Analogous to Slavery

Michael Talis, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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In "Slavery in Massachusetts," Thoreau does not limit himself to using slavery strictly as the subject of his essay; he also employs it as an analogy to help advance his argument. There are two significant places in which he does this. The first comes during his discussion of the Massachusetts press:

Could slavery suggest a more complete servility than some of these journals exhibit? Is there any dust which their conduct does not lick, and make fouler still with its slime? I do not know whether the Boston Herald is still in existence, but I remember to have seen it about the streets when Sims was carried off. Did it not act its part well-serve its master faithfully! How could it have gone lower on its belly? How can a man stoop lower than he is low? do more than put his extremities in the place of the head he has? than make his head his lower extremity? When I have taken up this paper with my cuffs turned up, I have heard the gurgling of the sewer through every column. I have felt that I was handling a paper picked out of the public gutters, a leaf from the gospel of the gambling-house, the groggery, and the brothel, harmonizing with the gospel of the Merchants' Exchange.

The second instance involves Thoreau's critique of the free-thinking abilities of the Massachusetts Judiciary.

I am sorry to say that I doubt if there is a judge in Massachusetts who is prepared to resign his office, and get his living innocently, whenever it is required of him to pass sentence under a law which is merely contrary to the law of God. I am compelled to see that they put themselves, or rather are by character, in this respect, exactly on a level with the marine who discharges his musket in any direction he is ordered to. They are just as much tools, and as little men. Certainly, they are not the more to be respected, because their master enslaves their understandings and consciences, instead of their bodies.

Before we generalize, it is important to recognize how the enslavement analogy is used similarly or differently in these two passages. Is it the same technique? Given that, what potentially could be Thoreau's rationale for drawing a comparison between the enslavement of ideas and the enslavement of people? Why might his audience be more sympathetic to the former? How does this analogy advance Thoreau's argument?

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Last modified 6 March 2002