Henry David Thoreau: Walking the True Walk of Libertarianism

By Clint Sharp | United States

The current political climate of 21st century America is not so different from that of pre-civil war America in the 1840s and 1850s. Although the fight has shifted from states’ rights to warring political agendas, many of the conflicts that arose then are seen today such as war, government overreach, and taxes just to name a few. Despite the fact that many of the leading figures in the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist movements didn’t exist until the turn of the century, the 1800s saw the work of Lysander Spooner which blazed the trail for men such as Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises. However, there is another man from this time period that deserves recognition for his role in the procurement of individual liberty: Henry David Thoreau.

Born, David Henry Thoreau, he was birthed into a heritage of rebellion as his grandfather Asa Dunbar led the first recorded student protest at Harvard University in 1766 known as the “Butter Rebellion”. Following his graduation from Harvard in 1887, Thoreau rejected most orthodox professions like law and medicine and decided to teach. This was short-lived as he soon resigned after refusing to use corporal punishment on his students. Shortly thereafter, Henry met Ralph Waldo Emerson who introduced him to Transcendentalism which gave a greater shape to Thoreau’s beliefs in individual sovereignty. Emerson also established Thoreau with a position writing for a periodical which he used as a medium to express most of his ideals.

In 1845, Thoreau trekked into the wilderness of Massachusetts and built a small hut on the bank of Walden Pond where he lived a mostly self-reliant life for 2 years. It is here that his most popular works, Walden and Civil Disobedience, were written as well as his most notable acts of rebellion took place. In 1846, Thoreau was imprisoned for deliberately not paying poll taxes for six years. Thoreau refused to give money to the government especially since they were supporters of both slavery and the war with Mexico, both of which he abhorred. He was released a day later after his aunt paid his debt (much to his distaste), but was filled with an even greater disdain for the governing powers of the United States. In response to his unjust imprisonment, Thoreau wrote an essay that soon became known as Civil Disobedience in which he outlined his views on government. The opening lines of his essay read:

“I heartily accept the motto,— ‘That government is best which governs least;’ and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,—‘That government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the best kind of government which they will have.”

Later on in his life, Thoreau voices his opinions as a staunch abolitionist and pacifist, joining with groups such as the Underground Railroad in order to fight the expansion of slavery and further resisted the payment of taxes. Thoreau was also a promoter of free-market capitalism, although he disapproved of harsh factory conditions and corporatism. He held tight to these beliefs until his death in 1862.

Henry David Thoreau was a man cut from a different branch. Rather than let his words rest dormant on a page, he acted upon them, thus giving him an unequaled amount of credibility as a writer and activist. Although he is often omitted from the ranks of libertarian pioneers, his works and deeds show that change is not achieved from the voting booth, a congressional seat, or before the printing presses of a paper, but rather from the doing and carrying out of one’s beliefs. That is why before reaching present-day Walden Pond one is met with the words of Thoreau:

“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.”

Like Thoreau, we must live and also act deliberately in order to obtain the freedom and liberty that we desire.

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