Thoreau vs. Ashcroft

Xiyung Yang, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

In "Slavery in Massachusetts," Henry David Thoreau begins by attacking the roots of societal authority. Thoreau eschews the transient, insubstantial leadership of the Governor, the clergy, the judges and the press; condemning them as "breaking the laws of humanity." Thoreau proceeds to fill the power vacuum left by his attacks with his own criticisms of slavery and its implications. As Ruskin explicitly redefines the essentials of wealth, Thoreau reconfigures freedom, liberty and democracy. Thoreau's argument is based upon the existence of a Platonic Truth and Morality, embedded within nature. His use of absurd and grotesque imagery, "If I were seriously to propose to Congress to make mankind into sausagesÉthe people who read them are in the condition of the dog that returns to his vomit," emphasizes the governmental deviance from the greater law of humanity. Thoreau brilliantly restructures the situation at hand: he first links the slave owner and the slaves together by the binds of humanity, and then proceeds to illuminate the enslavement of the supposedly free public by a tyranny of ideas and thoughts. In this land of liberty, Thoreau redefines who is free and who is not. To achieve this, Thoreau launches all out attacks on the essence of America that would, if transported to modern day, land him a coveted cell in Guantanamo Bay. In the following passage, Thoreau's use of parallel structure explicitly deconstructs the accepted definition of constitutionality.

The judges and lawyers, -- simply as such, I mean, -- and all men of expediency, try this case by a very low and incompetent standard. They consider, not whether the Fugitive Slave Law is right, but whether it is what they call constitutional. Is virtue constitutional, or vice? Is equity constitutional, or iniquity? In important moral and vital questions like this, it is just as impertinent to ask whether a law is constitutional or not, as to ask whether it is profitable or not. They persist in being the servants of the worst of men, and not the servants of humanity. The question is not whether you or your grandfather, seventy years ago, did not enter into an agreement to serve the devil, and that service is not accordingly now due; but whether you will not now, for once and at last, serve God, in spite of your own past recreancy, or that of your ancestor,--by obeying that eternal and only just CONSTITUTION, which He, and not any Jefferson or Adams, has written in your being."

What is the effect of comparing "constitutionality" to "profitability?"

When referring to the American people, Thoreau sometimes uses the third person, and sometimes uses the second person, such as in this paragraph. Describe the progression of Thoreau's interaction with the audience and his place of authority in relation to the audience.

Thoreau, earlier, writes, "that they are to be men first, and Americans only at a late and convenient hour." He implicitly pits the responsibilities of humanity against the responsibilities of Americans, how does he make such a monumental distinction without alienating his readers?

In various parts of the essay, Thoreau refers to Massachusettsas "she." "It was really the trial of Massachusetts. Every moment that she hesitated to set this man free, every moment that she now hesitates to atone for her crime, she is convicted." Later, he refers to the Democrats the same way. "I know that the country is mean enough, but I am glad to believe that there is a slight difference in her favor. What is the effect of Thoreau anthropomorphizing the state of Massachusetts and the "party of the country," the democrats?


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Last modified 5 October 2003