Surveying became his particular specialty. As Emerson noted,

his mathematical knowledge, and his habit of ascertaining the measures and distances of objects which interested him, the size of trees, the depth and extent of ponds and rivers, the height of mountains, and the air-line distance of his favorite summits, — this, and his intimate knowledge of the territory about Concord, made him drift into the profession of land-surveyor. It had the advantage for him that it led him continually into new and secluded grounds, and helped his studies of Nature. His accuracy and skill in this work were readily appreciated, and he found all the employment he wanted.

Not that Thoreau really wanted all that much employment. He estimated that it was necessary to work for money only six or seven weeks out of the year — one day a week on average — to support himself, if he lived frugally and wisely. Thoreau’s doctrine, according to Van Wyck Brooks, was that “the order of things … should be reversed. The seventh should be man’s day of toil, wherein to earn his living by the sweat of his brow; he should keep the rest of the week for his joy and wonder.”

As we have seen, much of Thoreau’s personal joy and wonder came from contemplation of nature. But nature wasn’t his only source. There was also the world of books. Stevenson quotes him as preferring “books … in which each thought is of unusual daring,” books “which … make us dangerous to existing institutions — such,” Thoreau wrote, “I call good books.”

Thoreau himself could certainly have been described as “dangerous to existing institutions.” He stood, according to Emerson, for “abolition of slavery, abolition of tariffs, almost for abolition of government.”

Yet where had Thoreau picked up such radical ideas in the first place? Wasn’t it, at least in part, from Emerson himself? It was Emerson, after all, who wrote in 1833, when Thoreau was a teenage student at Harvard, that “a man contains all that is needful to his government within himself.” It was Emerson who wrote in 1838, a year after meeting Thoreau and becoming his mentor and teacher, that

a man should be himself responsible, with goods, health, and life, for his behaviour; that he should not ask for the State’s protection; should ask nothing of the State; should be himself a kingdom and a state; fearing no man; quite willing to use the opportunities and advantages that good government throw in his way, but nothing daunted, and not really the poorer if government, law, and order went by the board; because in himself reside infinite resources; because he is sure of himself, and never needs to ask another what in any crisis it behooves him to do.

It was Emerson who wrote in the early 1840s, when Thoreau, now in his mid-20s, was just beginning to publish, that “the less government we have the better — the fewer laws, and the less confided power,” for “every actual State is corrupt. Good men must not obey the laws too well.”

Still, as George Woodcock notes, in his classic 1962 work, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, despite his periodic anarchistic outbursts, “one cannot regard Emerson as a complete anarchist. For him the state was a poor makeshift, but a makeshift that might be necessary until education and individual development had reached their goal in the production of the wise man.” As Emerson himself put it, “to educate the wise man the State exists, and with the appearance of the wise man the State expires.”

Thoreau is another kettle of fish altogether. As Woodcock writes, “Thoreau’s condemnation of the state was more thorough, and in many other ways he fits more closely into the anarchist pattern than Emerson could ever do.” Certainly the opening paragraph of his famous 1849 essay on “Civil Disobedience” signals a willingness to boldly go where Emerson had been a little too timid to tread. “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least,’” Thoreau wrote,

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.

Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government.

Of any standing government that did exist in any particular place, Thoreau argued, it was clear that “the authority of government … must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it.” And Thoreau conceded nothing to any standing government. “I, Henry Thoreau,” he wrote, “do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined.” What he did wish to do he expressed simply and straightforwardly. “I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State,” he wrote, “to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually.”

And he believed that any truly legitimate State should be willing to tolerate such behavior. “There will never be a really free and enlightened State,” he wrote,

until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State … which … would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it.

What Thoreau was defending here, in 1849, was essentially the same concept the English philosopher Herbert Spencer defended two years later, in his book Social Statics, as “the right to ignore the State.”

During the late 1840s and the 1850s, the biggest problem Thoreau had with the American State was that it would not ignore him — it would not leave him alone to ramble the local fields and woods, fill his notebooks and his journal pages, and work for money his one day a week. Instead it intervened in his life, insisting that he help it apprehend escaped slaves, if only by paying taxes to support the cost of this endeavor.

Even before these interventions began taking place, subsequent to the adoption of the fugitive slave law of 1850, Thoreau had not held the U.S. government in high esteem.

“This American government,” he wrote,

never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.… Trade and commerce, if they were not made of india-rubber, would never manage to bounce over obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way; and if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of their actions and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievious persons who put obstructions on the railroads.

Thoreau posed and answered a rhetorical question.

How does it become a man to behave toward the American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.

After the adoption of a new, strengthened fugitive-slave law in 1850, however, Thoreau’s contempt for the US government rose to a new height. And his contempt for the state government of Massachusetts grew as well. In an effort to block local cooperation with the new federal law, Massachusetts had adopted an ordinance of its own officially denying state officials the authority to “detain or aid in the … detention,” anywhere within the state, “of any person, for the reason that he is claimed as a fugitive slave.” But in 1851 and again in 1854, black citizens of Massachusetts were arrested and returned to their “owners,” and the state government did nothing to prevent this injustice.

“I had thought,” Thoreau wrote in his 1854 essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” that

the Governor was, in some sense, the executive officer of the State; that it was his business, as a Governor, to see that the laws of the State were executed; while, as a man, he took care that he did not, by so doing, break the laws of humanity; but when there is any special important use for him, he is useless, or worse than useless, and permits the laws of the State to go unexecuted.


the whole military force of the State is at the service of a Mr. Suttle, a slaveholder from Virginia, to enable him to catch a man whom he calls his property; but not a soldier is offered to save a citizen of Massachusetts from being kidnapped!

The governor who permitted this, Thoreau thundered, “was no Governor of mine. He did not govern me.”

Not surprisingly, the whole affair prompted Thoreau to think in greater depth about the question of whether it was worthwhile to have such a person as a governor in the first place. He concluded, again unsurprisingly, that “I think that I could manage to get along without one. If he is not of the least use to prevent my being kidnapped, pray of what important use is he likely to be to me?”

Thoreau never lived to see the end of chattel slavery in the United States. He had contracted tuberculosis during his Harvard years, and it had killed him by April of 1862. He didn’t quite make it to his 45th birthday. He died a few months before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and a little more than three years before the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment.

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. It has assured that he is much, much more famous today than he ever was in the years of his lifetime. It has assured that generations of American students have known that the great writer, great naturalist, and great advocate of self-reliant individualism, Henry David Thoreau, is also one of the founding fathers of American libertarian thought.

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This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode “Henry David Thoreau. (1817–1862)”

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