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Extremism in the Defense of Liberty

Henry David Thoreau & John Brown

Gary Grieve-Carson


Pages 321 - 335



Thoreau’s best-known essay, “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), is regularly linked to the nonviolent civil disobedience of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. However, the argument he develops in that essay leads very smoothly into two subsequent arguments that plainly endorse violence: “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854) and “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1859). In “Resistance” Thoreau concedes that following one’s conscience may lead to bloodshed; in “Slavery” he defends Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s attack on the Boston courthouse where a fugitive slave was being held (a U.S. marshal was killed in the attack), and in the “Plea” he endorses Brown’s attack at Harpers Ferry. In this essay I trace Thoreau’s thinking on “resistance to civil government” from the hypothetical bloodshed in the essay of that title to his defense of Higginson in “Slavery” and then to his endorsement of the Calvinist Brown, who believed that bloodshed was the only means of redeeming the nation from the sin of slavery. In defending Brown’s violent extremism, Thoreau creates an intellectual template for the defense of other kinds of vigilante violence, and the wide-ranging and vigorous moral imagination that we find in Thoreau’s earlier work is constricted in the “Plea” to a rigid moral absolutism.

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