Thoreau Is Often Mistaken for a Pacifist

I’ve added some of Thoreau’s thoughts on John Brown to The Picket Line’s growing collection of Thoreau’s writing on political topics.

Because Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience proved so inspirational to the nonviolent resistance campaigns of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and because much of his writing on the natural world is of a soothing, meditative sort, many people have come to assume that Thoreau himself was a pacifist.

Late last year, I took a look at the Wikipedia page on Thoreau and saw him described in paragraph one as “an American author, development critic, naturalist, transcendentalist, pacifist, tax resister and philosopher…” The “pacifist” tag had been added in and it hadn’t occurred to any of the subsequent editors that it was incorrect.

And if you were to read only Thoreau’s nature writing and Civil Disobedience, you might assume that this pacific writer was pacifist as well. But in his defense of the violent, insurrectionary, terrorist abolitionist John Brown, he explicitly repudiates pacifism:

I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable.

From here he goes on to mock the qualms of superficial pacifists who want to avoid bloodshed in the name of “peace” without recognizing that the peace they are defending is created and sustained by violence. “What is the character of that calm which follows when the law and the slaveholder prevail?”

We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy and handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows! Look at the chaplain of the regiment! We are hoping only to live safely on the outskirts of this provisional army. So we defend ourselves and our hen-roosts, and maintain slavery.

“It was [Brown’s] peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave,” Thoreau wrote. “I agree with him.”

Thoreau doesn’t just make excuses for Brown’s violent rebellion at Harper’s Ferry (and elsewhere, though Thoreau was probably not wholly aware of the extent of Brown’s actions in Kansas) — he doesn’t say this rebellion was “understandable” or “perhaps justified under the circumstances” or any such weasel-words as these.

Instead, he excoriates timid (“sane”) “Republican editors” — such as William Lloyd Garrison of The Liberator — for distancing themselves from Brown, and says that Brown was not only justified, not only right, but that “[n]o man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature… He could not have been tried by a jury of his peers, because his peers did not exist.…”

“I rejoice that I live in this age, that I am his contemporary.”

These men, in teaching us how to die, have at the same time taught us how to live. If this man’s acts and words do not create a revival, it will be the severest possible satire on the acts and words that do. It is the best news that America has ever heard.

Along with “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (from which I pulled the quotes above), I also have included two lesser-known and harder-to-find pieces of Thoreau’s concerning John Brown: Thoreau’s Remarks After the Death of John Brown (a more solemn, memorial reading), and “The Last Days of John Brown” (Thoreau’s post-hanging reflections on the case).