Society runs amok against Thoreau, it being the desperate party (Walden 121)

“One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler’s, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house.”

This is Thoreau’s matter-of-fact way of describing his arrest, which prompted his famous and influential essay, “Civil Disobedience.” He writes about the issues in more depth in that piece (and I wrote about his anti-slavery activism here), so this time I’m going to focus more on an important observation that Thoreau makes about the balance of power. He continues:

“I had gone down to the woods for other purposes. But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society. It is true, I might have resisted forcibly with more or less effect, might have run “amok” against society; but I preferred that society should run “amok” against me, it being the desperate party.”

This was obviously a serious issue, but Henry’s sly humor is on display here. In addition to the tone of “everyone’s crazy but me,” he also recognizes an important reality behind the political situation. This becomes clearer if we fast forward a few years to 1850, after Thoreau left Walden but before he finished the book.

In 1850 Congress passed a Fugitive Slave Act, part of a larger political compromise between Northern and Southern states. The law required that runaway slaves be returned to their masters, even if captured in free states. Local law enforcement was required to cooperate, and the law specified six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for anyone who provided food or shelter to a fugitive (something Thoreau had already done).

Why did Southerners demand this law? Many Northerners feared the growth of what they called the Slave Power (referring to the Southern planter aristocracy), but the law also shows that slave owners were aware that a growing number of Northerners had no desire to defend Southern “property,” and either looked the other way or, in some cases, actually aided runaway slaves.

In other words, slavery — which for time out of mind had been accepted without question in human societies — was becoming less and less acceptable to more and more people. Times were changing.

When Thoreau finished his final draft of Walden in 1854, he could look back on his arrest eight years earlier and see how the conflict over slavery had intensified. On July 4 of that year, little more than month before Walden was published, he spoke at the Anti-Slavery Celebration in Framingham, Massachusetts, delivering a passionate condemnation of moral cowardice in a speech titled “Slavery in Massachusetts.”

At the time, neither Thoreau nor anyone else knew how it would all turn out. But here, in this passage of Walden, he performs another of his reversals of perspective, recognizing that a society which enslaves, and which jails people to defend unjust laws, is acting not so much out of power as out of weakness and fear.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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