Thoreau, Henry David

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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Henry David Thoreau was a nineteenth-century philosopher and writer who denounced materialistic modes of living and encouraged people to act according to their own beliefs of right and wrong, even if doing so required breaking the law. His writings, especially his call for nonviolent resistance to government injustice, have inspired many later reformers.

Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard College in 1837. During his college years, he was greatly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the

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Henry David Thoreau.


leader of the transcendental movement. Thoreau became a personal friend of the eminent author and spent several years as Emerson's houseguest. Their long friendship was a significant influence on Thoreau's writing and philosophy.

Through Emerson, Thoreau met many other brilliant thinkers and writers of the time, including Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Amos Bronson Alcott. This group of transcendentalists supported a plain and simple lifestyle spent searching for the truth beyond one's taught beliefs. Unlike some of the other transcendentalists, Thoreau lived out many of their beliefs. Thoreau's first work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was published in 1849 and is considered the definitive statement of his transcendalist beliefs.

For several years in the 1830s and 1840s, Thoreau refused to pay POLL TAXES to the government as a way of protesting SLAVERY, which the government permitted. The poll tax was levied on all men over the age of twenty. Thoreau was finally jailed overnight for this refusal in 1841 but was bailed out by his relatives who paid his back taxes for him.

From July 4, 1845, to September 6, 1847, Thoreau lived alone at Walden Pond, Massachusetts, on a plot of land owned by Emerson. There Thoreau devoted his time to studying nature and writing. While at Walden Pond, he wrote Walden, a collection of essays about nature and human nature that was published in 1854.

Later Thoreau became outraged by the Mexican War, which he believed was caused by greed for Mexican land, and by the FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT, which helped slave owners recover escaped slaves. As a result of this outrage, Thoreau wrote an essay that was published in 1849 under the title Civil Disobedience (Thoreau's original title was Resistance to Civil Government). The essay contended that each person...

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