Henry David Thoreau Versus the United States
There will never be a really free and enlightened State 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.
Henry David Thoreau, “On Civil Disobedience”
Henry David Thoreau, the iconoclastic, nineteenth century New England writer, has long been associated with simple living, solitude, independent thinking, environmental integrity, civil disobedience, nonviolence, and passive resistance. But few seem to have noticed that he was also a card-carrying secessionist.
Best known for its influence on Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., the South African anti-apartheid movement, and the Eastern European anti-communist movement in the 80s, Thoreau’s famous 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience” reads like a secessionist’s manifesto.
His two-year stay at Walden Pond near Cambridge, Massachusetts between 1845 and 1847, on which his 1854 book Walden was based, was little short of a personal secession from his village, his state, and his country. About personal secession Thoreau once said, “Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the Union. Why do they not dissolve it themselves—the union between themselves and the State?”
In 1854, when the population of the United States was around 20 million, Thoreau thought the country was already too large. “The nation itself is an unwieldly and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense.” He called for a “rigid economy” and “Spartan simplicity of life.” “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” he said.
Thoreau’s principal grievances with the federal government were over its de facto support of slavery and its participation in the Mexican-American War, both of which he considered to be immoral.
When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country (Mexico) is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army (the U.S. Army), and subjected to military law, I think it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.
During the first half of the nineteenth century before the Civil War, New England was a political hotbed for secessionists, most of whom were abolitionists. Massachusetts Senator Timothy Pickering, a former high-ranking general in the Revolutionary War, was one of the most important leaders of the New England secession movement.
New England Federalists, who believed that the policies of the Jefferson and Madison administrations were proportionately more harmful to New England than to other parts of the country, thrice led independence movements aimed respectively at the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the national embargo of 1807, and the War of 1812. In 1814 New England secessionists expressed their opposition to the War of 1812 and the military draft of the Hartford Convention.
Thoreau, who was vehemently opposed to slavery, called for abolitionists to “effectively withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts.” He told them that, “if they had God on their side, even though they did not constitute a majority, that was enough.”
In response to the question, “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today?” Thoreau presciently responded, “He cannot without disgrace be associated with it.” Clearly a man ahead of his time!
As for civil disobedience, of which secession is a special case, Thoreau said, “If an injustice requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the government machine.” Thoreau actually spent a night in jail for not paying his poll-tax.
No doubt many anarchists have taken note of the following two statements by Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience. “That government is best which governs not at all,” and “I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually.”
If Thoreau were alive today, it seems unlikely that he would have an e-mail address. He was not convinced that we all had to be connected.
We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate…We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New, but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.
Perhaps the reason given by Thoreau as to why he escaped to Walden Pond says it all:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartanlike as to put to rout all that was not life.
Thoreau’s philosophy of secession was based on the premise that an individual’s moral principles have the first claim on his or her actions, and that any government which requires violation of these principles has no legitimate authority whatsoever.
One can only imagine what Thoreau would think of the United States today – a nation which has lost its moral authority and is unsustainable, ungovernable, and unfixable. What would he think of a government owned, operated, and controlled by corporate America and Wall Street? How would he feel about the illegal wars with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya? What about our unconditional support for the bellicose state of Israel? Would he condone the torture of military combatant prisoners? And, alas, the war on terror?
Henry David Thoreau was arguably the most thoughtful, nonviolent secessionist of the nineteenth century. Unlike well known southern secessionists such as John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee, Thoreau’s message was not tainted by the scourge of slavery.
Modern day New England liberals who summarily reject secession as a kind of racist conspiracy, should re-visit Thoreau. They just might be surprised at what they find.
THOMAS H. NAYLOR is Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University. His books include: Downsizing the U.S.A., Affluenza, The Search for Meaning and The Abandoned Generation: Rethinking Higher Education
Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of Affluenza, Downsizing the USA, and The Search for Meaning.