You can lead a horse to water, but should you?

Caroline Ang '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

In his scathing oration entitled "Slavery in Massachusetts," Henry David Thoreau lambasts the Fugitive Slave Law and all those who support and enforce it. He minces no words in his criticism, proclaiming, "show me Massachusetts, and I refuse her my allegiance, and express contempt for her courts."

Throughout his speech, Thoreau directs his anger and frustration at several different targets, one of which being the print media. He says, "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." (1948) He compares these editors to corrupt clergymen, and then in the folowing passage goes on to urge readers to boycott the newspapers that support the enforcement of pro-slavery laws.

But, thank fortune, this preacher can be even more easily reached by the weapons of the reformer than could the recreant priest. The free men of New England have only to refrain from purchasing and reading these sheets, have only to withhold their cents, to kill a score of them at once. One whom I respect told me that he purchased Mitchell's Citizen in the cars, and then threw it out the window. But would not his contempt have been more fatally expressed, if he had not bought it?

Thoreau presents the idea of boycott in a non-threatening, non-intrusive manner. Although he does not specifically command the reader to stop buying these newspapers, his message is clear. Rather than telling the reader exactly what course of action to take, Thoreau engages the reader in a game of rhetorical what if. He seems to say, "What if you did this? And this? Then, wouldn't this result occur? Wouldn't that be great if it did?"

Questions that arise from this technique of suggestion are as follows:

1. Is this method more effective than straight up telling the reader what to do? Later in the speech, Thoreau states emphatically, "Let each inhabitant of the State dissolve his union with her, as long as she delays to do her duty." (1951) Are the two methods equally effective?

2. Would Thoreau's call to boycott work as well if it were phrased similarly? (for example: Let each New Englander refrain from puchasing and reading these sheets.)

3. Is there really an appreciable difference between the two or am I just nitpicking with semantics?


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Last modified 6 March 2002