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by William H. Benson

July 4, 2002

     On July 4, 1845 Henry David Thoreau declared his independence and moved into a cabin beside Walden Pond.  Almost 28 years old, for the next two years and two months he lived at Walden Pond to experience his own vision for a better life.

     “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I had not lived.”

     Others in Concord, Massachusetts considered Thoreau an oddball, an eccentric, lazy, without a sense of responsibility, or any ambition.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, who owned the cabin and the land around Walden Pond, thought Thoreau was wasting his talents.  He could not understand why Henry chose to spend so much time outside.  Emerson wrote of Thoreau, “Instead of being the head of American engineers, he is captain of a huckleberry party.” 

     Thoreau refused to marry.  One girl, Sophie Ford, who worked in Emerson’s home, asked Thoreau to marry her, but fearful of any infringement upon his own freedom, he politely said no.

     Thoreau owned nothing and further did not want to own anything.  He borrowed the ax that he took with him to Walden Pond.  Educated at Harvard, he simply never applied his talents by pursing a job, other than as a handyman and gardener for Emerson.

     Living at Walden Pond he divided his time between his vast bean garden and his writing, for it was there that he wrote Walden, in which he argued his own philosophy to simplify life.  He scorned public opinion and refused to accept the common definition of success.  For him liberty and the pursuit of happiness meant no attachments to anyone–male or female, or to anything.  “I thrive best on solitude,” he wrote in his journal.

     He attuned himself to nature.  Ralph Waldo Emerson loved to walk with Thoreau about Walden Pond because Thoreau knew the names of all the birds, animals, trees and flowers that they encountered. 

     And Thoreau considered government absolutely unnecessary.  “That government is best which governs least, . . . or which governs not at all.”  He refused to pay his poll tax and spent a night in jail.  Where Jefferson, Adams, Washington, and Franklin had argued for a political liberty and a public independence, Thoreau insisted upon a personal liberty and a private independence.

     It is a slim minority of Americans who are so constituted that they can live without any ties to a wife or a husband, to a family, a home, a job, a business, a community, or to a government.  The few able-bodied people who accept assistance and charity without a sense of shame we label “bums”, or we see them standing in lines at soup kitchens, or we find them living in a cardboard box under a bridge.  Critics label Thoreau’s ideas as “parasitic” upon society.

     Thoreau’s philosophy if extended to a majority of Americans would result in anarchy, for we in America are everything that he was not.  Our society’s fabric and structure demands ambition and hustle and drive and a desire to own and get ahead of others.  America wants families and home ownership.  His message to simplify our lives by living alone, close to nature, and to strive for a personal liberty falls on deaf ears today.

     And yet, some of the things he wrote still strikes.  “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  “It is never too late to give up our prejudices.”  “There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.”  “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I call evil.”  “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”

     The Fourth of July for most Americans means independence, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and for Henry David Thoreau it also meant those same things but in his own way and upon his own terms.

     And so he ends Walden: “The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us.  Only that day dawns to which we are awake.  There is more day to dawn.  The sun is but a morning star.”


     Have a great Fourth of July!