Henry David Thoreau


A picture of the author Henry David Thoreau

Transcendentalist, tax resister, abolitionist, historian, author and poet Henry David Thoreau is best known for his book Walden Pond. Thoreau pioneered the field of ecology and environmentalism by writing about his observations in nature and his philosophies of limiting the role of government. He supported individual resistance against unjust civil governments— his more than 20 volumes of work influenced later activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Gandhi. His essay, On Civil Disobedience is a treatise empowering individuals to stand up to unjust governmental actions. One of Thoreau's most famous quotes affirming his anarchist beliefs is: "That government is best which governs not at all."

Born in 1817 with the name David Henry, Thoreau was raised by modest parents in Concord, Massachusetts. His father made pencils, his grandfather led the first student protest in the Colonies at Harvard in 1766. Thoreau followed in his grandfather's footsteps, supposedly refusing to pay Harvard's mandatory $5 diploma fee, and later, he resigned after a few weeks teaching in a public school, refusing to administer corporal punishment to non-compliant children. Thoreau and his brother opened Concord Academy in 1838, where they favored progressive and experiential teaching methods such as nature walks and visits to local businesses. Thoreau's later writings reflected his life-long inclination to question and resist, rather than simply comply or participate in the status quo.

Thoreau met Ralph Waldo Emerson when he returned to Concord, who introduced him to contemporaries Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ellery Channing, Margaret Fuller, and Louisa May Alcott, all of whom were prominent writers and thinkers. Alcott teased that his "neckbeard" which Thoreau wore for many years and claimed to enhance his looks, would keep him focused and safe from any amorous advances.

Thoreau, an outspoken abolitionist, advocated for the actions of John Brown, though other members of the Abolitionist Movement denounced him immediately following the raid at Harper's Ferry in 1859. Thoreau assuaged public opinion to support John Brown's actions after composing the speech A Plea for Captain John Brown, which affirmed Brown's long standing cultural impact during and after the Civil War.

Thoreau contracted tuberculosis in 1835, which led to his declining health over the next two and a half decades. He suffered from severe bronchitis and was bed ridden periodically from 1859 until his death in 1862. He spent his last years revising and editing his unpublished works, including The Maine Woods and Excursions.

Visit the American History page to learn about other important American historical figures and their writings.

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