Henry David Thoreau returned to Concord from his July climb and overnight on Mount Greylock, with a side trip to the Catskills, by Aug. 1, 1844, in time to ring the courthouse bell to summon people to Ralph Waldo Emerson's address to anti-slavery women.
The sexton of First Parish Church and the Concord selectmen had refused to ring the church bell.
Like many families in Massachusetts, Thoreau's parents and sister were abolitionists; the Thoreau home, where he lived, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. With gangs of men, including thugs looking for bounties, and some government officers, searching the north for runaway slaves, the Thoreaus were putting themselves at risk. The action was nearby.
In April of 1851 Thomas Sims, a fugitive slave, was arrested in Boston. Abolitionists tried to free him but were met by troops. Sims was put on a ship and returned to slavery in Georgia. In lecturing on "The Wild," later that month Thoreau apologized for not speaking on Sims. He did speak about him in subsequent lectures. That September the Thoreaus sheltered Henry Williams. Thoreau purchased a railroad ticket to help him on his way to Canada. Henry was an Underground Railroad conductor, again courting jail himself.
Two years later the family sheltered a free Black woman who was trying to raise the money to purchase her husband's freedom. As evidenced in Thoreau's Journal, he became increasingly incited. In May of 1854, when Anthony Burris, a fugitive slave, was arrested in Boston, Thoreau reacted: "Rather than ... be a party to this establishment, I would touch a match to blow up earth and hell together." On July 4 he gave the talk, later titled "Slavery in Massachusetts," at the Anti-Slavery Convention in Framingham. "Again it happens that the Boston Court-House is full of armed men, holding prisoner and trying a MAN, to find out if he is not really a SLAVE."
Thoreau had famously refused to pay his taxes, as they supported slavery and an unjust war with Mexico — the aim of which was really to annex Mexican land. Thoreau's lecture, "Civil Disobedience," was first printed in 1849. Although his model of nonviolent resistance inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision in March of 1857 moved him toward more violent behavior. The court ruled that slaves were not citizens and that therefore they had no standing in court. They remained slaves even when they were taken to free states.
Thoreau met John Brown first in 1857 and again in May of 1859, when Brown was visiting Thoreau's friend Franklin Sanborn. The fiery Brown was deeply concerned about whether Kansas would be a slave or free state. In October, Brown led a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Va., with a goal of obtaining guns to arm slaves for insurrection. Thoreau gave a talk, "A Plea for Captain John Brown," on Oct. 30. "I plead not for his life, but for his character — his immortal life ..."
When Brown was hanged that December, Concord selectmen forbade Thoreau ringing the courthouse bell in his honor. Thoreau later accompanied an apparently deranged man to the railroad station on his way to Canada. The man turned out to be one of Brown's accomplices who had escaped arrest, putting Thoreau in a more serious legal situation.
In fact, in April 1860 authorities arrested Sanborn for having aided Brown but neighbors, possibly including Thoreau, prevented them taking him away until the neighbors found a judge who freed him. William Lloyd Garrison's "The Liberator" published Thoreau's "The Last days of John Brown" in July. Lincoln was elected that November. Confederates fired on Fort Sumpter in April of 1861. Thoreau, ill with tuberculosis, did not live to see the freeing of the slaves or the outcome of the Civil War, dying in May of 1862.
We think of him as a naturalist, an environmentalist, an advocate of nonviolent resistance, but the plight of slaves, the notion that they were legally chattel, engaged him in a more visceral way. The injustice to his fellow human beings required direct action.
At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.
Lauren R. Stevens is a writer and an environmentalist.