Today’s Great Awokening: Henry’s Tools Can Guide Us to Do Right

By Ken Lizotte, president Thoreau Farm Board of Directors and Margaret Carroll-Bergman, executive director

“The fate of the country… does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.”  — Henry David Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts.”

Henry believed that social reform began with the individual. His words rang true in the mid-19th century and, with time, are more relevant today, as our country confronts systemic racism and the legacy of slavery.

Henry stopped paying taxes to protest slavery.  In 1846, he was arrested for being a tax scofflaw and as a result spent one night in the Concord jail. He wrote “Civil Disobedience,” an essay which many consider the cornerstone of American democracy — the right and duty to protest, even at the risk of being jailed for breaking an actual law.

“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”  — Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience

After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required enslaved people to be returned to their owners, even if the former slave lived in a free state, Thoreau and his family and friends became involved with the Underground Railroad and the Abolitionist Movement.

Frank Sanborn, one of the so-called Secret Six who secretly funded John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and similar actions — describes Henry’s escorting a fugitive slave to the Acton railway station on December 3, 1859, the day after Brown was hanged:

“I engaged Mr. Thoreau to drive his friend’s {Emerson} horse to South Acton the next morning, and there put on board the first Canadian train a Mr. Lockwood, whom he would find at my house. Thoreau readily consented, asked no questions, walked to the Emerson stable the next morning, found the horse ready, drove him to my door, and took up Merriam, under the name of Lockwood, neither knowing who the other was.”

Unknown to Henry, he had taken on a dangerous task: Francis Jackson Merriam was one of John Brown’s raiders at Harpers Ferry. He did this without question to help a fellow human being.

For many white Americans, there has lately been a “Great Awokening” concerning the economic, legal, and educational institutions that keep Black and brown Americans in poverty. The senseless murder of a 46-year-old Black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer brought home the systemic racism that exists in our country. Captured on a cell phone, no one could deny Floyd’s repeated cries “I can’t breathe” as he was pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee on his neck. These cries have now have become the bellows for reform.

As Thoreauvians we have inherited both tools and actions from Henry to see that social justice and reform are finally realized. We have Henry’s writings on “Civil Disobedience,” “Slavery in Massachusetts,” “A Plea for John Brown,” and “Walden” as well. All together, Henry’s example offers a guide for taking responsibility without question or hesitation so as to do right and not “lend” ourselves to the wrong, as Henry put it. This crucial period of social reform we are living in demands it.

 

 

 

 

 

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