Wen Stephenson, "Civil Disobedience and Our Radical Moment"

Thoreau Society Civil Disobedience Medal

Essentially Revolutionary
Henry Thoreau's Radical Moment—and Ours

By Wen Stephenson

On a clear and seasonably cold Sunday morning in March, I made my way through the streets of an old neighborhood in Worcester, Massachusetts, and entered a large, converted brick building from some other century. Inside, in a cavernous room with worn floors and south-facing windows lit by the sun, a group of seventy or more young climate activists—mostly college students and recent graduates from the Boston area, along with a few veterans of the Occupy and global justice movements—were gathering for a full day and night of final preparations before carrying out a dramatic, peaceful protest against the Keystone XL pipeline. The company building the pipeline, TransCanada Corporation, has its northeast U.S. office down the road in Westborough, and there, the next morning, twenty-five of these activists—accompanied by more than eighty others, young and old—would be arrested for conscientious, nonviolent civil disobedience.

These people, and those like me who support them, might with some fairness be called "radical"—not just because of their willingness to go to jail to express their principles, but because what they demand lies well outside the limits of mainstream partisan politics and conventional media wisdom. 

How radical are they? They insist that those in power take seriously the international scientific consensus that says global greenhouse emissions must be cut at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and that two-thirds to three-fifths of known fossil-fuel reserves must stay in the ground if today's young people and future generations are to have any reasonable hope of a livable climate. They insist, given this reality, that President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry heed what leading scientists are telling them: that massive, new long-term investments in fossil-fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL (which will only accelerate and prolong the extraction of carbon-heavy crude from the Alberta tar sands, one of the largest carbon pools on the planet) are catastrophic for the countless millions who will suffer the worst effects of global warming, especially the poorest and most vulnerable populations far and near. They insist, at this late hour of the climate crisis, with time running out for meaningful action, that to greenlight the Keystone pipeline or any comparable project is unconscionable.

Those activists in Worcester and Westborough weren't alone. As the battle over the Keystone XL moves toward a climax this summer or fall, when President Obama is expected to make a final decision, it has become the central rallying point for a broad and diverse climate movement at what looks like a pivotal, and "radicalizing," moment. More and more, what Bill McKibben recently dubbed the "Fossil Fuel Resistance" is turning to nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to make its demands seen and heard.Forward on Climate

It's hard to say when the escalation really began. Maybe it was Tim DeChristopher, the young climate-justice activist (and subject of the new film Bidder 70) who creatively derailed a federal auction of oil and gas leases in Utah in 2008 and was sentenced in July 2011 to two years in prison (he was released on April 21). Or perhaps it was the 1,253 Keystone protesters arrested in front of the White House in August 2011, part of the Tar Sands Action campaign spearheaded by 350.org.

The resistance has spread across the country. The fights are intensifying against mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia, coal exports from the West Coast, and shale-gas fracking in the Northeast, with waves of civil-disobedience actions. Most dramatically, along the Keystone's southern leg from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast in Texas (greenlighted by Obama last year during his re-election campaign), members of the Tar Sands Blockade—including climate activists, property owners, indigenous groups, and people from frontline communities—have put their bodies in the way of the pipeline's construction, often at great risk, both physical and legal. In early March, CREDO Action issued a call to activists to resist the pipeline, and more than 59,000 people have now pledged to engage in peaceful civil disobedience if Obama approves it. Even the Sierra Club officially decided in February to participate in peaceful civil disobedience for the first time in its 120-year history. Its executive director, Michael Brune, was among forty-eight protesters arrested at the White House on February 13, three days before some 50,000 people rallied and marched in Washington to oppose Keystone and demand serious action on climate change—the kind of action that science, and conscience, demand. 


When Brune announced the Sierra Club's decision in February—in a short, eloquent piece titled "From Walden to the White House"—he explicitly invoked the legacy of Henry David Thoreau and, of course, Thoreau's most famous essay, "Resistance to Civil Government" (better known by its posthumous title, "Civil Disobedience"). 

MLK arrested, 1963

"For civil disobedience to be justified," Brune wrote, "something must be so wrong that it compels the strongest defensible protest. Such a protest, if rendered thoughtfully and peacefully, is in fact a profound act of patriotism. For Thoreau, the wrongs were slavery and the invasion of Mexico. For Martin Luther King Jr., it was the brutal, institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow South." In the case of the Sierra Club, Brune explained, "it is the possibility that the United States might surrender any hope of stabilizing our planet's climate."

For Brune, as for many other activists, engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience is a kind of sacred American tradition. "We'll be following in the hallowed footsteps of Thoreau," he wrote, "who first articulated the principles of civil disobedience 44 years before John Muir founded the Sierra Club."   

And yet, as the climate movement embraces the legacy of "Civil Disobedience," perhaps it's worth taking a step back and remembering just how radical Henry Thoreau really was—and why. We should remember what it was, exactly, that made him so. Not his night in the Concord jail—that was the easy part—but something else: a readiness to speak the truth, forcefully and without compromise, no matter how fanciful or extreme it may have sounded to jaded ears or what risks it might have entailed. What's more, if we're going to invoke Thoreau, we should remember that he was less an environmentalist (a term that would have made no sense to him) than a radical abolitionist—and that the logic of "Civil Disobedience" led directly, a decade later, to "A Plea for Captain John Brown." 

If that thought doesn't make you pause, it should. We might want to ask ourselves if we're really ready to walk in Thoreau's footsteps, and what it might mean, at this radical moment, if we did.


Despite its global reputation for greatness, I have to admit I've never much liked "Civil Disobedience," the essay Thoreau began drafting in his cabin at Walden Pond in the fall of 1846. The tone is a little too arch, his performance somewhat preening. "I was not born to be forced," he writes. "I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest." Regardless of such posturing (or is it because of it?), you can't help feeling that there's not a whole lot at stake for him personally—that he was, in a way, slumming it there in jail for a night—so that it takes on the air of a privileged intellectual exercise, a kind of abstract thought experiment to be conducted, after a good dinner, in Mr. Emerson's parlor.

Still, for all the mannered poses, there's a reason the essay has lasted, that its influence extends across continents and centuries. So it's worth reminding ourselves what Thoreau is really saying in "Civil Disobedience." Set aside for a moment his theory of legitimate government, of justice and law, of politics on a higher plane. At the root of it, Thoreau is wrestling with the same essential question that drove him to Walden Pond: quite simply, how to live authentically, as a human being, in relationship both to nature and to other human beings—because the two, humanity and nature, human and wild, can't be separated. "I wish to speak a word for Nature," he famously begins the great essay "Walking," before adding the kicker: "to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature." And so in "Civil Disobedience," as in "Walking" and Walden, he's asking what makes an authentic man (unfortunately it is always a "man")—what makes an authentic human being.

The answer, for Thoreau, is conscience—and the readiness to live, to speak and to act, according to it. From a relatively minor incident, now wrapped in legend, in the last week of July 1846—when he was stopped on his way from the pond into town to get a shoe repaired and was asked to pay his poll tax, which he refused to do, though it meant jail—Thoreau gets down to first principles. The country was engulfed in controversy over the Mexican War, a flagrant act of aggression to expand slave territory to the west, and there was even secession talk in the North. But why, Thoreau wants to know, should he wait for a vote in the State House? "Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?" 

No union with slavery, 1861When pressed to decide how he will act toward "this American government," Thoreau finds that he can no longer bring himself to be associated with it. "I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also." Or to put it another way, "when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves," and one's own country has unjustly invaded another, "I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize." Yes, rebel and revolutionize. 

The moral equation, Thoreau is saying, isn't terribly complicated. There are, of course, expedient reasons to recognize the authority of a government, as he admits. But he insists that we recognize those situations "in which a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may." He goes on, in the very next lines, to offer a stark analogy: "If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself.... This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people."

From this straight-up, no-nonsense formulation, Thoreau lays down a marker, a point from which he'll navigate.

Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine. 

This is strong stuff—and prophetic, in more ways than one. What we have here is a kind of working definition of Thoreau's radicalism: call it the willingness to front the "essential facts" (as he put it in Walden), and then to act as both facts and conscience require. Doing so, he assures us, "is essentially revolutionary"—the only real way to change the world. 


Thoreau delivered the lecture that became "Civil Disobedience" in 1848, but he didn't publish the essay until the next year, when it was denounced as "crazy" and "radically against our government," practically French in its revolutionary zeal. It had been two years since he left his cabin by the pond, and he was about to take the draft of Walden (still five years from publication) out of the drawer. His life settled into a routine of long walks, writing (including his increasingly ambitious Journal), working as a surveyor, and occasional lecturing. But in the 1850s, events in Concord and beyond would provide ample opportunity for "action from principle."

Thoreau's image as a kind of misanthropic recluse, an apolitical hermit, has always been a caricature; what we know about his active involvement in the Underground Railroad, and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, puts the lie to it. Whether or not, as alluded in Walden, he literally sheltered a runaway slave in his cabin at the pond, which seems unlikely based on the evidence, we know that he helped multiple fugitives on their way to Canada, guarding over them in his family's house (the Thoreaus were committed abolitionists, especially his mother and sisters), even escorting them onto the trains, not without personal risk.

In the spring of 1851, as Northern outrage over the expanded Fugitive Slave Act reached a boil, we find Thoreau absorbed in the uproar over Thomas Simms, an escaped slave who was seized in Boston and sent back to the South. Three years later, in May 1854, another fugitive, Anthony Burns, was captured in Boston. This time the radical abolitionist Vigilance Committees—organized by the likes of Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson together with African-American ministers and other members of the city’s black community—made a dramatic attempt to free Burns from the couthouse by force. Only with the intervention of state and federal troops on the streets of Boston was Burns sent back into slavery in early June.

Outrage over the Burns case would drive Thoreau, weeks later, to take an unprecedented step into activism—and to make his most radical public statements yet. On July 4, Thoreau mounted a platform at  Harmony Grove Burns Trialin Framingham—alongside William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, and other prominent abolitionists—to address a boisterous antislavery rally. The speech, known as "Slavery in Massachusetts," is merciless in its contempt for the Commonwealth, not only for the state's complicity but its active participation in human bondage. 

Near the end of the speech, Thoreau reveals how far the episode has pushed him, shaking him out of any serene or complacent solitude. "If we would save our lives"—save our souls, perhaps—"we must fight for them," he writes, and then continues:  

I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base?... Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her. 

He's talking about insurrection (at the same rally, Garrison burned the Constitution), but in the very next lines, as though desperate to restore his faith in nature, he grasps at the image of a water lily he had come across a few days before. "What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower!... If Nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still young and full of vigor, her integrity and genius unimpaired, and that there is virtue even in man, too, who is fitted to perceive and love it." 

Yet whatever comfort he draws from the flower is anything but private or serene. "It reminds me," he says, "that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the water-lily." The plight of Anthony Burns has reminded Henry Thoreau of his own uncompromising principle: To live in harmony with nature is to act in solidarity with his fellow human beings—cost what it may. 

There in Framingham, Thoreau sounds like a man ready to lay everything on the line. Five years later, in the fall of 1859, his principle would be put to the test.


John BrownHenry Thoreau met John Brown in March 1857, when the hero of "Free Kansas," already famous, or infamous, for his bloody exploits—today we would call them war crimes—came through Concord on a speaking and fundraising tour of the Northeast. The young radical abolitionist Franklin Sanborn (later one of the "Secret Six" who backed Brown's plan to attack Harper's Ferry) brought Brown to lunch at the Thoreau home on Main Street, where Emerson joined them in the afternoon. Thoreau and Emerson spent hours talking with Brown, getting to know him, sizing him up—and were greatly impressed. Brown spoke at Concord Town Hall that night, and the Emersons hosted a reception. Brown would come through Concord again two years later, in May of 1859, on a similar visit, just six months before his fateful incursion into Virginia.

But not all in Concord were so taken with Brown, far from it, and when the news arrived on October 19, 1859, of Brown's deadly raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, reactions were sharply divided. The whole country was in an uproar. Even Brown's erstwhile supporters quickly distanced themselves. Most of his co-conspirators—many with close ties to Concord—went into hiding, several fleeing to Canada. The atmosphere was tense, even dangerous for those voicing solidarity with Brown. 

Into this picture steps 42-year-old Henry Thoreau, now a leading (if somewhat withdrawn) intellectual. Incensed by the timid and hypocritical reactions of his neighbors, and of the press, Thoreau let it be known that he would speak in support of Brown at Concord's First Church on October 30. Denied permission by Concord's selectmen to ring the town bell, Thoreau rang it himself. The address he gave, woven together from his journal entries of the preceding weeks, was "A Plea for Captain John Brown." 

That fall of 1859 was Thoreau's most radical moment. He was the first in Concord, and among the first and most prominent in the country, to come to Brown's defense, and within days he would repeat the speech to large audiences in Boston—where he stood in at the last moment for Frederick Douglass, who had been chased into Canada by federal marshals despite having played no part in the Harper’s Ferry raid—and in Worcester.  

The speech itself is stunning. What Thoreau was saying in his "Plea" for Brown was the same thing he'd said a decade earlier in "Civil Disobedience"—"action from principle ... is essentially revolutionary"—only in far stronger terms, and with real skin in the game. What was once a kind of philosophical exercise was now in deadly earnest: Brown's raid and certain execution—not to mention the risk of publicly aligning oneself with him—made Thoreau's night in jail look like child's play.

But what I find most striking about Thoreau's "Plea" isn't the fact that he championed the violent and fanatical Brown—it's the rhetorical strategy he chose. Thoreau explicitly sets out to defend Brown not in the court of conventional opinion, or of any state or Constitution, but in the court of a "higher law," of "action from principle, the perception and the performance of right"—the court of conscience. "I plead not for his life," Thoreau tells his audience, "but for his character—his immortal life." Most of all, and most profoundly, as it becomes clear, this means pleading for Brown's sanity.

Nothing offends Thoreau more than the kneejerk reaction among his neighbors, and even many abolitionists, to write Brown off as a madman. "He is undoubtedly insane," Thoreau quotes his neighbors saying. He has no patience for them: "they pronounce this man insane, for they know that they could never act as he does, as long as they are themselves." But he saves his fiercest ridicule for fellow abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator, and for the Republican newspaper editors, who shrank from Brown's defense and joined those impugning his sanity. "Even the Liberator called it 'a misguided, wild, and apparently insane...effort,'" he writes. "Republican editors ... express no admiration, nor true sorrow even, but call these men 'deluded fanatics'—'mistaken men'—'insane,' or 'crazed.'" This pushes Thoreau over the edge: 

Insane! A father and six sons, and one son-in-law, and several more men besides,—as many at least as twelve disciples,—all struck with insanity at once; while the sane tyrant holds with a firmer gripe than ever his four millions of slaves, and a thousand sane editors, his abettors, are saving their country and their bacon!... Ask the tyrant who is his most dangerous foe, the sane man or the insane.

Far from insane, Thoreau argues, Brown is the "superior man," even Christ-like (an explicit, if rather strained, comparison throughout the speech), embodying the radical principle on which Thoreau based his own resistance to civil government. "He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid," Thoreau admonishes his audience. "For once we are lifted out of the trivialness and dust of politics"—mere partisanship—"into the region of truth and manhood."

In defending not only Brown's actions but his sanity against the moderate opinion of what we might call the "center" and "center-left," Thoreau was pushing hard on the boundaries of acceptable discourse. He was, as the saying goes, moving the center. He forced his listeners to consider what was truly "sane" and "insane" in the face of slavery. For Thoreau, Brown's was a "saner sanity," recognizing the fact that slavery, intolerable on every level, would never be abolished in the United States without bloodshed. This is what it meant, Thoreau was saying, to be sane in America in 1859—cost what it may.

"This event advertises me that there is such a fact as death—the possibility of a man's dying," Thoreau says near the end of his plea for Brown. "It seems as if no man had ever died in America before, for in order to die you must first have lived.... These men, in teaching us how to die, have at the same time taught us how to live."

On December 2, Brown was hanged in Virginia. The next day, Thoreau himself would become an accomplice to the escape of a desperate Harper's Ferry conspirator, Francis Jackson Merriam, personally taking him out of Concord by wagon to the train in Acton. Thoreau didn't know Merriam's identity (he was told by Sanborn only to call him "Lockwood"), but he surely knew what he was doing and the risk he was taking—that this was a wanted man, with a price on his head.

"In my walks, I would fain return to my senses," Thoreau wrote (with characteristic word play) in the essay "Walking"—first delivered as a lecture in April 1851, in the midst of the uproar over escaped slave Thomas Simms (a manuscript shows Thoreau referring to the Simms case and the Fugitive Slave Act at the outset of the talk). It's the same essay in which Thoreau wrote the line most quoted by conservationists: "in Wildness is the preservation of the world." In John Brown, Thoreau would encounter a human force of nature, a kind of wildness, that he hoped would bring the country to its senses, its sanity, on the question of slavery—the kind of sanity Thoreau had expressed in "Civil Disobedience": "This people must cease to hold slaves ... though it cost them their existence as a people."


Fortunately, Thoreau—with his explicit endorsement of violence—didn’t get the last word on civil disobedience. Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others (including some environmentalists) transformed resistance to intolerable injustice in ways Thoreau never imagined—demonstrating the power of a steadfast, principled, radical nonviolence. "Radical" is not synonymous with "violent" (nor with "terrorist," I would add). Gandhi and King were the best kind of radicals. So was Jesus (whose nonviolence Thoreau conveniently omits from his "Plea"). 

Runaway Slave, 1855, Climate Refugee, 2019And yet today we face a human crisis as extreme in its way as the one faced by Thoreau. Not the enslavement, systematic torture, and murder of millions on the basis of race—nothing compares with that—but the wanton destruction, if we stay on anything like our present course, of a livable future for countless millions of innocent human beings, beginning with young people who are alive today. 

As we face these essential facts, what is the "sane"—and appropriately radical—response to the urgent human crisis of global warming? Is anyone willing to say, “This people must cease to extract fossil fuels, and to unjustly rob today’s children and future generations of a livable planet, whatever the cost”?

It sounds crazy. But just as Thoreau and other radical abolitionists were willing to push the boundaries, so climate activists must be willing to say and do “crazy” and “radical” things—like put their bodies in the way of coal shipments, or demand that universities divest from fossil-fuel companies—not because it’s politically expedient but because it’s morally imperative. When the truly sane courses of action—putting a heavy price on carbon, leaving fossil fuels in the ground, massively scaling up clean energy, urgently seeking the necessary global commitments—lie outside the limits of political “realism” and “reasonable” debate, it’s time to ask who has the firmer grip on reality and reason. 

And it’s time to take the strongest nonviolent action. As climate radicals, we need to be true to our understanding of the facts, and to our principles, our perception of right, even as conscience compels us to act—to be, crazy as it may sound, revolutionaries.  



Wen Stephenson, an independent journalist and climate activist, is a contributing writer for The Nation. He has written about climate, culture, and politics for The Boston PhoenixGristSlateThe New York Times, and The Boston Globe. His essay "The New Abolitionists" was a Phoenix cover story in February 2013 and his Slate essay "Walking Home From Walden" was featured at the Thoreau Society's Annual Gathering in July 2012. As a volunteer activist, he helped launch the grassroots network 350 Massachusetts and serves on the board of Better Future Project, a Cambridge-based non-profit dedicated to building the climate movement in New England and beyond. Follow him on Twitter:@wenstephenson