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The Unexpected Conservative: Henry David Thoreau

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Is there an important conservative thinker who isn’t well known? One would guess that by now anyone that has had any impact at all is not unknown to us.

But then I thought of Henry David Thoreau, writing in solitude in a little cabin that he himself made, situated along the tree-lined shores of Walden Pond. He took up residence there on July 4, 1845. This choice of date was not accidental.

Now hold on a minute! (I can hear you from here.) Are you claiming Thoreau, that tree-hugging hippie, for conservatism?! Indeed I am. Come with me on a little intellectual journey through the mid-nineteenth century and let’s look at conservatism in Thoreau’s works.

We begin, as Thoreau did, as classical conservative philosophy does, with the individual. Thoreau believed in the primacy of the individual and was concerned with society’s and government’s efforts to subjugate him. We’re all familiar, of course, with his “different drummer” quote, but consider this, from Civil Disobedience:

[Government] . . . has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will. . . . Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.

Seriously, doesn’t that remind you of Ronald Reagan?

The fundamental question to be asked by any society is, Is government necessary? The answer that Thoreau would give is, Yes of course it is, but carefully limited. The corollary question is, Can government get to where it controls all aspects of the lives of its citizens? Yes it can, and, what is more, according to Thoreau, that is the essential nature of government if not checked by higher law. Recall that Lord Acton wrote, “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Thoreau would absolutely agree.

The mid-nineteenth century was a time of great changes in America. Technology in the forms of the telegraph, the printing press, the railroad, and myriad farming equipment was transforming not just the way Americans did business but how they lived their lives. (Sound familiar?) Much of what he wrote is informed by his concerns about the effects of all these innovations.

Thoreau believed strongly in a sense of place. His relationship with nature was expressive of that. Thoreau’s Journal comprised some fourteen volumes, and the vast majority of it was devoted to his observations of different species of plants, trees, and animals. And yet most of these observations took place within just a few miles of his home in Concord. As he wrote in his Journal of August 6, 1851: “A man must generally get away some hundreds of thousands of miles from home before he can be said to begin his travels . . . Why not begin his travels at home?”

And his time at Walden Pond, so often misunderstood, took place less than a mile from his home in Concord. During the time he spent living and writing at Walden, he would walk back home and into town almost every day. Think of Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray. The poem is a meditation not just on death but also on that same eternal sense of place,

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Thoreau was not a Luddite; he read many newspapers and often traveled on the railroad. But he raised serious questions about just how much of a boon technology would prove to be. In the first chapter of Walden, he writes of the telegraph that recently was built across vast areas of America.

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . . As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly.

Those of us who daily contend with a great e-mail tsunami can appreciate his point of view, that technology is only a means to an end, not the object of our existence. My favorite quote on this subject also comes from Walden: “Men have become the tools of their tools.”

Of course, we aren’t like that . . . as we stare at our smartphones or computers anxiously awaiting the next ping announcing e-mail or text.

A bedrock principle of conservative philosophy is that the accumulation of money is not the purpose of our existence. We are called to higher goals. He muses in the Journal of 1857: “It is foolish for a man to accumulate material wealth chiefly, houses and land. Our stock in life, our real estate, is that amount of thought which we have had, which we have thought out” (emphasis added).

Because, after all, how does one define true wealth? “[A] man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Understand, Thoreau lived comfortably. His family owned a pencil-making factory, and for years he ran it, even developing a new way of inserting lead that was a breakthrough in pencil-making technology. But the difference is he owned his possessions. They did not own him. The spiritual always took priority over the material.

Nature was at the core of his being and his thought. Thoreau viewed the natural world with love, respect, and awe. He lived his life in the belief, as he wrote in the essay Walking, that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”

In many ways, he was the first environmentalist. Classical conservatism carries the same reverence for our earth. Conservation and conservatism have the same etymological root, that of preservation. It is never a tenet of classical conservatism that our world exists for utilitarian purposes only. There may be different schools of thought today as to how the environment can be best protected and used, but that it must be protected, we should all agree.

This brings us to consider the fundamental part of Thoreau’s moral philosophy, the transcendence of natural law, what Thoreau termed “higher laws,” over temporal laws. Thoreau fought long and hard against slavery. He believed that the institution of slavery violated the very tenets of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with which we were all endowed by our Creator.

In the mid-1800s in America, slavery was more polarizing a subject than abortion is today. Thoreau came down firmly on the side that believed in the “right to life,” as it were, on behalf of slaves. He viewed slaves as individual human beings (even though at that time even the Constitution didn’t), fully invested with an eternal soul, and, as such, not the property of their owners.

In his great essay of political philosophy, On Civil Disobedience, he expresses his position of resistance to man-made laws that conflict with natural law. Thoreau was no anarchist; he accepted government and the consequences of his actions. He spent a famous night in jail because he refused to pay a small poll tax: in his view that money would go to fund the war against Mexico. He opposed it as an illegal overreach in pursuit of territory. Not a pacifist, his resistance arose because he could not discern a determining moral principle that made the Mexican War necessary or just.

And so he stood in opposition, writing and speaking out against it. In our time, we have seen the consequences of wars that were taken on without necessity or justice. If Thoreau was here today, we would hear him speak out that, just as the war against Mexico did not meet the standards of justice or necessity, neither did these.

Henry Thoreau’s impact on our country today is more than just the essays, the Journal, and the great literary achievement that is Walden. In his writings on slavery and the war, Thoreau is a conservative, a powerful moral philosopher. He offers us wisdom that goes beyond the intellectual fashions of the day. Wisdom, indeed, that brings us beyond time, to eternity. For as he wrote in “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” in Walden: “Time is but the stream that I go a–fishing in.”


John R. Inzero is Adjunct Professor of Business at Strayer University and Mercer County Community College. Prior to his academic career, John was in the design, marketing, and international sourcing of medical products and consumer goods. John holds an MBA in Marketing & Management, and a Bachelor of Science in Economics, both from Fordham University. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, extreme gardening, crossword puzzles, and the New York Yankees.

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