Henry David Thoreau: “I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion.”


Free spirit

Happy Fourth of July. In my thinking about the day, it occurred to me that this may be the first and only nation that actually formed around the notion of dissent. We do more than tolerate dissent, we view it as the absolute bedrock of a democracy.

Then I recalled an all-time great American, Henry David Thoreau, who, in July 1846, spent a night in jail because he refused to pay six years of a delinquent poll tax at a time when American was waging what he viewed as an unjust war (the Mexican war) and while slavery was still practiced.

According to some accounts, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”

Emerson missed the point of Thoreau’s protest, which was not intended to reform society but was a pure act of conscience. If we do not act on our discernment of right from wrong, he argued, we will eventually lose the capacity to make the distinction.

Prior to these events, Thoreau had been living a quiet, solitary life at Walden, an isolated pond in the woods about a mile and a half from Concord (reconstruction of the place below looks pretty nifty to me). Perhaps the sudden collision with the affairs of the world was a jolt to him: “The State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

Toward his jailers, Thoreau expressed sadness: “They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are under-bred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. … I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.”


Home sweet home

Apparently, Bronson Alcott had been taken to prison for a similar refusal, but was sprung by a friend who paid the tab. Hence, he wrote, “I took great pleasure in this deed of Thoreau’s.”

Too often the importance of respecting dissent, not quashing it, gets lost in a big busy country. On my Facebook page this morning I posted a comment from Robert Reich, “True patriotism isn’t simply about securing our borders from outsiders. It’s about coming together for the common good.” I added this thought: Let’s make this a special Fourth of July. Left-wingers – go hug a right-winger. Right-wingers – go hug a left-winger. Try to listen to a point of view not your own. You don’t have to adopt it, just hear it out, trying to understand where the other is coming from without refutation, denigration, or ridicule. Try to see the other person as someone who also has a collection of life experiences and who is also fighting a tough battle. Put aside hatred, not just for today, but forever. Try to enjoy the cacophony of voices that make up a democracy. Any takers?

Meanwhile, here are a few words from Jerome Lawrence, one of the two playwrights (the other is Robert Edwin Lee) who wrote the very successful The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail:


Jerome Lawrence on The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail from William Inge Center for the Arts on Vimeo.

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7 Responses to “Henry David Thoreau: “I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion.””

  1. Michelle Says:

    I think that if I were growing up in his shoes, I would be positive. Tough situations sometimes make people grow into optimistic people who strive to achieve everything they can. Walden Pond, from what I understand, symbolizes a place of serenity and freedom. Thoreau was able to escape and collect his thoughts at Walden Pond. Don’t we all need/wish for a place like that? I certainly do. Thoreau is very inspirational and very intelligent. Reading his works showed me that even through tough times, you are able to make it out as long as you strive to reach the bigger picture.

    Happy 4th of July to everyone!

  2. Bradley Scarbrough Says:

    When Robert Reich is talking about “the common good,” he is almost always expressing sentiments which are nearly the complete antithesis of Thoreau’s own thought and writings.

  3. Mark O'Brien Says:

    Often overlooked is the fact that Emerson and Thoreau (and many of the other 19th C. Trancendentalists) were Unitarians and inspired by this new religious outlook to challenge the established orthodoxy. Emerson was a Unitarian minister in Concord, Massachusetts. Along with Boston’s Rev. William Ellery Channing and Rev. Theodore Parker they were strong willed abolitionists and social reformers. They included in their beliefs people such as Margaret Fuller, the Alcotts, Walt Whitman and hundreds of other famous and not so famous Unitarians who rattled the cages of long held beliefs and preached for and demanded changes to the religious, social and political systems. Unitarians and now Universalists as the combined Unitarian Universalists (UUA) (merger 1961) (UUA.com) have lead the charge for women’s equality, and LGBT equality. Indeed, Universalists were the first faith to ordain a woman as a minister in the 19th C., ordained the first openly gay person as a minister, The Rev. Robert P. Wheatly. >although The Rev. Bill Johnson, a United Church of Christ (UCC) minister is properly cited as the first openly gay >Christian< to be ordained as a minister but at a later date<), the UUA was the first faith to call for Gay Equality in 1970, and the first to call for same sex marriage by a vote at our General Assembly. Our uncommon and progressive beliefs had their start and forward looking ideas with Thoreau, Channing, Parker, Sophia Lyons Fahs, Fuller, R.W. Emerson and many others. We continue the radical and liberal heritage of Thoreau and Emerson even today and are unafraid to do so.

  4. Jeff Kimball Says:

    Henry David Thoreau taught me that living is easy, all you need to do is breath in, breath out, drink clean water, eat something once in awhile and find some warm shelter… all the rest is just details.

  5. Harold Says:

    The Unitarians may now claim them but these people were more accurately Transcendentalists, rather than Unitarians.
    Interestingly, the doctrines of New England Congregationalism (i.e., Calvinism) were so harsh and individualistic that they paradoxically inspired many to react by turning to a more liberal Unitarianism (a similar softening obtained in Geneva, Switzerland, the epicenter of Calvinism). Emerson was indeed trained as a Unitarian minister but found the religion too confining and became a free-lance lay lecturer. Parker remained a preacher but was basically expelled and had to ordain himself. The name of Parker’s break-away church remained the “Twenty-eight Congregational Society”, however. A political radical and believer in social justice, Parker was a member of the “Secret Six” who raised funds for John Brown. Parker’s congregation stuck by him even when he was jailed for abolitionist activity.

    Hawthorne had two daughters, Rose and Una (whose name perhaps commemorates Unitarianism). Although Hawthorne wrote very critically of the dangers of Catholicism, his daughter Rose became a nun, the founder of The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, an order dedicated to helping the sick and the poor. (She was inspired in this by her close friendship with Emma Lazarus). Rose has been canonized. Not long ago, in 2006, the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne raised money to transfer the bodies of Hawthorne’s wife Sophia (née Peabody) and their daughter Una to the family plot in Concord, Mass, from the London cemetery, where they had gone to live after Hawthorne’s death and had died and been buried.

  6. Harold Says:

    Correction “Mary Alphonsa” — Some now consider her a founder of the modern hospice movement:


  7. Harold Says:

    Some would take issue with the assertion that Thoreau’s protest was not intended to reform society or that Emerson in any way “misunderstood” it. Thoreau was Emerson’s pupil and protégé — a living example of the “representative man” – and visible example and rebuke to the military expansionism (both opposed the Mexican war), commercialism, and slave labor that both rejected.

    Paul Quinn in “Thoreau’s Transparent Eyeball”, Times Literary Supplelment, January 
05, 2005

    Much moved by the example of the Lake District Poets, Wordsworth & Colderidge, Emerson wanted Walden to be the centerpiece of a distinct, American, ‘Pond District’, and Thoreau to be the representative man of a new sensibility.

    Thoreau served for a time as Emerson’s live-in handyman and gardener, making a doll’s house for Emerson’s children – his first stab at a simple but ideal residence – and miniature gloves for Mrs Emerson to put on the chickens’ claws, after she complained that they were scratching out the flowers. Thoreau’s self-built house by the pond was raised on land owned by Emerson, and the older writer probably saw it as a kind of Transcendentalist show home. 

    The element of display in this ‘retreat’ should not be underestimated; Thoreau’s ‘one-man utopia’ was less a rejection of this world than a pointer towards a better world to be. He constructed a critique of slavery of all sorts: the economic necessity of toil, the slave-driving of ourselves, and the literal slavery that shamed his divided country – in a haunting, elliptical passage of Walden a fugitive slave appears like a frightened fox at his cabin door before disappearing into the symbolism that predominates in the book’s treatment of the slavery issue. But in so doing Thoreau also hoped to sketch the lineaments of an emancipated self and culture. Although now thickly wooded, in his time his spot by the pond was in a clearing – commuters could have glimpsed him over their newspapers as they traveled on the new Fitchburg railroad heading towards the kind of damaged, commercialized ‘lives of quiet desperation’ he despised. He stood by his tiny house like a living rebuke as they hurtled by.

    Scholarly conjecture has Thoreau’s customized harp sitting in the window of his little house during that two-year stay at Walden Pond. We do know for certain that he enjoyed the accidental harping that the telegraph wires made when similarly strummed by the wind.”