Henry David Thoreau: From School Teacher to Tax Dissenter

Henry David Thoreau: From School Teacher to Tax Dissenter
Libertarians have a wealth of famous advocates to look up to. No matter what side of the fence you’re on there have been plenty of people from the past who have written great works and committed influential acts that still fuel the fire of libertarianism to this day. Libertarianism has a long and rich history which, under its wide umbrella, brings together anarchists, abolitionists, free market capitalists and everyone else in-between. There is, and probably always will be, much friction between these different factions, but there are some historical figures who are hero to nearly all. One such man, an intelligent yet humble one, was Henry David Thoreau. A perfect example of a person who searched for self-governance, while at the same time resisted imposed governance from an outside body. So where did he start and how did he go on to become one of the most influential libertarian writers of all time?

Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12th, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts. It was a fairly ordinary household with Henry’s father, John Thoreau, working as a pencil maker to support the family. Although from the outside this seemed like your average New England family of the time, Henry already had some revolutionary blood in him. His mother, Cynthia Dunbar, was the daughter of Asa Dunbar who personally led the “Butter Rebellion”. This took place in 1766 at Harvard and was the first ever student protest to take place in the United States of America. The house he grew up in still stands testament to his lasting influence and this is backed up by it currently being the focus of preservation efforts.

Thoreau eventually found himself at Harvard University where he studied during the years 1833 – 1837. He took courses in rhetoric, classics, philosophy, mathematics and science. All of them subjects that gave him a great grounding for his future work. It seems his dissenting streak made an appearance three years after graduating. Harvard College offered a master’s degree to all graduates “who proved their physical worth by being alive three years after graduating, and their saving, earning, or inheriting quality or condition by having Five Dollars to give the college.” Thoreau flatly refused and chimed back with “Let every sheep keep its own skin”, that being a nod to the tradition of diplomas being written on sheepskin.

Thoreau shunned the usual expected choices for a post-graduate career and instead became a teacher. While at his first position he took a stand against corporal punishment and eventually resigned over the issue as he refused to administer it. Instead, he and his brother John opened their own school with many progressive ideas. Unfortunately, this plan that could have yielded great results did not end well. Thoreau closed the school when his brother became fatally ill from tetanus in 1842.

Once Thoreau graduated and permanently moved back to Concord, he came into contact with a man that would heavily shape his life. This man was Ralph Waldo Emerson and he took great interest in Thoreau. It was him who encouraged Henry to submit a piece of work to The Dial of which he did. Thoreau submitted Aulus Persius Flaccus (an essay on the playwright of the same name) which was published in 1840. Henry had taken his first step into the literary world. On April 18, 1841, Thoreau actually moved into the Emerson household and became a tutor to the children there. He also worked as a repair man and editorial assistant.

Eventually Thoreau felt he needed a way to concentrate fully on his writing. In 1845 he went into the forest around Walden Pond and built himself a house. He spent two years here, but even in the depths of the forest where he would have had trouble receiving a visitor let alone walking to the post office and sending mail, he still had a run-in with a tax collector. Upon refusing to pay six years of back dated tax on the grounds of his opposition to the Mexican-American War and slavery, he was put in jail. He was only released when his aunt paid off his taxes for him (without his consent).

That event finally created the Thoreau that gave us the incredible book, Resistance to Civil Government, which has gone on to influence many people. Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Leo Tolstoy all owe a debt of gratitude to Thoreau. Even the abolitionist John Brown would not be the well-known name he is now if it wasn’t for Henry’s speech entitled A Plea For Captain John Brown. Henry David Thoreau was a great example of how humble beginnings can go on to have great consequences. Libertarianism would not be the same without him.

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