Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) is best known for his memoir Walden, a reflection on the joys of living simply, but it could be argued that his essay Civil Disobedience has had a wider influence on society because it changed the way we think of the relationship between government and individual conscience. This essay has provided the intellectual model for many activists and political writers — including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In this short School of Life video, Thoreau’s ideas are explored for a contemporary audience:
In March 1845, the United States acquired a new president – James K. Polk – a forceful, aggressive political outsider intent on strengthening his country and asserting its pre-eminence in front of other world powers, especially Mexico and Great Britain. Within a year of his inauguration, he had declared full-scale war on Mexico because of squabbles over the Texas border, and was soon rattling his saber at Britain over the ownership of Oregon. To complete the picture, Polk was a vigorous defender of slavery, who dismissed the arguments of abolitionists as naive and sentimental…. Though Polk did enjoy popular support, a sizeable minority of the citizenry disliked him intensely, especially a certain citizen by the name of Henry David Thoreau. The author of Walden; or, Life in the Woods believed that true patriots are not those who blindly follow their administration but those who follow their own consciences and in particular, the principles of reason.
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