Thoreau's Common Sense Appeal

Michael Laws '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

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Henry David Thoreau's "Slavery in Massachusetts" seems not so much a protestation of a significant event -- the recapture, in Massachusetts, of a fugitive slave from Virginia -- as it is a tract on the illegitimacy of any constitution or set of laws in the face of simple, human, common sense. This emphasis first becomes apparent on page 2, where Thoreau writes,

What I am concerned to know is, that that man's influence and authority were on the side of the slaveholder, and not of the slave-- of the guilty, and not of the innocent-- of injustice, and not of justice. I never saw him of whom I speak; indeed, I did not know that he was Governor until this event occurred. I heard of him and Anthony Burns at the same time, and thus, undoubtedly, most will hear of him [...] I do not mean that it was any thing to his discredit that I had not heard of him, only that I heard what I did. The worst I shall say of him is, that he proved no better than the majority of his constituents would be likely to prove. In my opinion, he was not equal to the occasion.

Most notable about this passage, rhetorically speaking, is its curious shift from powerful, passionate writing to obvious understatement, reflected in the length of sentences (the first having many clauses and dashes, the last few very short, unadorned, and direct). Also significant is Thoreau's admission of his own ignorance, which is more or less concurrent with that shift in tone; stressing that his unfamiliarity with the governor is not to be understood as a slight to that man, Thoreau places himself in a position he takes to be similar to those of his readers -- that is, having no real reason for knowing the governor's name until recently, in light of these occurrences. Still, this ignorance in no way undermines Thoreau's legitimacy in making an argument, in writing this article. In a sense, it is precisely this ignorance-- the trait that likens him to his fellow Massachusettians-- that gives him the right to such a polemic. After all, Thoreau's point is that common sense, combined with the fervent desire for truth, ought to prevail over the liberty-stifling conventions of court and state. By characterizing himself as no different from the majority of progressive-thinking citizens, Thoreau does much more than ingratiate himself to his audience; he provides himself the ground on which to speak.


Thoreau is effectively proving his credibility by disavowing it -- a technique that might be lost on some readers, for whom his admission of ignorance would be just that. So is this a dangerous move to make?

Could we accuse Thoreau of being patronizing to his audience? At the moment he is equating himself with his readers, and affirming their desire for truth and liberty (see the "he proved no better than the majority" line) -- but, some two paragraphs later, he will viciously chastise the same group for its hypocrisy and complacence. (First complete paragraph on page 3.)

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Last modified 4 October 2003