Higher Law and Moral Relativism: Rhetorically Circumventing Both in "Slavery in Massachusetts"

Jennifer Hahn, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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In "Slavery in Massachusetts," Henry David Thoreau argues that men should answer to a "higher law" than that of the constitution or majority opinion. He sees God as the symbol and arbiter of this higher morality and hopes to convince his reader that she should oppose slavery not because it is unconstitutional, but because it is immoral or against God's law. Thus, Thoreau seems to position his argument on the foundation of a knowable and absolute truth derived from a belief in a Christian God. Obviously, Thoreau was making his appeal to a Christian audience, skillfully playing upon their ideology in order to convince them that they were not living up to it. However, one has to wonder whether or not his argument, as it is stated, holds weight with a morally relativistic audience that does not share his belief in Christianity. Personally, I think that whether or not one believes in Thoreau's concept of "higher law," he uses techniques--both thematic and stylistic -- that convince the reader beyond a doubt that he indeed speaks the truth.

The amount of it is, if the majority vote the Devil to be God, the minority will live and behave accordingly--and obey the successful candidate, trusting that, some time or other, by some Speaker's casting-vote, perhaps, they may reinstate God. This is the highest principle I can get out or invent for my neighbors. These men act as if they believed that they could safely slide down a hill a little way--or a good way--and would surely come to a place, by and by, where they could begin to slide up again. This is expediency, or choosing that course which offers the slightest obstacles to the feet, that is, a downhill one. But there is not such thing as accomplishing a righteous reform by the use of "expediency." There is no such thing as sliding up hill. In morals the only sliders are backsliders.

In this passage, does Thoreau appeal to another concept of morality that differs from that of a "higher law"? What specific techniques does he use to lure his reader into a place of submission, from which she dares not to argue with his powerful rhetoric? Are there elements to his writing that are so powerful that the reader need not believe in God or a "higher law" to be thoroughly convinced?

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Last modified 6 March 2002