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Henry David Thoreau

The philosopher Henry David Thoreau is best known for his nature writing and his support of small government. He was a well-known advocate of transcendentalism, or the belief in the inherent goodness of people and nature, making a virtue of self-reliance. In his essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, Thoreau once wrote “That government is best which governs not at all”.

Thoreau once spent a night in jail after refusing to pay six years of back-dated poll taxes because of his opposition to slavery. He was freed the next day when his aunt paid the taxes against his wishes.

Thoreau studied at Harvard College from 1833 and part of the legend that surrounds him has it that he refused to pay the $5 fee for his final diploma. In truth, he turned down only an honorific masters degree that Harvard would sell to all alumni at the time if they survived for three years after graduation and therefore proved their “physical worth”.

After graduation he became a teacher, but almost immediately quit when asked to mete out corporal punishment. Later he met author Ralph Waldo Emerson through a mutual friend and was encouraged to try his hand at writing. He spent years working as a tutor, writing and seeking publishers for his work, but also spent time working at his family’s pencil factory.

Conservation is important to transcendentalists as they have strong bonds to nature and the movement was at odds with capitalism and industrialisation. Thoreau became interested in botany and ecology, and his journal often recorded bird migration, water levels in nearby ponds or the changing of flora through the year. He showed an interest in the way that forests evolve and regenerate – something which may have been sparked by his accidental burning of 300 acres of forest in April 1844. He read science books often and wrote of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in his journal.

He was an advocate for hiking and canoeing for pleasure, which was not as popular at the time as it is now, and preferred a vegetarian diet. He was also an abolitionist and took part in the Underground Railroad to help escaped slaves make their way to safe countries such as Mexico and Canada, and those states that had already abolished slavery.

In 1854 his most famous book, Walden, was published. This was an account of two years, two months and two days he spent living in a cabin that he had built himself near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He compressed all of that experience into one year for the book and used the four seasons of that year as a metaphor for human life.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” he wrote.

Thoreau had suffered from tuberculosis for much of his life but after being caught in a rainstorm examining the rings in a tree stump this turned to bronchitis and his health deteriorated. He spent his remaining time editing his works, seeking new publishers and keeping his journal. Legend has it that he was asked in his final days if he had made his peace with God and responded “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” He died in 1862 at the age of just 44.

Key facts

Full name: Henry David Thoreau

Born: 12 July 1817, Concord, Massachusetts

Died: 6 May 1862, Concord, Massachusetts

Henry David Thoreau was an American author and philosopher famous for his observations of the natural world and his transcendentalist beliefs.

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