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When reading Henry David Thoreau's Wikipedia page I found that he has been called an anarchist for his essay "Civil Disobedience". Reading the essay I can see where these claims are coming from:

I heart­ily accept the motto, — “That gov­ern­ment is best which gov­erns least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rap­idly and sys­tem­at­i­cally. Car­ried out, it fi­nally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That gov­ern­ment is best which gov­erns not at all;”

I began to wonder whether Thoreau himself ever responded to these claims/attacks. My poor search skills (Googling variations of "Henry David Thoreau anarchist response") turned up nothing but other people arguing over whether he was an anarchist or not.

Did Thoreau respond to claims that he was an anarchist?

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  • There's no occurrence of "anarch" in the journal or the letters on Project Gutenberg.
    – Adam Burke
    Feb 19, 2021 at 4:59
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    I'm not sure that the term "anarchism" had positive connotations during T.'s lifetime & in his social circles. While moderns may see him advocating ideas in harmony with Anarchist philosophy (& thus a forerunner of Anarchism), I suspect T. saw himself as an adherent of Jeffersonian democracy.
    – llywrch
    Feb 22, 2021 at 16:53
  • I don't believe so. But since He advocated for smaller, better government, that's not anarchy. Liberals want a bigger, more involved government, Republicans what a smaller government, an anarchist wants no government at all. Jul 14, 2023 at 9:09

1 Answer 1

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Was Thoreau an Anarchist?

Probably.

...the State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion....

I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. (Source: "Civil Disobedience," By Henry David Thoreau, 1848.)

And, according to Google Dictionary, an "anarchist" believes in "anarchy", and "anarchy" is "absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal." I would definitely call him an anarchist.

Did Thoreau Respond to the Question "Are you an Anarchist?"

No, there is no evidence that he responded to this question. But there is a reason why: Anarchism, as a political ideology, was not sufficiently or meaningfully developed for Thoreau to give his opinion on it by the time of his death.

Where Was the Anarchist Movement During Thoreau's Life?

The English words anarchy and anarchist have their origin in the 1500's and 1600's (Source: Wikipedia.org). The word "anarchist" first came into regular, political discussion during the French Revolution (Source: The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793, by Peter Kropotkin.), mostly as a derisive name for political opponents or the unruly masses. The first political philosopher to call themselves Anarchist was Pierre Joseph Proudhon, and his great work, Qu'est ce que la propriété? (What Is Property?, 1840) did not appear in English until 1923 (Source: Fair-Use.org.). Yes, Thoreau could speak French fluently (Source: The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau.), but there are likely to be few copies of Proudhon's work circulating through the United States at this time.

Besides Proudhon, other classical thinkers of Anarchism, such as Bakunin, Guillaume, and Tolstoy, were not politically active yet, writing anything yet, or even translated into a language Thoreau could speak at the time of his death in 1862. And when Thoreau did die, he was sick and bedridden by as early as 1860, where he would have had little energy to comment on European, political developments. (Source: Wikipedia.)

Was Thoreau Alone?

Thoreau was not the only, mid-1800's American activist one might ask the question, "Did they call themselves an Anarchist?" Many of others fit in this mileau: they were inspired by the 1800's mysticism and so horrified by the institution of slavery that any form of resistance to authority was justified. Among these we have Josiah Warren (1798-1874), Adin Ballou (1803-1890), Stephen Pearl Andrews (1812-1886), John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886), and Lysander Spooner (1808-1887). So, this same question could legitimately posed for these 18th-century, anti-State, Abolitionist-Anarchists, as well.

None of these people explicitly called themselves Anarchist, because the movement simply had not developed sufficiently to be known in the United States during most of their lives. Benjamin Tucker (1854-1939) is typically regarded as the first American Anti-Statist from the mid-1800's who regarded themselves as an Anarchist. Thoreau really just belonged to that classical, precursor period of American Anarchism.

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