Thoreau: Justice by Any Means

Slavery in Massachusetts

“Slavery in Massachusetts” is a masterpiece of visceral anger directed against the institution of slavery and those who supported it.  He condemned the Governor of Massachusetts, saying “I had thought that…it was his business, as a Governor, to see that the laws of the state were executed; while, as a man, he took care that he did not, by so doing, break the laws of humanity.”26  He again castigated his fellow countrymen for following an unjust law, quipping “If the majority vote the Devil to be God, the minority will live and behave accordingly, and obey the successful candidate, trusting that…by some Speaker’s casting-vote…they may reinstate God.”  Again, Thoreau was suggesting that inexpedient action is better than expedient injustice.

In extremely violent imagery, Thoreau eloquently compared death and slavery, saying

If I were seriously to propose to Congress to make mankind into sausages, I have no doubt that most of the members would smile at my proposition, and if any believed me to be in earnest, they would think that I proposed something much worse than Congress had ever done.  But if any of them will tell me that to make a man into a sausage would be much worse, would be any worse, than to make him into a slave…I will accuse him of foolishness, of intellectual incapacity…The one is just as sensible a proposition as the other.27

An earlier statement exceeded even this in its violence and clarity.  In his journal, Thoreau wrote, “Rather than consent to establish hell on earth, to be party to this establishment (slavery), I would touch a match to blow up earth and hell together.”28  Thoreau was obviously exaggerating, but the fact that he went so far with his rhetoric demonstrates how much he loathed slavery.

Furthermore, Thoreau did not distinguish between physical and intellectual slavery.  In “Slavery in Massachusetts,” he claimed that there were “perhaps a million slaves in Massachusetts.”29  Referring to a Free State, Thoreau could only be talking about intellectual slavery.  Thoreau no doubt realized, as later did Martin Luther King Jr., that it was the moderates who called for a slower implementation of justice, who were, in actuality, evil’s strongest supporters.  While others attacked chattel slavery, Thoreau forged ahead, attacking the mental slavery of the Whites.  He believed that emancipating Whites from the perverse justifications of institutional slavery was the surest way to promote the physical emancipation of the chattel slaves.30  Thoreau did not know it at the time, but he would soon be “emancipated” from the nonviolence he had advocated for so long.

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