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Henry David Thoreau, No “Pond Scum,” Risked His Neck for Racial Justice

If Nature can compound this fragrance still annually  I shall believe her still young and full of vigor  her integrity and genius unimpaired  and that there is virtue even in man  too  who is fitted to perceive an (4)

By Wen Stephenson

Adapted from Wen Stephenson’s opening address at the Thoreau Bicentennial  gathering in Concord, MA, on July 12, 2017—Thoreau’s 200th birthday—and from his Beacon Press book, What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice.

There’s a popular image of Henry David Thoreau as an apolitical hermit, a recluse, aloof and detached, even misanthropic, a crank indulging his private fantasy in his cabin in the woods. This has always been a caricature; his active involvement in the Underground Railroad and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act put the lie to it. We know that he helped multiple fugitives on their way to Canada, guarding over them in his family’s house—the Thoreau family were committed abolitionists, especially his mother and sisters—even escorting them onto the trains, which entailed no small personal risk. And of course, we know that he wrote and spoke forcefully and without compromise against slavery and for human freedom.

But in the fall of 1859, Thoreau’s principles would be put even further to the test. When the news arrived in Concord, in October 1859, of John Brown’s deadly raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, reactions were sharply divided. The whole country was in an uproar. Even Brown’s erstwhile supporters quickly distanced themselves. Most of his co-conspirators—many with close ties to Concord—went into hiding, several fleeing to Canada. The atmosphere was not just tense but dangerous for anyone voicing solidarity with Brown.

Into this picture steps forty-two-year-old Henry Thoreau. He was incensed by what he saw as the timid and hypocritical reactions of his neighbors, and of the press, and let it be known that he would speak in support of Brown at Concord’s First Church on October 30. Thoreau rang the town bell himself to announce the speech because Concord’s selectmen had refused. The address he gave was “A Plea for Captain John Brown.”

It was Thoreau’s most radical moment. He was the first in Concord, and among the first and most prominent in the country, to come to Brown’s defense. Within days he would repeat the speech to large audiences in Worcester and Boston—where he stood in at the last moment for Frederick Douglass, who had been chased into Canada by federal marshals despite having played no part in the Harpers Ferry raid.

The speech itself is stunning. What Thoreau was saying in his “Plea” for Brown was the same thing he’d said a decade earlier in “Civil Disobedience”—“action from principle…is essentially revolutionary”—only now in far stronger terms, and this time with real skin in the game. What was once a kind of philosophical exercise was now in deadly earnest: Brown’s raid and certain execution—and the risk of publicly aligning oneself with him—made Thoreau’s night in jail look like child’s play.

On December 2, Brown was hanged in Virginia. The next day, Thoreau himself would become an accomplice to the escape of a desperate Harpers Ferry conspirator, Francis Jackson Merriam, personally taking him out of Concord by wagon to the train in Acton. Thoreau didn’t know Merriam’s identity (he was told only to call him “Lockwood”), but he surely knew what he was doing and the risk he was taking—that this was a wanted man, with a price on his head.

.   .   .

On July 4, 1854, with Walden in final page proofs, Thoreau mounted a platform at Harmony Grove in Framingham—alongside William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, and other prominent abolitionists—and addressed a fiery antislavery rally (literally fiery: Garrison lit copies of the Fugitive Slave Act and US Constitution on fire). His speech, called “Slavery in Massachusetts,” is merciless, indicting the commonwealth for the moral complacency and hypocrisy of its participation in human bondage, sending escaped slaves, free human beings, back into slavery. It was enough to shake even Thoreau’s sense of nature’s harmony:

I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base?…Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk.

And yet, there in the final moments of the speech, he finds some reassurance:

But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived.…What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower! I shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of Northern men. It suggests what kind of laws have prevailed the longest and widest, and still prevail, and that the time may come when man’s deeds will smell as sweet. Such is the odor which the plant emits. If Nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still young and full of vigor, her integrity and genius unimpaired, and that there is virtue even in man, too, who is fitted to perceive and love it. It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the water-lily.

Sorry, but the person who wrote and spoke those words was not “pond scum,” he was not a misanthrope, regardless of what anyone at The New Yorker  magazine may say. Like all of us, he had his flaws—and yes, he could be annoying as hell. But no misanthrope speaks and acts—indeed, risks his own neck—on behalf of his fellow human beings in the way Henry Thoreau did.

“The remembrance of my country spoils my walk.”

You see, I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that the remembrance of his country merely spoiled Thoreau’s walk. I think the remembrance of his country revealed the walk’s true purpose. I believe his solitary and profoundly moral, even spiritual awakening in nature led him back to society and to a radical political engagement on behalf of other people—his neighbors, whether follow citizens of Concord or the fugitives who took refuge in Walden’s woods. Because for Henry Thoreau, to live in harmony with nature is to act in solidarity with our fellow human beings.


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About the author 

Wen Stephenson, an independent journalist and activist, writes for The Nation and is the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice. Follow him on Twitter at @wenstephenson.