Does Thoreau Belong to Our Tradition?
May 26, 2014 Leave a comment
Editorial Preface to Here There Is No State
“THE HIPPIES CAN’T HAVE THOREAU,” wrote former Freeman editor John Chamberlain in July of 1967.
It had been 150 years since Thoreau’s birth (July 12, 1817), and the US Postal Service had caused some controversy by issuing a commemorative stamp.
What was the issue? Conservatives complained that Thoreau looked like a hippie.
Chamberlain called their complaints “well-meaning but stupid.… They wore [beards] in the Nineteenth Century, you know.”
The conservatives of the late 1960s were not alone in seeing the similarity. The bearded counterculturalists wanted to claim Thoreau as one of their own. “Indeed,” proclaimed one underground newspaper of the time, “Thoreau was one of America’s first hippies.”
But Chamberlain objected on behalf of conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians: “Thoreau belongs to a lot of us who are bored to death by the new psychedelic mindlessness.”
Who had the better claim? Was Thoreau a forebear of the Left or the Right? Was he a hippie or a classical liberal? For or against liberty, commerce, and private property?
As Ken Kifer writes in Analysis and Notes on Walden (2002), “Today, Thoreau’s words are quoted with feeling by liberals, socialists, anarchists, libertarians, and conservatives alike.”
This collection, Here There Is No State (the title is taken from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”), shows us that Henry David Thoreau belongs more to the advocates of liberty than he does to our illiberal opposition.
Not everyone, however, wants to claim Thoreau as a part of our tradition.
Gary North recently called Thoreau “one of the most successful literary scam artists in American history,” describing Walden as “anti-capitalist and pro-green.”
As Chamberlain pointed out, Thoreau was a working capitalist whose family owned a pencil-making business, but, says North, Thoreau’s background did not make him a friend of the free market. “He was an American version of Frederick Engels, who converted Karl Marx to socialism in 1843.”
In Here There Is No State, we collect Thoreau’s two most famous works and bring together three scholars to comment on those works and their author.
While “Americans know Thoreau primarily as the author of the book Walden,” writes Wendy McElroy, “it is ‘Civil Disobedience’ that established his reputation in the wider political world. It is one of the most influential political tracts ever written by an American.”
Here There Is No State opens with Wendy’s introduction to “Civil Disobedience,” followed by the great individualist essay itself.
In her introduction to Walden, Sarah Skwire responds to Gary North and sets the record straight on what the book is and is not, and where it fits in our tradition. “I think that we must consider the possibility,” Sarah writes, “that Walden has its reputation because many who teach it choose to ignore its politics, which are strongly libertarian and even anarchist.”
Both Gary North and Sarah Skwire invite us to read critically and decide for ourselves, so the entirety of Walden is included in these pages.
Finally, Jeff Riggenbach closes this volume with an essay on why we can consider Thoreau not just a “great writer, great naturalist, and great advocate of self-reliant individualism” but also “one of the founding fathers of American libertarian thought.”
Wendy, Sarah, and Jeff are all members of Liberty.me and are available to our community for questions or comments on the writings and legacy of Henry David Thoreau.
Enjoy the book and join us online to continue the conversation.