I find Thoreau to display an interesting fluidity when discussing the rationale behind why he writes. More specifically, Thoreau displays an adjustment in attitude from text to text when discussing the focus of much of his writing:his views and consequently, himself. In Walden, Thoreau states “I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life.” Further, Thoreau seems almost apologetic for the focus on his own life stating “I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.” These comments seem to sharply contrast with the attitude that Thoreau gives off when presenting his thoughts in “Slavery in Massachusetts.” Here, Thoreau comes off in a seemingly unapologetic, far less explanatory manner, simply stating that “he had no opportunity to express [his] thoughts”, so therefore he plans to do so now accordingly. This Thoreau seems less concerned with the way in which the act of detailing his own personal thoughts on paper may be interpreted by his readers. Thoreau doesn’t apologize for the focus on his own views in “Slavery in Massachusetts”. He has something to say and has the opportunity to say it through the medium of his writing.
[Three years ago, also, when the Sims tragedy was acted]
“Slavery in Massachusetts” was initially delivered as a lecture at an abolitionist meeting on July 4th, 1854. According to Sandra Harbart Petrulionis, Thoreau, upon deciding to deliver a lecture at this meeting, began to develop his speech by drawing “from his 1854 commentary about Anthony Burns and earlier journal entries in April 1851 regarding fugitive slave Thomas Sims.” Thoreau edited this prose to transform it into the speech that he would deliver at the meeting. According to Petrulionis, Thoreau did far more than simply piece together his journal entries to develop his speech. “Thoreau curtailed the journal’s stridency, revising or cutting more than twenty passages that, with few exceptions, can be categorized as blasphemous, revolutionary, or, at best, politically incautious.” Petrulionis proposes that “the Independence Day rally provided an opportunity for [Thoreau] to become visible both as an antislavery spokesman and as the author of Walden.” Accordingly, Thoreau “displayed the skills of a savy editor who uncharacteristically repacked private fury into acceptable public discourse.” Uncharacteristically seems to be a more than appropriate piece of diction to describe Thoreau’s editorial actions. Thoreau himself in one of his journal entries states “I will not consent to walk with my mouth muzzled, not till I am rabid” (Selections from the Journals, Harding). The Walden writer, a champion of freedom of speech, may have been more willing to bridle his words than he was willing to let on.
“Slavery in Massachusetts” was originally a lecture given by Thoreau at an abolitionist meeting in Framingham, MA on July 4th, 1854. Interestingly enough, there is some debate as to how far in advance Thoreau knew he was going to speak at this meeting. According to Wendell Glick’s edition for Reform Papers (The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, Princeton University Press, 1973), while “the names of most of the principal speakers were announced in advance[for the meeting], as early as June 23rd 1854, Thoreau’s was not”(331). According to Glick, “One may conjecture that the reason Thoreau’s appearance at Framingham was not announced was that he himself had made no plans to speak there until a few days before the event.”
Thoreau’s early paragraphs in “Slavery in Massachusetts” are quite interesting. Naturally, one would think a piece on slavery by a known abolitionist would start with (or at least include near the beginning) a strong argument on the morality of slavery. Thoreau comes no where close to doing this.
Instead, he uses his writing (or, more appropriately “time” as SIM was first given as a speech) to attack the government and expose its shortcomings. This is seen clearly in paragraphs 4-6, where Thoreau mocks the Governor of Massachusetts. Additionally, instead of making a moral argument, Thoreau condemns the Governor for not properly following state laws (paragraphs 8 and 9). He builds upon his governmental and legal argument, but does not touch on morality at all. He seems to start his piece with the assumption that everyone hold the same view as him on slavery- that it was evil (“that man’s influence and authority were on the side of the slaveholder, and not of the slave,- of the guilty, and not of the innocent,- of injustice, and not of justice”). But, given the time period, we know this is completely false, even in Massachusetts. Perhaps Thoreau should have supported his argument by explicitly calling out slavery on what it was; a moral atrocity.
[ Such judges as these are merely the inspectors of a pick-lock and murderer’s tools]
This quote is reminiscent of “Resistance to Civil Government”. In “Resistance to Civil Government”, Thoreau labels government as a “machine” and states that “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine, let it go, let it go.” Thoreau labels the judges as inspectors of tools in “Slavery in Massachusetts”. Rather than thinking and autonomous individuals, these judges are simply acting as operators for the machine. They check the tools and gears to make sure they are in working order. They never question the products that the machine they are assisting is producing in the first place.
[It is evident that there are, in this Commonwealth, at least, two parties, becoming more and more distinct — the party of the city, and the party of the country. ]
I find it fascinating that Thoreau points out issues that are relevant today. He recognized and commented on the beginning of the formation of the two-party system in America. He saw the cultural divide between rural and urban areas forming, and this cultural divide still exists to this day, as rural areas tend to be more conservative and urban areas more liberal. He goes on to say that there are few ways that people can express themselves in government, which is true when there are only two parties to belong to that have any real power, and each party individually encompasses a wide array of opinions (moderate to extreme).
Thoreau also warns against disregarding beliefs of those from the country in favor of “the opinions of the city,” which reminds me of the liberal media bias today, as well as the fact that people from rural areas often say that they feel “ignored” or “overlooked” by politicians who focus on cities. He reminds us to “entertain opinions of our own,” which is important to remember today when so much is on the internet whether it is true or not.
[with Hindoo mercy avoid treading on every venomous reptile]
This line reminds me of Thoreau’s mention of Hindoo philosophers and other ancient thinkers in “Economy” in Walden. In “Economy,” Thoreau praises these philosophers greatly, hinting that they are the most enlightened in history: “The ancient philosophers… were a class than which none has been poor in outward riches, none so rich inward.” Here, Thoreau mentions some kind of innate “Hindoo mercy.” He likens the Fugitive Slave Law to a venomous reptile- a metaphor- but the mention of Hindoo mercy of avoiding these reptiles is somewhat literal. Thoreau as a nature lover does not like the destruction of nature- including animals. So, even though in this instance the Hindoo mercy is bad (because the “reptile” is bad), he seems to still give some sort of underlying appreciation for the Hindoo philosophers. Thoreau uses an interesting combination of metaphors and “semi-metaphors” here.
[I believe that, in this country, the press exerts a greater and a more pernicious influence than the Church did in its worst period.]
Upon reading this passage, I was shocked, but after rereading it I saw he included the words “in this country.” Without those three words, this statement would be unfathomably false. Even with the words, the statement is still bold, and I’m not sure what is the “worst period” to which Thoreau is referring.
[We are not a religious people, but we are a nation of politicians. We do not care for the Bible, but we do care for the newspaper.]
This is another extremely bold statement by Thoreau. Yes, throughout its history the United States had prided itself on not having an official religion. But, this does not change the fact that, even during Thoreau’s time, a large percentage of the population were Christian. Interestingly, the U.S. Census started gathering data on religious demographics just a few years prior to Thoreau writing this- in 1850. According to this census, there were 18 principal denominations in the United States, many and the largest of which were Christianity based religions. For Thoreau to say at the time “we do not care for the Bible” is patently false.
[since Massachusetts last deliberately sent back an innocent man, Anthony Burns, to slavery. ]
In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was signed under President Fillmore, which required the return of escaped slaves residing in free states to their masters. Anthony Burns was a runaway slave who stowed away on a ship from Richmond to Boston. A letter that held his location sent to his brother was intercepted, and Burns was arrested on May 24, 1854, and put on trial. Many abolitionists protested the case at the courthouse, killing a temporary deputy marshal while making an unsuccessful attempt to rescue Burns. After that, hundreds of military men and armed guards were posted around and within the courtroom. The judge ruled in favor of Burns’ slave owner, and he was returned to Richmond. A group raised enough money to purchase Burns’ freedom, and he moved to Canada and became a minister, where he died in 1862. This case made the divide between North and South even greater, as both were angered over how the case had proceeded, and pushed America closer to the Civil War.
Thoreau argues that policy is based on the morals and ideas of the majority of society at a certain time, and therefore cannot be used as a standard moral code or be “right.” It is based on what the majority deems as convenient and easy for them, and therefore certain rights could be abused, which slavery perfectly exemplifies. He determines that just because something is legal does not mean it is “good.” This relates back to his writings in Resistance to Civil Government, where he writes: “When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote.” Because slavery was crucial to the South’s economy, Thoreau argues that it will be abolished only when it is no longer needed, rather than when the majority’s outrage at its degradation to humankind moves them to abolish it. To many at the time, slavery was a question of legality, not morality, which frustrated Thoreau. His writings show his belief that people influence the law and therefore the morals of their society, and that they need to be aware of the power they have.
[stone house ]
According to Wendell Glick’s edition for Reform Papers (The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, Princeton University Press, 1973), there are a few differences that arise between the various print versions of “Slavery in Massachusetts”. “Slavery in Massachusetts” was first put into print in the June 21st, 1854 edition of The Liberator. According to Glick, William Lloyd Garrison likely “requested and received Thoreau’s holograph text at Framingham after Thoreau delivered his lecture” (333). From there, Thoreau’s address was reprinted by Horace Greeley in the New-York Daily Tribune on August 2nd, 1854, followed by a printing in The National Anti-Slavery Standard on August 12, 1854. Among these different versions, a few differences arise, a perfect example being the word “stone house”. In The Liberator as well as The National Anti-Slavery Standard the word “stone house” is transcribed as “store-house”, while the form “stone house” is “confirmed by the manuscript journal entry for June 16, 1854, from which Thoreau took the passage” (333).
[Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men]
I find it fascinating how throughout “Slavery in Massachusetts” we can find instances of Thoreau going off on “nature-tangents.” Lines like these truly attest to his incredible ability at nature writing. Even in texts which have basically nothing to do with nature, Thoreau is able to cleverly and attractively tie in an aspect of nature. In this specific quote, Thoreau likens positive attributes (of anything) to a blooming flower, and negative attributes to a decaying one. He states that slavery has no positive attributes– thus it does not bloom, and instead decays. I also find the line “offensive to all healthy nostrils” very interesting. Thoreau is basically saying that if you are not offended by slavery, you are not only wrong, but “unhealthy,” and that only “healthy nostrils” are offended by this slavery which wreaks of decay and death.
[ Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 I walk toward one of our ponds; but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base?]
According to Muslim rules, every Muslim is required to wash his or her hands, arms, face and feet before prayer. It is a strict requirement, but when water is not found, Muslims rub a little soil on the back of their hands and a little on their forehead. They believe nature gives them the purity needed to begin their prayers with. It is the same bond between man and nature that Thoreau speaks so beautifully about here. You cannot approach nature with an impure heart and soul. Human soul receives this purity from the soil.
Hi, this is a comment.
To get started with moderating, editing, and deleting comments, please visit the Comments screen in the dashboard.
Commenter avatars come from Gravatar.
May 5, 2018 at 1:47 am
Posted in: General Discussion
See in context
May 4, 2018 at 10:40 am
May 4, 2018 at 9:39 am
May 4, 2018 at 9:25 am
May 4, 2018 at 9:13 am
May 4, 2018 at 8:45 am
May 4, 2018 at 12:39 am
May 3, 2018 at 11:36 pm
May 3, 2018 at 9:58 pm
May 3, 2018 at 9:11 pm
Register to join a group and leave comments.