Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. He was the son of John and Cynthia Thoreau, and the third of four children. Out of his two sisters and a brother, Helen was the oldest sister, John Thoreau Jr. was Henry’s older brother and Sophia was the younger sister. The house they were born in belonged to his maternal grandmother and is located on the outskirts of Concord on Virginia Road.
Henry was named after his paternal uncle, David Thoreau, who died just six weeks after Henry was born. However, his legal name is not Henry David Thoreau but rather ‘David Henry Thoreau’. It wasn’t until after Thoreau had graduated from Harvard College that he unilaterally changed his name from David Henry to ‘Henry David’ Thoreau. Not out of character, he never bothered to petition the state legislature to have his name legally and officially changed.
Henry spent the majority of his time walking in and around the town of Concord, although he did make a few journeys to other places. Occasionally he would be found sauntering and conversing with his mentor and friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson or Ellery Channing.
Some believe Henry went to live at Walden Pond because he was a hermit or a recluse or because he hated his fellow man, but this is not the case. Henry had a very special and sincere reason to go to Walden Pond; to honor his brother. On January 11, 1842, Henry’s brother, John Jr., died of lockjaw. It was his brother’s death which prompted him to decide to go to Walden Pond. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great “Sage of Concord”, owned land adjacent to Walden Pond and allowed Henry to live at Walden Pond. Henry went to Walden Pond to work on a book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers which would be a tribute to John Thoreau Jr. He stayed at Walden Pond for two years, two months and two days. He wanted to live his life deliberately, so he went and built a simple cabin at Walden Pond. As he explains in Walden;
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Henry left his nearby town of Concord to live at Walden Pond on July 4, 1845, Independence Day. Some have speculated that this date represents his personal declaration of independence from society. Others have pointed out that July 4th was the day before his brother’s birthday. By leaving for Walden on July 4th, Independence Day, Henry would have spent his first full day at Walden Pond on the anniversary of his brother’s birthday. This idea is further supported in Walden;
“When I first took up my abode in the woods, that is, began to spend my nights as well as days there, which, by accident, was on Independence day, or the fourth of July, 1845…”
Ralph Waldo Emerson provided Thoreau with the opportunity to complete his first work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and the first draft of a Thoreau’s uniquely American work, Walden; or Life in the Woods. Walden, as it is more commonly
and popularly known, is Thoreau’s response to a multitude of questions he received as a result of living two years, two months, and two days in his small cabin in the woods at Walden Pond.
Although many believe Thoreau was a recluse, he was no stranger to society while he lived at the Pond. He had frequent dinners with family and friends, and also had friends and the occasional curious neighbor visit him at his cabin. He explains;
“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”
In late July of 1846, a little more than one year into Henry’s excursion to Walden Pond, he needed to get his shoe repaired. He walked into Concord to get the hole in his shoe repaired but as he was leaving the cobbler’s store, Sam Staples, the town constable, asked him to pay his poll tax. He was intentionally several years behind in paying his tax. When asked to
pay up, Thoreau flat out refused to pay the poll tax. He objected to the use of the revenues of this poll tax, which were to help finance the United States’ war with Mexico and to support the enforcement of slavery laws.
Henry refused to pay his taxes and refused the offers made by Sam Staples himself to pay the tax. Since he refused to have his tax paid, Sam Staples was required to take him to jail. Henry spent that night in jail. During that evening however, someone heard that Henry was in jail and paid the taxes owed. No one really knows for sure who paid the tax, but most believe it was Henry’s Aunt Maria Thoreau.
When Sam Staples found out that Thoreau’s taxes were paid it was after he had taken off his boots for the evening, so he decided to release Henry in the morning. Henry should have never have spent the night in jail since the state no longer had a reason to hold him.
As he found out that his tax had been paid he was outraged and wanted to remain in jail. His argument was that since he himself was not the one who paid the taxes he still deserved to be in jail. The evening he spent in jail prompted him to write what became one of his most famous essays and one of the most important political essays ever, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” It is in “Civil Disobedience” that Henry asks all of us to question our actions and the actions of our state. He writes;
“Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? … I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves abolitionsists should at once effectively withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them …Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors, consitutes a majority of one already.”
“Civil Disobedience” and Henry David Thoreau have had great impact on the lives of some of America’s greatest leaders. President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass were all influenced by Henry David Thoreau’s thoughts.
Henry Thoreau left his cabin at Walden Pond on September 6, 1847. His book, Walden, was published several years and seven versions later in 1854. As the writer got older, his attentions turned more towards the observing and recording of natural history in Concord. He kept very thorough journals of natural history and the citizens of Concord regarded him as the town naturalist and would ask him many questions regarding nature, or call on him to identify interesting creatures and plants.
Many scholars consider Henry David Thoreau to be the father of the American conservation and preservation movements. The essay heralding Thoreau’s ideas of conservation and preservation is “Walking”. In his essay “Walking” he claims;
“To preserve wild animals implies generally the creation of a forest for them to dwell in or resort to” and “… in Wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Henry David Thoreau died May 6th 1862, after suffering of a prolonged case of tuberculosis, a disease which had plagued him throughout most of his adult life.