Slavery and abolition

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When Henry David Thoreau was born in July 1817, the United States and its colonial antecedents had been a slave-owning society for over two centuries. One and half million people were held in legal bondage in nine states. By the time he died forty-four years later in May 1862, the Civil War had been raging for a year, the ultimate result of which would be the emancipation of the nation’s four and a half million enslaved individuals. This is the broad historical context of institutional slavery during the years of Henry Thoreau’s short life. Thoreau’s principled words and actions against slavery, however, transpired within a context far more local, as Thoreau’s activist family, neighbors, and friends fostered a domestic reform environment, where visitors and dinner guests frequently included radical antislavery speakers and former slaves, such as Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, Lewis Hayden, and John Brown. Thoreau’s best known contributions to the antebellum antislavery movement are three blistering speeches given over ten years and later published as “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), more commonly known as “Civil Disobedience”; “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854); and “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1859). In these writings, Thoreau reacts to national crises in a context of pervasive community activism: the Mexican War in the mid- to late 1840s; the return of Anthony Burns to slavery in 1854; and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. In league with his family and community, Thoreau put action behind these words by defying federal law to aid escaping slaves and other fugitives from “justice.” Over three decades, as reformers in Concord and throughout the North confronted an increasingly proslavery national climate, Thoreau steadily progressed toward the most extreme abolitionist position - from a carefully considered ethics of nonviolent but not ineluctably pacifist resistance, to direct criminal intervention, to, finally, explicit support for forceful action, including civil war. Formative Years In the early 1830s, a few reform-minded citizens in Concord began reading and circulating a new weekly paper, the Liberator, published in Boston by abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison. In contrast to most antislavery stalwarts who preceded him, Garrison urged an immediate end to slavery through a campaign of “moral suasion” rather than via gradual political change. He disavowed the democratic process and denigrated the US Constitution itself as inherently proslavery.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHenry David Thoreau in Context
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages11
ISBN (Electronic)9781316569214
ISBN (Print)9781107149229
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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