How Thoreau Ended Slavery

by Fred Schwarz
The small but significant contribution he made to the Union’s war effort

Henry David Thoreau was the unwitting father of today’s hashtag diplomacy. That’s not all he did, of course; over the decades, his Civil Disobedience has been a major influence on social-movement leaders such as Gandhi and King. But it has also inspired thousands of protesters to symbolically break the law, get symbolically arrested, and maybe, if they’re lucky, spend a few symbolic hours in jail. This is considered a potent weapon against injustice. Similar logic is responsible for today’s profusion of hashtags and Twitter slogans, the underlying belief in both cases being that if you multiply zero by a large enough number, the result will be greater than zero.

Thoreau would not have understood today’s social-media campaigns, of course, because he was not interested in symbolism. The sort of protest he practiced, however unrealistic, at least made sense: If enough people stop paying their taxes, they can actually force change. Margaret Thatcher found that out. When Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson had their famous (and apocryphal) encounter at the Concord jailhouse, the point was not that Thoreau was in jail, but why Thoreau was in jail.

(The whole thing was a mistake, by the way. When someone owes the government money, it’s supposed to seize his property, not arrest him. So if Thoreau’s nonpayment of his taxes had been handled properly, today’s politics of meaningless personal gestures would never have gotten off the ground: You’d see a lot less “civil disobedience” if protesters knew they’d have the IRS on their case instead of the police.)

So Thoreau wasn’t that particular kind of crackpot, but he was a crackpot. My man Kevin D. Williamson recently had a piece in National Review (available here; it will set you back two bits but is well worth the price — that’s 100 words for a penny!) that discussed Thoreau in a way I have to disagree with. Normally when I find myself differing with Kevin, I reread what he wrote and then change my mind. But the passage Kevin quotes with approval is the very same passage that, when I first read it, in college, made me toss my copy of Civil Disobedience across the room in disgust. (I used to throw books quite regularly in those days; it’s a liberating feeling that today’s students, with their Kindles and Nooks, will never know. After all, you have to be really worked up about something to chuck an expensive electronic device across a room, right, Kevin?)

This is the passage:

Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West.

When I read these sentences back in college, I thought: I can’t believe anyone takes this guy seriously. I still can’t. Never mind that no one outside of a few trappers and Natty Bumppo types would have moved to the West if they couldn’t have registered title to their farmland or mining claim; never mind that without courts and lawmen it would have been nonstop gang warfare; never mind that without the Army keeping order, Indians could have descended on the settlements unhindered and chopped everybody up; and never mind that without the government, there would have been no railways and no public works.

Here’s the important part. Thoreau was always going on about slavery — but who did he think had kept slavery out of the Northwest Territory? In this case, the government actually did keep the country (or part of it, anyway) free. Not to mention that when slavery was finally eliminated from the entire nation, it wasn’t because of any spontaneous grassroots movement, but through the actions of a powerful, trained military built up in a hurry from nearly nothing by a large, active government using conscription. And the reason the Union was eventually able to wear down the Confederacy was that it had a thriving, competitive industrial economy, instead of one based on agriculture and captive labor.

Which brings us to the real contribution that Thoreau made to ending slavery. His father, John Thoreau, ran a pencil factory in Concord, and, shortly after graduating from Harvard, Henry joined the company. As Henry Petroski wrote in his magisterial history of the pencil, Thoreau spent about a year working there full-time, during which he developed a way to mix graphite (ground extra fine, in an apparatus he designed for the purpose) with clay for use in pencil leads. His new pencils made a much better line and were less prone to breaking than the old kind, making them the first American pencils that could compete with European ones. Kevin likes to quote Leonard E. Read’s observation that no single individual knows how to make a pencil. That was true in 1958, when Read wrote it, and is even more so today; but Henry David Thoreau knew how to make a pencil.

Thoreau’s restless nature soon impelled him to leave the factory, but he continued to work there sporadically and kept devising improvements. A few years before their purported jailhouse encounter, Thoreau visited Emerson and got his fellow Transcendentalist so excited about the company’s new pencils that Emerson sent some to his cousin, who found them excellent for use in drawing. In the 1850s, when German imports took over the pencil market, the Thoreau firm shifted its focus to selling the finely ground graphite that Henry had developed, which was essential for a new printing process called electrotyping.

In short, Henry David Thoreau (who died of tuberculosis in 1862) was one of the many thousands of Yankee manufacturers, artisans, engineers, and builders who made incremental improvements in every phase of industry, collectively giving the North the wealth and the productive capacity it needed to sustain a large-scale offensive war for four grueling years. And it was by doing his bit in this process, by building a better pencil — not by letting his aunt pay his taxes, and not by publishing his irritable mental gesture of an anti-government tract — that Thoreau made a genuine contribution to ending slavery in the United States.

— Fred Schwarz is a deputy managing editor of National Review.

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