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Transition in Henry David Thoreau's Political Philosophy

Updated on June 21, 2020

Henry David Thoreau was an eminent proponent of Transcendentalism, which preached individualism, focused on nature, valued conscience over laws, and struggled for social improvement. Much of Thoreau’s political philosophy is centered on his Transdentalist ideals, this explains his active disobedience in the face of injustice. Thoreau valued reason over civil laws, he believed one should not become a part of the evil system by staying passive towards the injustices meted out by the government. Thoreau is renowned for initiating a non-violent form of protest called civil disobedience in his famous essay “Resistance to Civil Government”. Although Thoreau had always espoused and practiced non-violent protest, he eventually with the rise of the Abolitionist movements started touting violent revolts in his famous essay “A Plea for Captain John Brown”, he reiterated that blood-shed is inevitable in rebelling against the oppressors (Doyle 5). This essay aims to analyze the two aforementioned essays and the reason for the change in Thoreau’s political philosophy.

Thoreau lived in a society where injustice, wars, and slavery were common, his compassionate soul and Transdentalist ideals allowed him to feel the grief of people living under a tyrannical government. His observance of the sufferings of slaves and the repercussions of wars shaped his political philosophy. Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience’ in the wake of the Mexican-American war, which he thought was unjust and a plot to increase slave-trade. He refused to stay silent on this injustice and vehemently opposed the government by refusing to pay the taxes as he thought the taxes helped the government in its evil actions, as a result, Thoreau spent a night in jail, which for him was honorable as he asserts, “Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is a prison” (Nelson 57). Thoreau was a man who actively participated in speaking against the injustices in a complacent way, at least in the earlier years when no armed revolts had taken place. He urges the people to follow their own conscience over the laws as “not all laws are just”. The answer to why Thoreau opted for non-violent resistance in his early writings lies in his compassionate nature as he loved peace, he did not want to upheave anarchy and also he was a humanitarian who believed that every society has both good and bad aspects, so revolting against the entire machinery of the government is not feasible (Nelson 58). During the years he wrote “Civil Disobedience”, he pronounced that a person cannot fight against all the evils and “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go but if it requires you to be an agent of injustice, then, I say, break the law”, this statement sheds light on the fact that Thoreau did have respect for laws at some point in his life, he believed not in the elimination of government but the betterment of the government (Nelson 56). As a Transcendentalist, Thoreau had distanced himself from all material possessions, he believed that a man is born free so he should not be imprisoned by anything, this element also became an overriding factor in his act of civil disobedience.

At the time of writing “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau was not entirely open towards tumultuous resistance, he still believed in laws but eventually as the temperament of the age changed, paving way for new kinds of atrocities, Thoreau became more open to violent resistance. This evolution in Thoreau’s political philosophy is evident in his later works such as “A Plea for Captain John Brown”, which was written after a section of slaves lead by John brown organized a raid on the Harper Ferry armory, in order to capture the arms and start an armed revolt against the government. This attempt failed and resulted in the execution of John Brown, in the wake of this incident, many Abolitionist distanced themselves from Brown and started to criticize him for his actions, at this point Thoreau defended Brown by proclaiming that Brown was an honorable man who did not stay passive in the face of injustice, he valued his conscience over the laws and people who think of him as stupid are themselves stupid as they are blind to the injustices being committed by the government (Doyle 6). Thoreau’s compassionate nature allowed him to understand the emotions behind the uprising lead by Brown.


The gradual shift in Thoreau’s political philosophy from non-aggressive resistance to violent resistance was majorly shaped by his belief that a person should act in accordance with the situation in which he is that is the form of resistance must be determined by the situation “reformer does only what belongs to himself and to the hour”, this vouches that Thoreau did not rule out the possibility of a violent resistance even in the earlier years (Doyle 5). In “Civil Disobedience” he supports a non-violent resistance as during that time the major movements like “Pacifism” espoused a non-violent form of protest, this had an impact on Thoreau’s political ideology, he believed that humans are not here to rectify evils but are here to live. Eventually, with the time when the situation started to worsen instead of getting better, his Transdentalist and the empathetic soul felt grief over the sorry state of humans and he felt as if he has suffered an indefinite loss, Thoreau was especially enraged by the Fugitive slave law of 1850, which brought his violent streak into play (Doyle 7). As he observed an attempt of violent resistance, he altered his philosophy of non-violent resistance. Thoreau believed violence is necessary to end injustice, he asserts “I do not wish to kill or be killed but I can foresee circumstances in which both of these are unavoidable”, this statement reveals that Thoreau was a proponent of violent revolt as he believed one should do anything in his power to fight injustice. Hence, this gradual alteration in his philosophy can be attributed to change in the circumstances surrounding him.

As a student of Ralph Waldo Emerson and a proponent of “Transdentalism”, Thoreau viewed human conscience and emotions as superior to the laws of the state, he believed that government should not rule over people rather should rule for people. The power of the state should be limited. During the time in which he wrote “Civil Disobedience”, the tax money was collected from common people and was given to institutions that promoted slavery and used the money to hone the slave trade, as a result, Thoreau refused to be a part of this injustice and stopped paying tax. The situation did not require aggression that is why Thoreau “quietly declared war with the state” (Nelson 59). As Brown leads an aggressive anti-slavery revolt, Thoreau deemed it necessary to support him, as he asserts that in this case staying silent is stupidity as silence always plays in favor of the tyrant. Thoreau was the one who turned Brown into a hero, and it was his philosophy that paved the way for the American Civil war, which resulted in the eradication of slavery (Lingyu 56). Moreover, being a Transdentalist he admired Brown for following his own mind instead of quietly succumbing to the brutal government. For Thoreau, it is substantial to prefer one’s own mind over state laws that are mostly unjust.

Thoreau’s political outlook in his early years was passive, he believed in the cultivation of private life and withdrawing oneself from any kind of political activities which might make one a part of the cruel system. As he was living under a cruel regime, so brewing violence and anarchy was not the right choice, instead quietly registering one’s protest was the ideal choice. His choice of not paying tax was justified as the money was used by the state to enslave humans. Later when the government resorted to violence under the fugitive slave law, he supported aggressive resistance as it was the need of the hour, to use violence for the safeguarding of the rights of humans. Also, Thoreau’s espousal of Brown is well-substantiated as he praised his act in order to set an example for future revolts, he contends “I plead not for his life, but for his character” (Turner 451). Thoreau believed the memory of Brown could have potentially great value not only for the anti-slavery cause but for democracy in America. What differentiated Brown was not simply his principles, since others voiced and shared them, but rather his readiness to live those principles (Turner 452). Hence, it was imperative for the prosperity of the people of America to accentuate the heroism of Brown. Brown’s attempt of an armed insurrection and Thoreau’s glorification of the insurrection created an environment conducive to the destruction of slavery.

Another reason for Thoreau’s transition from non-aggressive to aggressive rebellion can be the passive attitude of the government towards the non-violent protests, initially, Thoreau did not want to overthrow the entire machinery of the government as mentioned before but he just wanted to rectify the bad policies of the government but seeing that his protest of not paying taxes, writing and speaking against the government is not yielding any result instead the state is becoming more vicious and vile, so he resorted to exalting violence publicly (Turner 465). His belief that slavery is malice which is hampering America from becoming a democratic and progressive state modeled his political philosophy, after the incident of Harper ferry armory, Thoreau revealed the violence and contempt he housed in himself against the institutionalization of slavery, he contended that the unjust government should be overthrown completely “when the friction comes to have its own machine then let us not have such a machine any longer" (Lingyu 57). This statement reveals his support for violence as a way to achieve justice.


It can be concluded that the shift in the political outlook of Thoreau was not due to change in his thinking pattern rather it was due to transition in the state of affairs, Thoreau acted as the situation required him to act. He does not want bloodshed but he thinks that bloodshed is inevitable in a struggle against the bigotry of the government. Thoreau was a person who freed himself from the shackles of the material possessions and hated any kind of slavery, he had nothing to lose therefore he vehemently opposed the inhuman laws promulgated by the government. He did not shy away from supporting and endorsing violence in order to annihilate unjust laws and government. His undulating support to the cause of anti-slavery paved the way for the liberation war and elimination of slavery in America.


Doyle, Jack. "Thoreau's Advocacy of Violent Resistance." Thoreau Society (2010): 5-7.

Lingyu, Kong. "Thoreau’s Action: Nonviolent or Violent?" Journal Of Humanities And Social Science (2017): 56-58.

Nelson, William Stuart. "Thoreau and American Non-Violent Resistance." The Massachusetts Review (1962): 56-60.

Turner, Jack. "Performing Conscience: Thoreau, Political Action, and the Plea for John Brown." Political Theory (2005): 448-471.


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