Thoreau: Justice by Any Means


In 1854, Stephen Douglas introduced the concept of popular sovereignty with the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  This law, although extremely unpopular in the North, was passed, effectively undercutting the Missouri Compromise.21  Northerners vented their frustration by resisting the Fugitive Slave Law, an unpopular part of the Compromise of 1850. Although Thoreau despised the Fugitive Slave Law, he knew it was only a symptom of a greater malady.  He noted that for one to disobey the Fugitive Slave Law because the South broke the Missouri Compromise is to realize that “there is less honor among thieves than was supposed, and not that they are thieves.”22

Thoreau was determined not to do business with thieves.  Thoreau defied the Fugitive Slave Law, slavery, and the South by helping an escaped slave flee to Canada.23  In helping his fellow human being escape, Thoreau took the step from passive resistance to active resistance.  The active resistance practiced by Thoreau was nonviolent, but it was still an important step.  This was not refusing to pay a tax or refusing to acknowledge the primacy of government in his life: this was hiding an escaped slave in his home and helping him escape United States jurisdiction, all in direct violation of the very law which was tenuously holding the Union together.  Although it seems like a trivial difference, the fact that Thoreau was active is important.  Thoreau was now advocating that people do something to combat injustice rather than refusing to do things.  Justice was now proactive.

As part of this new active approach, Thoreau set out to rally public opinion to the side of virtue and righteousness.  Increasingly, Thoreau used seething attacks and violent imagery in his efforts to promote justice.  Slavery was the issue guaranteed to illicit Thoreau’s angriest and most vengeful prose.24  When Anthony Burns was sent back in chains to the South after escaping bondage, Thoreau assailed the decision:

The judges and lawyers, and all men of expediency consider not whether the Fugitive Slave Law is right, but whether it is what they call constitutional.  They try the merits of the case by a very low and incompetent standard.  Pray, is virtue constitutional, or vice? …While they are hurrying Christ off to the cross, the ruler decides that he cannot constitutionally interfere to save him.25

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