Today in History

Today in History: July 12

Henry David Thoreau

The doctrines of despair, of spiritual or political tyranny or servitude, were never taught by such as shared the serenity of nature.

Henry David Thoreau, Excursions (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863), 39.
The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau,
copy print of an 1861 ambrotype,
copyright 1879.
The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

Writer, philosopher, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. Associated with the Concord-based literary movement called New England Transcendentalism, he embraced the Transcendentalist belief in the universality of creation and the primacy of personal insight and experience. Thoreau's advocacy of simple, principled living remains compelling, while his writings on the relationship between people and the environment helped define the nature essay.

After graduating from Harvard in 1837, Thoreau held a series of odd jobs. Encouraged by Concord neighbor and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, he started publishing essays, poems, and reviews in the transcendentalist magazine The Dial. His essay "Natural History of Massachusetts" (1842) revealed his talent for writing about nature.

From 1845 to 1847, Thoreau lived in a cabin on the edge of Walden Pond, a small glacial lake near Concord. Guided by the maxim "Simplify, simplify," he strictly limited his expenditures, his possessions, and his contact with others. His goal: "To live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach."

Thoreau's cove
Thoreau's Cove, Walden Pond,
Concord, Massachusetts, between 1900 and 1910.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it…

Henry David Thoreau,
"Where I Lived, and What I Lived for (external link),"
from Walden; or, Life in the Woods (external link)

Walden; or, Life in the Woods (external link) chronicles his experiment in self-sufficiency. In a series of loosely-connected essays, Thoreau takes American individualism to new heights, while offering a biting critique of society's increasingly materialistic value system.

During his time at Walden, Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. He withheld the tax to protest the existence of slavery and what he saw as an imperialistic war with Mexico. Released after a relative paid the tax, he wrote "Civil Disobedience (external link)" (originally published as "Resistance to Civil Government") to explain why private conscience can constitute a higher law than civil authority. "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly," he argued, "the true place for a just man is also a prison." Thoreau continued to be a vocal and active opponent of slavery. In addition to aiding runaway slaves, in 1859 he staunchly and publicly defended abolitionist John Brown.

Raquet River--Adirondacks
Racquet River—"Adirondacks,"
Currier & Ives, circa 1840-1880.
The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

When his writing failed to win money or acclaim, he became a surveyor to support himself. As a result, Thoreau's later years increasingly were spent outdoors, observing and writing about nature. His seminal essay, "Succession of Forest Trees," describes the vital ecology of the woodlands, highlighting the role of birds and animals in seed dispersal. Republished posthumously in Excursions, Thoreau's essay makes the forward-looking suggestion that forest management systems mirror existing woodland ecology.

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions," Thoreau reminds us, "perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." Considered something of a failure by the small town merchants and farmers of Concord, Thoreau died at home on May 6, 1862. His place in American letters is secure, however, as many continue to find inspiration in his work and his example.