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United States


Thursdays With Thoreau

alec vanderboom

"One afternoon, near the end  of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler's, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to or recognize the authority of the state which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate house." --Henry David Thoreau

I'm a historian who lives in the South. I have ruined many a fine summer day at gorgeous Colonial historical sites by arguing about slavery with hysterical relativists. I will never forget the scrunched up, furious face, of an otherwise sedate Catholic mom, as she screamed at me during a field trip "You can not say negative things about Thomas Jefferson's position on slavery. You have to judge such a great man within the context of his times!"

I remember looking at her and saying calmly "Yes, I can. I'm a Catholic." There is truth. Truth is not something that is culturally specific. Slavery was wrong in Roman Times. Slavery was wrong during Colonial Times. Slavery is wrong now. The human trafficking situation within modern day America is a horrible sin.

It's so refreshing to me to read Thoreau's words from 1845. Some men "got it." Slavery was wrong. The most amazing thing is that Thoreau doesn't say "Negro Slavery" is wrong, using the contemporary language of the times. He says selling "men, women and children" is wrong. He gives Black Americans their full measure of human dignity. Selling men is wrong. Selling women is wrong. Selling children is wrong.

Thoreau's actions of resisting paying the poll tax out of his moral objections to slavery and paying the consequences by spending a night in jail--- that act was seemingly small and insignificant. He didn't leave the woods of Walden Pond and start conducting slaves out of the South aka Harriet Tubman. This was a protest that came out of his normal, daily life. The man got harassed on his way to the cobbler's shop to fix a hole in his shoe. Yet God uses small actions which are aligned with his will. The description of "Thoreau's Night in Jail" is what inspired both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I read Thoreau's matter of fact description of why slavery is wrong and I'm so inspired. I'm a woman with strong moral beliefs. I believe abortion is wrong. I believe capital punishment is wrong. I believe domestic violence is wrong. I believe that the physical and emotional abuse of children is wrong. I don't have to feel this compulsion to go join a bunch of committees just to prove my moral beliefs. Thoreau reminds me to stay little. It's enough to go through my ordinary daily life with my deepest held beliefs in tact and to cheerfully pay the penalties for swimming against the tide of popular opinion.