Henry David Thoreau lived in the mid-nineteenth century during turbulent times in America. He said he was born "in the nick of time" in Concord, Massachusetts, during the flowering of America when the transcendental movement was taking root and when the anti-slavery movement was rapidly gaining momentum. His contemporaries and neighbors were Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
As a naturalist, Thoreau understood that the path to a greater understanding of our life on earth is through an understanding of the natural world around us and of which we are part: “We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander." — "I suppose that what in other men is religion is in me love of nature."
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As a social reformer whose words echo the principles on which the United States was founded — that it is a person’s duty to resist injustice where it is found — Thoreau’s writings influenced Gandhi's work in India, Tolstoy’s philosophy in Russia, and King's civil rights stand in the United States. Wherever in the world individuals and groups embrace human rights over political rights, they invoke the name of Henry David Thoreau and the words of his essay. "": "Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? . . . Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?"
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After his friend Thoreau went to jail for failing to pay hispoll tax, Emerson wrote in his journal that the abolitionistsgive much time to denouncing the Mexican War but pay their tax;he suggested they "ought to resist & go to prison inmultitudes on their known & described disagreements from thestate."24 He also noted that the state tax does not pay forthe war but that imported goods such as coats, sugar, foreignbooks, and watches do. Later in his life Emerson proposed boycottingall goods produced by slave labor. In an address in Concord onAugust 1, 1844, the tenth anniversary of the slaves' emancipationin the British West Indies, he suggested that the United Statescould follow the British example by buying the freedom of theslaves from their plantation owners.
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Thoreau began his essay with the well-known motto-"Thatgovernment is best which governs least."28 This carried toits natural conclusion is no government at all, which he saidwill happen when people are prepared. He objected particularlyto a standing army and the current "Mexican war, the workof comparatively a few individuals using the standing governmentas their tool."29 Yet Thoreau realized that the immediateneed is not for no government but for better government. "Letevery man make known what kind of government would command hisrespect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it."30Majorities usually rule because they are the strongest physically;but their policies are based upon expediency. Thoreau asked whetherit is not better to decide right and wrong by conscience, whicheveryone has. "It is not desirable to cultivate a respectfor the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation whichI have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right."31But a corporation has no conscience, although conscientious peoplemay be a corporation a conscience. Undue respect forlaw leads to soldiers marching to the wars against their wills,common sense, and consciences. Such men have let themselves becomemachines, serving the state with their bodies. Others, like lawyersand politicians, serve the state with their heads. A few, reformersand martyrs, serve the state with their consciences also, butthey are usually treated as enemies.
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Unquestionably, Thoreau enjoys greater national and international popularity today than ever before. His books are selling at an unprecedented rate. People are particularly drawn to his belief of finding spirituality in nature -- a philosophy woven throughout his books and essays. As our lives become ever more complex, we hunger for simplicity and a communion with nature that Thoreau insists will lead to truth and spiritual renewal.