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“A Majority of One”. Thoreau & Other Disobedient 19 th -Century Individuals. The Militant & Moral Individualism of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). “On Civil Disobedience” (1849) Original title of lecture “Resistance to Civil Government” Response to Mexican War -> spread of slavery

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“A Majority of One”

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“A Majority of One”

Thoreau & Other Disobedient

19th-Century Individuals


The Militant & Moral Individualismof Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

  • “On Civil Disobedience” (1849)

    • Original title of lecture “Resistance to Civil Government”

    • Response to Mexican War -> spread of slavery

      • Refused to pay poll-tax, put in jail in Concord MA

      • “Cast your whole vote”

    • Response to “tyranny of majority” (de Tocqueville)

      • Unalienable rights? Or “mass” consciousness?

        • 19th c. mass marketing of religion, politics, even Ben Franklin story

    • Is an American first & foremost an individual, or a citizen?

      • Conformity as treason, patriotism as dissent & disobedience?

      • “majority of one” “one HONEST man”

      • Government as “machine” “half-witted”

      • Under an unjust government, “the true place for a just man is in prison”


Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879)

  • Individualist argument against slavery

  • First American-born woman lecturing in public

    • mixed (“promiscuous”) audiences – “Afric-American Intelligence Society”

    • Northern racism worse? Left New England for N.Y.C.

    • What does it mean for a woman to speak & write?

      • Explicit religious & revolutionary references

      • Gives lie to myths of black inferiority – “worthy & interesting”

    • Racism a variant of sexism?

      • Worst harassment from black men in audience

      • Comparing white women & black men, condemned to life of servitude by their condition of birth, regardless of natural abilities – antithesis of “self-made” person


Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1830)

  • Southerners’ worst fears realized

    • Toussaint L’Overture’s Haitian slave revolt (1791)

    • David Walker’s Appeal (1829) – calls for U.S. slaves to revolt

  • Turner’s is the last but best publicized violent revolt

    • Leads to more strident justification of “peculiar institution”

    • George Fitzhugh’s defense of slavery as “happy freedom” (1857)

  • Religion the only mass experience allowed to slaves

    • Turner’s Old Testament visions, leadership role as preacher

    • Prohibitions against black literacy, religious justification for slavery

  • Background against which Douglass spoke & wrote

    • Compare his education, his rebellion and justifications for it


What force overthrows “King Law”?

  • Notice types of appeals Douglass (and Garrison) use against slavery in the Narrative (& Preface)

    • Which ones are conspicuously absent?

    • Which ones appear repeatedly?

      • Note Casper’s & Davies’s notes on emerging mass culture and “cult of domesticity”

      • Growing sense of “self-made” American

    • Which ones could still not be filmed in the year 2002?

      • Pornographic, or too sentimental?


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