Henry David Thoreau

In “Resistance to Civil Government” Thoreau showed himself to be a clever, philosophical and argumentative individual in his writings against a government which he saw as unjust. As I read this paper I tried to understand it through the lens of this class. Specifically, I tried to find instances of Thoreau regarding the American identity. When Thoreau wrote “Resistance to Civil Government,” the biggest political issues were slavery in the colonies, and the Mexican war. The enslavement of so many individuals in America directly conflicted with Thoreau’s belief in freedom and individualism, and the war the country was fighting in Mexico conflicted with those values as well.

His confrontational and rhetorically masterful style of writing really struck me as I read the opening lines of the work. About the government, he states: “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…” (Page 830, 1st paragraph). He stresses the strength of the individual throughout this work, and in Walden as well. He argued against a people that would be civilian first and individual second. Thoreau also argued against the idea of the majority; he saw democracy as a system that put justice into the hands of the strongest body of people, and argued those decisions should be made based on conscience.

Thoreau’s writing greatly influenced the future identity of America through his emphasis on civil disobedience. He emphasized that in a democracy, the government can only be as just and intelligent as its people, essentially pointing out the potential of each person within the country. This seemed to be a warning against the sort of events delineated in works like “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” in which mob mentality ruled. Another main point seemed to be that individuals should live within their means and not put too much emphasis on material wealth because it weakens. I wonder how this compares to previous authors we have read?

Have we read any other authors who wrote against monetary wealth? Is this wariness of wealth a common theme for American writings?

How does Thoreau’s concept of the individual compare with other writers of the time?

What sort of ties are there between the writings of Thoreau and Emerson? Where are they similar? Where do they differ?

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