“Three years ago, also, just a week after the authorities of Boston assembled to carry back a perfectly innocent man, and one whom they knew to be innocent, into slavery, the inhabitants of Concord caused the bells to be rung and the cannons to be fired, to celebrate their liberty — and the courage and love of liberty of their ancestors who fought at the bridge. As if those three millions had fought for the right to be free themselves, but to hold in slavery three million others. Nowadays, men wear a fool's-cap, and call it a liberty-cap. I do not know but there are some who, if they were tied to a whipping-post, and could but get one hand free, would use it to ring the bells and fire the cannons to celebrate their liberty. So some of my townsmen took the liberty to ring and fire. That was the extent of their freedom; and when the sound of the bells died away, their liberty died away also; when the powder was all expended, their liberty went off with the smoke.”— Henry David Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” address delivered in Framingham, Mass., July 4, 1854
In another month, Henry David Thoreau would celebrate the publication of Walden, his account of a year spent in the woods near his native Concord, Mass.—an attempt to free himself from the “factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life” that began, very self-consciously, with his move into a cabin on the woodlot of friend Ralph Waldo Emerson on Independence Day, 1845.
Nine years after that personal declaration of independence, however, Thoreau would use the Fourth of July for a radically different occasion: a speech at a rally sponsored by abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a measure meant to dissipate secessionist sentiment among slaveowners by allowing them to recover runaways, even in free Northern states.
Thoreau would not permit an American Revolution that began in protest to devolve into an annual rite of self-congratulation. The risk was especially high in Concord, where the Minutemen had fired on the redcoats at the local bridge—a now-legendary event alluded to by Thoreau, then quickly undercut by him.
Thoreau’s address didn’t deign to attack Southerners but his own listeners, as well as anyone else in Massachusetts who stood idly by as slaveowners tried to suborn the laws and moral code of the state. Only five weeks before, abolitionists had stormed the Boston federal courthouse in an unsuccessful attempt to free runaway slave Anthony Burns. Moreover, this wasn’t the first time the arm of the law had acted in favor of the slave power: three years before, in an incident Thoreau takes note of here, the escaped Georgia slave Thomas Sims had been apprehended in Boston, endured a trial, and was returned to his owner.
“Slavery in Massachusetts,” then, doesn’t refer to a pre-Revolutionary era when human chattel could still be held in the Commonwealth, nor even to the insidious manner in which the now predominantly Southern institution was making its presence felt here. It referred to the moral subjugation of a people unaware that their freedom had gone “off with the smoke.”
Like Frederick Douglass’ fiery Fourth of July oration of 1852, Thoreau is rebuking latter-day complacency about the American political faith. Righteous anger led him to a radicalism to match Southern extremists. If they did not want to be part of the Union, fine. “Let the State [Massachusetts] dissolve her union with the slaveholder,” he advised. “She may wriggle and hesitate, and ask leave to read the Constitution once more; but she can find no respectable law or precedent which sanctions the continuance of such a union for an instant.” (Garrison, the organizer of this mass protest, had expressed similar sentiments in 1829, when he first entered public life, as I discussed here.)
A good deal of the speech needs to be read with allusions to contemporary events spelled out, as this annotated text does. But Thoreau also spiked the address with a number of statements from his journals that stand on their own as brilliant aphorisms, including:
*“Those who have been bred in the school of politics fail now and always to face the facts.”
* “It is to some extent fatal to the courts, when the people are compelled to go behind them.”
* “A government which deliberately enacts injustice, and persists in it, will at length ever become the laughing-stock of the world.”
*“Whatever the human law may be, neither an individual nor a nation can ever commit the least act of injustice against the obscurest individual without having to pay the penalty for it.”
*"Probably no country was ever ruled by so mean a class of tyrants as, with a few noble exceptions, are the editors of the periodical press in this country. And as they live and rule only by their servility, and appealing to the worse, and not the better, nature of man, the people who read them are in the condition of the dog that returns to his vomit."
*”The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free. They are the lovers of law and order who observe the law when the government breaks it.”
Thoreau’s Framingham address is a reminder that deep dissatisfaction with governmental refusal to confront problems—and judicial complicity in this process—will inevitably call for organized action to redress the balance. Mid-19th century jurisprudence, to its enduring shame, proclaimed the rights of slaveowners. Our Supreme Court discovers equally unsuspected rights among corporations and gunowners. Where is our Thoreau to heap scorn on them?