Thoreau's Civil Disobedience and Margaret Fuller: Early American Feminist

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Perhaps the most famous text in the literature of romantic reform is Henry David Thoreau’s essay, Resistance to Civil Government (1849), better known as Civil Disobedience. The occasion of the essay was Thoreau’s refusal to pay a poll tax in the town of Concord in protest of the United States war with Mexico (1846– 1848). Thoreau regarded the war as a conspiracy to seize Mexican lands and enable the expansion of southern slavery. Thoreau was jailed for his refusal to pay the tax. His essay is a defense of his actions as well as a treatise on the moral and political responsibilities of the citizen. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau argues that, in an ideal world, governments would be rendered unnecessary;


The antislavery movement is the best example of romantic reformism in the nineteenth century. However, romantic reform was also central to the struggle for women’s rights. Margaret Fuller was an important link between Transcendentalism and early American feminism. Fuller wrote in a letter (which was later published in her Memoirs) that she was not born to the “common womanly lot.” She described herself as a “pilgrim” and a “sojourner” on the earth. She confessed that “very early I knew that the only object was to grow.” Fuller accepted the Transcendentalist axiom that only people who were true to themselves—who understood the value of self-reliance—would experience personal growth. Like Emerson, Fuller counseled reformers that they could not use base methods to achieve ideal goals; instead, “they must be severe lawgivers to themselves.” Ultimately, Fuller felt that antislavery, feminism, and other reform movements were all addressing one and the same evil: the failure of human beings to achieve their proper nature as intelligent spirits. Fuller calls for “one creative energy, one incessant revelation,” that would transcend all the divisions of race, class, and gender. At this point, romantic reform passes into a general MILLENNIALISM, a powerful impulse in nineteenth-century America. A millennialist believes that the sinful world is drawing to an end, to be replaced by the thousand-year rule of Christ on earth.

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