You know the old adage that you can’t save the world until you first save yourself?
Well, Henry David Thoreau embodied it.
Born in Concord, Massachusetts, USA, exactly 200 years ago (July 12, 1817), Henry David Thoreau was the son of a pencil maker and a gifted student. He graduated from Harvard College (now University) in 1837. Yet, it was many years before he found the path that immortalized him.
It all started when he befriended Ralph Waldo Emerson…
Emerson introduced Thoreau to a school of thought called Transcendentalism, which privileged the benefits of the interior world – reflection and empirical observation – over the creature comforts of the physical world. Thoreau became a part of the movement, and this led to his first forays into the writer’s life: he penned his earliest articles for in the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial.
In 1845, Thoreau decided to commit himself fully to his literary and philosophic pursuits. He famously built a shelter on Walden Pond. He would stay there for two years, living the simple, solitary experience he believed would bring him happiness. He worked at his father’s pencil factory from time to time to make money enough to live on. But he had no aspirations for material wealth. Instead, he mused on the world no further than his own backyard…daily. He eventually compiled these reflections to create A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and his most famous work, Walden (1854).
Thoreau's political conscience took root there in the woods as well. When he refused to pay poll taxes, on the grounds that monies raised were used to fund injustice, he was forced to spend a night in jail. That experience resulted in the highly influential essay "Civil Disobedience" (1849). It would become the bedrock text for such 20th-century leaders as Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thoreau advocated that one should not blindly accept social convention and the prevailing law, but that when faced with injustice should resist, take action, and agitate for change. He believed in the necessity to question authority, if on moral grounds. He exhorted people not merely to vote for justice, but to live justly and to refuse to give injustice practical support.
From his days on Walden Pond, Thoreau practiced what he preached. Through speeches and writings, he dedicated himself to the abolition of slavery and let be known his disgust with American imperialism, as manifest, particularly, by the Mexican–American War. He excoriated complacency among everyday citizens, stating that acquiescence enables the government to make us all agents of injustice.
Whether you know it or not, when you march, write to your government representatives, and in any other protest against social and political wrongs, you are channeling Thoreau. His message regarding the importance civil resistance resonates particularly loudly today.
Thoreau left us an impressive legacy as a writer, thought leader, activist, abolitionist, environmentalist, and Transcendentalist. However, at his core, he was a man with thoughtful, humble morals who pursued an alternative lifestyle simply because it was the right thing to do. He chose the path less traveled in order to better himself, and in the doing, he bought positive change to the world. That's why he's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Boomer Harold of New Haven, CT, USA, for bringing the fact of Thoreau's milestone birthday to our attention.