In July of 1846, while living at Walden Pond, Thoreau was arrested and jailed for nonpayment of the poll tax, a form of protest against government complicity in slavery.  He deplored the likely expansion of slave territory through war with Mexico (declared in May of 1846).  Although Thoreau's tax was paid by an anonymous benefactor, and he therefore spent only one night behind bars, the event led directly to the preparation of what has become one of his most influential works. 

In 1848, Thoreau first lectured before the Concord Lyceum on the rights and duties of the individual in relation to government."  In 1849, he submitted the essay "Resistance to Civil Government" to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody for publication in her Aesthetic Papers.  Later published under the title Civil Disobedience, the piece emphasized the priority of individual conscience over government in moral matters, and the right of the individual to refuse financial support to a government that has overstepped its jurisdiction.

After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, Thoreau played an active role in the Underground Railroad in Concord.  He escorted fugitives to the West Fitchburg railroad station, where they made connections for Canada.  The prominent fugitive slave cases of Shadrach Minkins (who spent one night in February of 1851 at the house of Francis and Ann Bigelow on Sudbury Road), Thomas Sims (1851), and Anthony Burns (1854) angered him.  His speech "Slavery in Massachusetts," delivered at an abolition meeting in Framingham on July 4, 1854 was prepared in outraged response to the return of Anthony Burns to his Virginian master.  Although based upon the ideas expressed in Civil Disobedience about the nature and authority of government and about the individual's obligations in relation to both civil and higher law, "Slavery in Massachusetts" was a far more impassioned statement, one that admitted the possibility of violence if necessary.

Later, Thoreau celebrated radical abolitionist John Brown, captain of a Kansas militia company determined to keep Kansas a free state and, in 1859, leader of a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.  In 1857, Brown visited Concord, lunched at Mrs. Thoreau's, and spoke publicly later in the day.  He returned to Concord and spoke again in 1859.  Following the raid on Harpers Ferry and Brown's arrest for attempting to incite a slave rebellion, Thoreau delivered "A Plea for Captain John Brown" in Concord, Boston, and Worcester.  "A Plea" went far beyond the ideology presented in Civil Disobedience in advocating whatever steps might be necessary to stop government injustice.  In it, Thoreau declared, "I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable."   

After Brown's execution, Thoreau's "The Last Days of John Brown" was read at a memorial service on July 4, 1860, in North Elba, New York.  Thoreau also helped Francis Jackson Meriam, one of Brown's raiders at Harpers Ferry, escape to Canada. 



39. Samuel Worcester Rowse.
Crayon portrait of Henry David Thoreau, 1854.
CFPL Art Collection, from the bequest of Sophia Thoreau to the CFPL, 1876/77.




Resistance to civil government

40. Henry David Thoreau.
"Resistance to Civil Government," in Aesthetic Papers.  Edited by Elizabeth P. Peabody (Boston: The Editor, 1849).
From E. P. Peabody Collection, CFPL Concord Authors Collection.


Slavery in Massachusettts

41. Henry David Thoreau.
"Slavery in Massachusetts," in Cape Cod and Miscellanies, Volume 4 of the Manuscript Edition of The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906).
From H. D. Thoreau Collection, CFPL Concord Authors Collection.



Boston Police/night watch

42. Boston Police and Night Watch Conveying the Fugitive Slave, Sims, to the Vessel.
Engraving from an 1851 issue of Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion.
From Collection of Mounted Engravings Primarily from the Estate of Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, CFPL Vault Collection.




Copyright 2013, Concord Free Public Library. No part of this exhibit—text or image—may be reproduced without permission of the Library.

Next Page               Previous Page

Comprehensive Index

Back to Table of Contents               Back to Opening Page

Special Collections Homepage               Library Homepage