DLT: Henry David Thoreau 1817–62

Duncan Brack and Ed Randall, authors of the Dictionary of Liberal Thought, have kindly agreed to let us publish extracts on Lib Dem Voice. Last month, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Limited; this month Henry David Thoreau. The entire book is available on Amazon here and can also be bought at the Westminster Bookshop.

American writer, naturalist and philosopher, best known for Walden, a reflection on simple living amongst nature, and Civil Disobedience, an argument for moral resistance to unjust laws.

Key ideas
• The supremacy of individual conscience over statutory law and social conformity.
• The justification – and obligation – of civil disobedience in response to gross injustice.
• The value of personal development and enriched experience, centred on the pursuit of knowledge of self and nature rather than the accumulation of wealth.
• The importance of untamed nature.

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on 12 July 1817; except for brief periods he lived there all his life. He was one of four children born to John Thoreau, a pencil-maker, and Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, who was active in the Concord Anti-Slavery Society. He attended Harvard College (1833–37), receiving a bachelor’s degree. Afterwards he became a grammar school teacher, worked as a land surveyor and helped run his father’s pencil and graphite factory. All these jobs were secondary to his career as a writer and to his exploration of the woods, fields, lakes and streams of his beloved Concord countryside.

Thoreau never married, living with his family for most of his adult life. He died on 6 May 1862 of tuberculosis aggravated by bronchitis he had developed counting tree rings during a winter storm.


Thoreau’s main intellectual influence came from his close friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82), America’s most important nineteenth-century public thinker, and his neighbour in Concord. In his great work, Nature, Emerson urged his fellow seekers to find themselves through the study of nature. Thoreau dedicated himself to living this idea, exploring nature in every way possible: fishing and picking huckleberries, writing poetry and nature essays, counting tree rings and studying forest succession. In the process, he found his own voice; few writers are so thoroughly identified with their local landscape.

Thoreau is best known for two pieces of writing begun in 1845. In that year, he was arrested and sent to jail for refusing to pay his poll tax, in protest against state support for slavery and the Mexican–American War. In the essay Civil Disobedience (originally published as Resistance to Civil Government), Thoreau makes the case that citizens should not allow government to overrule individual conscience; we have a moral duty to oppose such terrible injustices as slavery and imperialism. He goes on to argue the superiority of moral law over statutory law and the priority of moral conscience over personal comfort and social conformity. ‘Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.’ Thoreau’s positions have been hotly contested, but it should be noted that he explicitly states that civil disobedience should not be undertaken for trivial reasons, but rather as a response to gross, systemic injustices.
Also in 1845, Thoreau began a two-year experiment in simple living, at Walden Pond, on the outskirts of Concord village. There this ‘self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms’ built a sturdy one-room cabin, cleared a few acres of forest to grow potatoes and beans, walked, fished, watched the seasons come and go, and began to write an account of his stay. Over nine years and eight revisions, this work became Walden, one of the most important and enduring books written in America during the nineteenth century.

Walden describes a life devoted to personal development and enriched experience, centred on the pursuit of knowledge of self and nature. It advocates ethical, intellectual and creative striving; as Thoreau explains:

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 know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Much more than a literal account of Thoreau’s two years in the woods, Walden is a social critique of contemporary American and Western civilisation, with each chapter focused on some aspect of our humanity that needed to be either developed or reformed, starting with ‘economy’. Part of Walden’s success lies in its seamless blending of seemingly disparate aims and elements. It combines personal honesty and outrageous tall tales; ethical idealism and direct, affectionate engagement with the material world; accurate natural history and poetic descriptions of nature; no-nonsense techniques for dealing with life’s minutiae and soaring, transcendental flights into the ether.

While Walden’s literary brilliance has ensured it a place in the American canon, it has also become a bible to many environmentalists. One of Thoreau’s aims was to demonstrate that a life ‘simple in (material) means’ can be ‘rich in (cultural and spiritual) ends’. He makes a strong case that lives dedicated to exploring and enjoying nature are better than lives devoted to piling up wealth or to gross material consumption. A major challenge to the view that the natural world is there to be exploited, this perhaps has a stronger resonance in the modern day, when resource depletion, over-consumption and the conjunction of material wealth with moral sickness are all increasingly recognised as urgent challenges.

The other half of Thoreau’s environmental philosophy centres on his appreciation and advocacy for the wild. His writings are filled with detailed descriptions of the local flora and fauna. He explored his native landscape with the intelligent curiosity of a scientist and the creativity and heart of a poet. As he wrote in Walden, ‘We can never have enough of Nature.’ This love for nature and appreciation for what it contributes to human life were reinforced in later writings, drawn from the detailed observations of natural history he kept over a period of twenty-four years. Thoreau argued that every village should preserve wild forests, river walks and other places of natural beauty, for public enjoyment and education. His realisation that many wild species retreated as human settlement advanced led to one of the first proposals for a system of national parks or ‘national preserves’, to protect the full complement of native species and keep some lands unmanaged and unmodified by human beings.

Thoreau’s writing has been influential in many schools of thought, including anarchism (q.v.) and environmentalism (q.v.). Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., among many others, all cited Civil Disobedience as an inspiration. In his championing of the individual conscience and self-realisation, Thoreau can also be claimed for liberalism: ‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.’

Key works
On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849)
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)
Walden (1854)
Walking (1862)
• Life without Principle (1863)

Further reading
• P. J. Cafaro, Thoreau’s Living Ethics: Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue (University of Georgia Press, 2004)
• L. N. Neufeldt, The Economist: Henry Thoreau and Enterprise (Oxford University Press, 1989)
• R. D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (University of California Press, 1986)
• L. D. Walls, Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science (University of Wisconsin Press, 1995)

Philip Cafaro

The Dictionary of Liberal Thought is one of the many titles available from the Liberal Democrat History Group. Find out more about them on their website.

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  • Interesting that the Dictionary of Liberal Thought has chosen to pick up Henry David Thoreau. His views were somewhat akin to liberalism, but he was actually an anarchist. His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, on the other hand, was an important liberal thinker.

  • I seem to remember the National League of Young Liberals republishing ‘On Civil Disobedience’ many years ago. I still treasure my copy because however you choose to label Thoreau he makes one think seriously about the relationship between the individual and the state, and indeed the relationship between the individual and any other body with authority vested in it. As a liberal I accept that it is necessary to delegate authority to policemen, teachers, councillors, MPs and governments (to name but a few), but my support is contingent upon them acting in a just, rational and and influenceable manner. If they behave in ways which grossly violate these principles then I believe that I have a right to withdraw my support and resist passively or by non-violent direct action in order to attempt to effect a change in attitude by that authority.

  • Duncan Brack 16th Apr '08 - 11:22am

    Just for the record, the ‘thinkers’ included in the DLT aren’t there because they were liberals, necessarily, but because their thinking was important to and influential on liberals. Buy the book, and you’ll see it all explained in the Introduction!

  • I am agree with what Henry David said…

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