Close Reading American Literature

Thoreau’s “Slavery in Massachusetts” > “Civil Disobedience” Draft


Please be as harsh as you can. I need all the help I can get.

Working Title: Thoreau’s Growing Emphasis on the Importance of Self Identity

Working Intro: Up until Thoreau had published both Slavery in Massachusetts and Civil Disobedience, the Confederate states had not yet seceded seeking sovereignty. A large number of Americans throughout the country has expressed their abolitionist sentiments, but, with the legal assistance of the Constitution, slavery was not debatable as it was deemed an inalienable right.

Working Thesis: Although  Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience (1849) claims the United States’ mid-nineteenth century government is corrupt because, through its overruling power, it incentivizes conformity and complacency, through unjust laws, Thoreau’s later Slavery in Massachusetts (1854) criticizes their country’s current establishment of government and emphasizes the importance for Americans to reevaluate their relationship with the government, recognize their individuality, and exert their conscience.

Quote #1:

Will mankind never learn that policy is not morality — that it never secures any moral right, but considers merely what is expedient? chooses the available candidate — who is invariably the Devil — and what right have his constituents to be surprised, because the Devil does not behave like an angel of light? What is wanted is men, not of policy, but of probity — who recognize a higher law than the Constitution, or the decision of the majority. The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls — the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.”

– Thoreau, Slavery in Massachusetts

Close Reading: This passage follows a pattern that is apparent when reading the text in its entirely and that is Thoreau speaking directly to the audience and asking them questions. Here Thoreau questions whether or not anyone and everyone in his audience is going to differentiate the policies established by their government from their moral obligation as human beings, calling into question their individuality instead of the perceived idea that they are one based on their uniformity. He emphasizes his purpose asking this question by making it clear what he means by “policy” not being the same as “morality”. He leaves no room for misinterpretation when he states that policies “never [secure] any moral [rights]” because their focus is to achieve practicality, creating an environment where the absence of morality can lead to potential evil. He continues this thought mentioning every American’s right of electing leaders into positions of high power, but, with the little importance that it placed on morality, it could also mean that any elected official could be evil as the “Devil” himself. For this reason Americans cannot be “surprised” when the actions these “expedient” candidates are not similar to the actions of an “angel of light”.

Cover Photo:

Works Cited:

Petrulionis, S. H. “Editorial Savoir Faire: Thoreau Transforms His journal into “Slavery in

Massachusetts”.Resources for American Literary Study, vol. 25 no. 2, 1999, pp.206-231

Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience” Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings:

Authoritative Texts, Journal, Reviews and Posthumous Assessments, Criticism. Ed. William John. Rossi. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 227-46. Print.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Slavery in Massachusetts” Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other

Writings: Authoritative Texts, Journal, Reviews and Posthumous Assessments, Criticism. Ed. William John. Rossi. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 247-59. Print.


Saunterer, vol. 7, no. 1, 1972, pp. 8–11.


One thought on “Thoreau’s “Slavery in Massachusetts” > “Civil Disobedience” Draft

  1. I think your intro is really powerful and you’re headed in the right direction. My only concern is that the thesis really opens up the paper to go in multiple directions at once. Try to limit your focus to three talking points that you can sufficiently cover in 8-10 pages. Note the irony, especially, in the Constitution that names both freedom and slavery inalienable rights. Thoreau certainly means to point out this irony in his commentary about constitutionality vs. morality.


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