Henry Thoreau’s felonies (Walden 105)

Though he says little about it, Thoreau mentions in passing, “One real runaway slave, among the rest, whom I helped to forward toward the north star.” Whether or not his cabin at Walden Pond sheltered runaway slaves has been disputed for years. It seems unlikely that a fugitive would know to seek Thoreau out in the woods, and of course the little house provided no concealment. It seems more likely that any assistance Henry would have given would have happened with the collaboration of people in town—perhaps, according to some sources, at the Thoreau family home.

Stories like this tended to be exaggerated in later years after the war; Thoreau’s claim here is modest. Still, writing in 1854 he was making a point. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 strengthened existing laws and subjected anyone convicted of helping a runaway slave to a six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine (about $28,000 in today’s dollars). Henry had left the pond before that law took effect, but his statement here can be taken as a raised middle finger to any government that would enforce such an unjust law, which he clearly intends to violate if given the chance.. His famous essay “Civil Disobedience” (aka “Resistance to Civil Government”) is an extended argument for such resistance. He also writes about the issue in “Slavery in Massachusetts.” 

John Brown in 1859. Wikimedia Commons

John Brown in 1859. Wikimedia Commons

Thoreau took an even bolder public stand in 1859 (five years after Walden was published) with his defense of militant abolitionist John Brown. Henry had met Brown and was impressed with him, even made a small donation, “though he was annoyed that Brown would not say exactly what he wanted the money for.” (Robert Richardson, Henry Thoreau, p. 370)

Brown wanted the money to support his plan to seize a federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and incite a slave rebellion. He assumed that local slaves would rally to him as word of the assault spread, and Brown would lead them into the Appalachians and use the backwoods country as a base from which to mount a full-scale guerrilla war against the Southern planter aristocracy.

In other times and places Brown might have been called a revolutionary, a freedom fighter, or a terrorist. His failed assault further polarized the nation and is considered an important factor leading to the US Civil War.

John Brown's raid, 1859. Inside the engine house at the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Wikimedia Commons

John Brown’s raid, 1859. Inside the engine house at the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Wikimedia Commons

Although Thoreau is known for his support of non-violent resistance to government, he immediately expressed approval of Brown’s armed insurrection. (See “A Plea for Captain John Brown.”) It’s remarkable that Thoreau supported such a man, who was a stern Calvinist who believed in the wrathful God that Henry rejected. Brown had a violent past. In 1856, for example, while living in Kansas, he and his sons had dragged several of their pro-slavery neighbors from their homes and murdered them with broadswords.

Brown saw himself as an instrument of God’s wrath. He may well have known that his Harper’s Ferry plan was unlikely to succeed, and was prepared to die a martyr for the antislavery cause. And in fact he was captured, tried, and hanged in Virginia… and Henry Thoreau led a memorial service in Concord on the day of the execution.

"The Last Moments of John Brown," painting by Thomas Hovenden. Brown's raid and execution further polarized the nation, pushing it closer to civil war. Wikimedia Commons

“The Last Moments of John Brown,” painting by Thomas Hovenden. Brown’s raid and execution further polarized the nation, pushing it closer to civil war. Wikimedia Commons

But what happened next could have could have been a far more serious legal matter than Henry’s famous night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. A day after the hanging in Virginia, one of Brown’s surviving men, Francis J. Merriman, arrived in Concord. Merriman had already fled to Canada, but coming back to the States was highly dangerous, even in Massachusetts. One of Brown’s co-conspirators “enlisted Thoreau to drive Merriman, disguised as a ‘Mr. Lockwood,’ to the South Acton Station to get on the next train to Canada.” Henry didn’t know it was Merriman, “but he knew enough not to inquire too closely into whom he was helping.” (Richardson, p. 372)

Dangerous times. In the escalation to secession and war, even peaceful people found themselves drawn into radical action.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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