Absurd as Reasonable in Henry David Thoreau's "Slavery in Massachusetts"

Thuy Nguyen '05, 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

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Henry David Thoreau's "Slavery in Massachusetts" attacks the supporters of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 by pointing out the fallibility of the law. Thoreau criticizes the sanctions of brutality and injustice against slaves or free Black men by showing the lack of logic in the law. Instead of directly stating the weaknesses, however, he juxtaposes a situation of reason with one that is overtly absurd, asking the supporters of the law to look at both situations through the same lens.

I wish my countrymen to consider, that whatever the human law may be, neither an individual nor a nation can ever commit the least act of injustice against the obscurest individual, without having to pay the penalty for it. A government which deliberately enacts injustice, and persists in it, will at length ever become the laughing-stock of the world. Much has been said about American slavery, but I think that we do not even yet realize what slavery is. If I were seriously to propose to Congress to make mankind into sausages, I have no doubt that most of the members would smile at my proposition, and if any believed me to be in earnest, they would think that I proposed something much worse than Congress had ever done. But if any of them will tell me that to make a man into a sausage would be much worse, would be any worse, than to make him into a slave, than it was to enact the Fugitive Slave Law, I will accuse him of foolishness, of intellectual incapacity, of making a distinction without a difference. The one is just as sensible a proposition as the other. [p.3]

By having an absurd example follow a reasonable argument, Thoreau calls the readers' definition of logic into question and also adds justification to an otherwise laughable scenario.


1. What do you think is the logic behind comparing making men into slaves and making men into sausages? In other words, why didn't he simply state that the law is absurd?

2. What is the tone of the quotated passage?

3. Thoreau, at the end of the quotation, have strong accusations for those who think that the Fugitive Slave Law is moral. How do you think he gets away with these strong opinions without seeming arrogant and alienating the readers?

4. How is Thoreau's style of criticism on slavery similar to Ruskin's criticism on the political economy?

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Last modified 22 March 2005