Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau in Our Time: 46.357.201

Sample Thesis Statements for Presentations, Papers, and Pleasure

You may use any of the sources* below in presentations and papers, or you may find resources on your own.  In either case, you must provide hyperlinks to all of the materials you consult in developing all coursework.


 *You must be logged in to UML Libraries to access some of these articles.


Presentation: Instructions and Tips

You must use the same thesis statement for your presentation and final paper.   Your presentation need not be a formal lecture, and you can use slides or Internet resources or remain technology-free.  If you lead a 10-15 minute discussion of work-in-progress and demonstrate that you have begun to engage in thoughtful research and reflection on your thesis, you will be fine.

Final Paper: Instructions and Deadlines

You may choose one of the thesis statements below, or you may write another version of one of these statements, or you may compose a statement on your own.  Sources are included below each statement, but you must also incorporate at least one additional source either from a library database or from a trustworthy site on the Internet.  You must look further than Wikipedia to locate a reliable source, and you must supply working hyperlinks to every source that you use.

No matter which of these paths you take, you must e-mail a complete thesis statement and at least one additional source to Susan_Gallagher@uml.edu by Monday, April 8

Your final paper must be at least five pages long (double-spaced, 11 or 12 point type).  All students who earned "B-" or lower on the midterm must take their first drafts to the Writing Center, but those with higher grades would also benefit from having a tutor check their work before they send it in.

Although you may incorporate any of these thesis statements as is into your paper, you may not copy any other materials, or use anyone else's work without attribution.  If you plagiarize any part of your paper, you will receive an "F" for the paper and an "F" for the course.

You must consult the Term Paper Checklist before you submit any work.

Thesis statement and additional sources due via email on Monday, April 8, 2013.

First draft (complete and polished) due via e-mail on Monday, April 22, 2013.

Corrected first drafts returned by Monday, April 29, 2013

Revised Final Paper due via email by Friday, May 3, 2013.


   1: Overview of Thoreau's Life & Legacy

Sample Thesis Statement & Sources

Due mainly to his two-year experiment in living at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau gained a reputation as the "hermit of Concord."  However, a  survey of his writings shows that many of his works focused on his travels throughout New England.  By describing a few of Thoreau's numerous excursions, this essay will show that the tendency to characterize him as a stay-at-home loner obscures both the facts of his life and the centrality of travel as a constant theme in his work.

About Thoreau, Thoreau Society.

Elizabeth Witherell, "The Life and Times of Henry David Thoreau," University of Santa Barbara Libraries.

Mapping Thoreau Country: Tracking Henry David Thoreau's Travels in Massachusetts (browse itinerary pages and follow links to various texts).

Bradley Dean, A Thoreau Chronology, Thoreau Reader.

Herbert W. Gleason, Introduction, Through the Year With Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917).

     General Background

Walter Harding, The Days of Henry David Thoreau (various editions).

Thoreau Reader (browse links).


   2. "Resistance to Civil Government"

Sample Thesis Statements & Sources

[1] In the course of the twentieth century, Henry David Thoreau gained a reputation as a pacifist mainly because advocates of non-violence such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King claimed him as an inspiration for their concepts of passive resistance to tyranny.  However, a survey of Thoreau's major writings shows that he never strayed from the conviction that violent action is sometimes required either to prevent greater violence or to preserve political liberty.  By exploring Thoreau's remarks on violence in three of his most famous works, Walden, "Resistance to Civil Government," and "A Plea for Captain John Brown," this essay will show that he consistently rejected "non-resistance," the pacifist philosophy embraced by many political reformers in his time. 

[2] Present-day proponents of lower taxes and limited government often cite Henry David Thoreau as an historical source for their philosophy.  One of their favorite quotes in this connection comes from Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government," which begins with a motto he borrowed from an anti-slavery journal, "That government is best which governs least." 1 Likewise, pointing to Thoreau's refusal to pay his poll taxes, advocates of reduced government spending imply that if he were alive today, he would support their efforts to shrink what remains of the American welfare state in the name of personal freedom.  However, an examination of "Resistance to Civil Government" shows that Thoreau was not concerned with individual rights to property or the burdens of government bureaucracy, but only with the ways in which government undermined the capacity of individuals to conform to higher laws.

     1 Henry David Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Aesthetic Papers, edited by Elizabeth Peabody (Boston:1849), 189.

[3] Since its publication in 1849, Henry David Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government" has inspired political leaders and activists ranging from pacifist Leo Tolstoy to anarchist Emma Goldman to civil rights icon Martin Luther King.  However, while Thoreau's influence on these prominent historical figures is well-known, his role in shaping the tax-resistance movement has received comparatively little attention, in part because tax-resistance, which takes aim, not at taxes in general, but at government spending on war, has never been widely practiced.  By summarizing major moments in the history of tax-resistance in the U.S., this essay will explore the part played by Thoreau's writings in spurring individuals to engage in this especially difficult form of political protest.

Concord Jail, Mapping Thoreau Country

Robert Gross, "Quiet War with the State: Henry David Thoreau and Civil Disobedience," Yale Review 91 (October 2005): 1-17.

Michael J. Frederick, "Transcendental Ethos: Thoreau’s Philosophy & Antebellum Reform," Thoreau Reader.

James Duban, "Conscience and Consciousness: The Liberal Christian Context of Thoreau's Political Ethics,"  The New England Quarterly , Vol. 60, No. 2 (Jun., 1987), pp. 208-222. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/365606

"History of War Tax Resistance," War Resisters League.

Lawrence Rosenwald, "The Theory, Practice & Influence of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience," Thoreau Reader.


   3. Thoreau's Approach to Free Enterprise

Sample Thesis Statement & Sources

In view of Henry David Thoreau's support for limited government, advocates of laissez-faire capitalism have often placed him on their side.  However, an examination of Thoreau's remarks on capitalist production and consumption suggests that he had nothing but disdain for the pursuit of private property.  By surveying his commentary on economic activity in Walden and "Life Without Principle," this essay will show that Thoreau rejected industrial capitalism as a viable system not because it failed to promote prosperity, but because it lured individuals into meaningless lives.

Leo Stoller, After Walden: Thoreau's Changing Views on Economic Man (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1953).

Brian Walker, "Thoreau's Alternative Economics: Work, Liberty, and Democratic Cultivation,"  The American Political Science Review  Vol. 92, No. 4 (Dec., 1998), pp. 845-856.  Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2586307

Leonard N. Neufeldt, Henry David Thoreau's Political Economy, The New England Quarterly  Vol. 57, No. 3 (Sep., 1984), 359-383.  Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/365581

Lance Newman, "Thoreau’s Natural Community and Utopian Socialism," American Literature Vol. 75, No. 3 (Sep., 2003), 515-544.


   5. Thoreau and Anti-Slavery

Sample Thesis Statement & Sources

Henry David Thoreau is well known for having refused to participate in political systems and activities, not only by withholding his poll taxes for over six years, but also by declaring in "Resistance to Civil Government," "Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined." 1 Despite this sweeping statement, a survey of Thoreau's anti-slavery activities shows that his aversion to joining groups did not deter him from playing an unusually active and prominent part in the abolitionist movement.  By summarizing some of the highpoints of Thoreau's anti-slavery activities, this essay will show that his withdrawal from formal membership in political organizations did not deter him from assuming a leadership role in the abolitionist cause.

 1 Henry David Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," Aesthetic Papers, edited by Elizabeth Peabody (Boston:1849), 202.

Jack Turner, "Performing Conscience: Thoreau, Political Action, and the Plea for John Brown," Political Theory,  Vol. 33, No. 4 (Aug., 2005), pp. 448-471. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30038436

Sandra Harbert Petrulionis, "Thoreau Transforms His Journal  into “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau Reader.


   6. Thoreau's Critique of Industrial Society

Sample Thesis Statement & Sources

When Henry David Thoreau died in 1862, the Industrial Revolution was well underway, but industrial development had yet to provoke significant concerns either about the toxic effects of industrial pollution or about the depletion of natural resources.  Nevertheless, in both "Walking" and "Wild Apples," two of his last essays, Thoreau provided profound insight into the losses that would accrue as we sacrificed nature to industrial progress.  By surveying Thoreau's remarks on industrialization in these two works, this essay will suggest that Thoreau predicted effects of industrial expansion that did not become apparent either to scientists or to the general public until well into the twentieth century.

David R. Foster, "Thoreau's Country: A Historical--Ecological Perspective on Conservation in the New England Landscape," Journal of Biogeography, Vol. 29, Oct. - Nov., 2002.

Phillip Carfaro, "Taming Growth and Articulating a Sustainable Future: The Way Forward for Environmental Ethics," Ethics & the Environment, Vol. 16, Spring 2011.


  7. Thoreau in the Age of Climate Change

Sample Thesis Statement & Sources

During the 1960's and 1970's, civil rights activists drew from Henry David Thoreau's philosophy of civil disobedience to combat racial discrimination by refusing to submit to legally enforced segregation.  More recently, environmental activists have followed a similar path by setting themselves up for arrest at public demonstrations against Keystone XL, a proposed pipeline that would carry crude oil from Canada to the United States.  By surveying Thoreau's influence in ongoing environmental actions such as the Keystone protests, this essay will attempt to explain why his writings continue to play a major role in American politics.

Cesar Cuauhtemoc Garcia Hernandez, "Radical Environmentalism: The New Civil Disobedience?, "Seattle Journal for Social Justice, Vol. 6 Article 35, 2012. 

     Wen Stephenson, "A Convenient Excuse," Phoenix, November 1, 2012.

     Selected articles by Bill McKibben, Rollingstone, 2011-2012.


   8. Thoreau as a Media Critic

Sample Thesis Statement & Sources

Henry David Thoreau is often described in terms of "firsts," that is, he has been named the first truly American philosopher, the first environmentalist, and the first significant tax-resister.  Without making this list too long, I believe that we should add another item by identifying Thoreau as the world's first media critic.  By surveying the critical commentary on newspapers that runs throughout his writings, I will argue that Thoreau engaged in media analysis decades before anyone else thought to investigate the social, economic and political consequences of the production and consumption of news as a defining feature of American life.

Adam Cohen, "Walden at 150: What Would Thoreau Think of the 24-Hour News Cycle?", Editorial Observer, New York Times, August 22, 2004.


    9. Exploring the Role of Gender in Thoreau's Life and Legacy

Sample Thesis Statement & Sources

In his eulogy of Henry David Thoreau, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 44, Ralph Waldo Emerson famously described his fellow Concordian as a "a bachelor of thought and nature." But while Thoreau never married, his life was deeply intertwined with the lives of his mother, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, and sisters, Helen and Sophia Thoreau.  By summarizing what we know about his relationships with the women in his family, as well as the evidence that historians have gathered about their participation in abolitionist activities in Concord and beyond, this essay will explore how Thoreau's mother and sisters shaped his views on slavery, politics, and personal responsibility.

Thoreau on sex

Thoreau's musings on chastity, sexuality, and male friendship in his journals and letters, as well as his sometimes derisive comments on women, have long provoked speculation about his sexual orientation.  Although this perennial question may never be settled, Thoreau's reflections on sexual difference and sexual relations suggest that he was emotionally divided about sex and sensuality.  By reviewing various scholarly debates, this essay will show that exploring Thoreau's writings on sex, family relations, and other gender-related themes provides significant insight into his personality even though it does not allow us to determine whether he happened to be gay.   

Robert A. Gross, "Helen Thoreau's Anti-Slavery Scrapbook," The Yale Review (December 2011).

Sandra Harbert Petrulionis, "Swelling That Great Tide of Humanity": The Concord, Massachusetts, Female Anti-Slavery Society,"  The New England Quarterly, Vol. 74, No. 3, Sep., 2001.

Walter Harding, "Thoreau's Sexuality," Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 21(3) 1991 (Note: The scanned copy available on this site has not been copyedited.)


   Miscellaneous Sources: Music, Art, Economics, Work, Plumbago, Science...

Walter Harding, "A Bibliography of Thoreau in Music," Studies in the American Renaissance, 1992.

Alfred F. Rosa, "Charles Ives: Music, Transcendentalism, and Politics," The New England Quarterly, Vol. 44, (September, 1971).

Abraham J. Miller-Rushing and Richard B. Primack, "Global Warming and Flowering Times in Thoreau's Concord: A Community Perspective," Ecology, Vol. 89, February 2008.

Brian Walker, "Thoreau's Alternative Economics: Work, Liberty, and Democratic Cultivation," American Political Science Review, Vol. 92, December, 1988.

Nina Baym, "Thoreau's View of Science," Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 26, April - June, 1965).

Bradley P. Dean, "Henry D. Thoreau and Horace Greeley Exchange Letters on the 'Spontaneous Generation of Plants,'" The New England Quarterly, Vol. 66,  (December, 1993).

Perry Miller, "Thoreau in the Context of International Romanticism," New England Quarterly, Vol. 34, June 1961.

John Conron, "'Bright American Rivers': The Luminist Landscapes of Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," American Quarterly,  Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer, 1980). 

Albert Ten Eyck Gardner, "Scientific Sources of the Full-Length Landscape: 1850," Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1890.

Randall Conrad, "The Machine in the Garden: Re-Imagining Thoreau's Plumbago Grinder," Thoreau Society Bulletin, Fall, 2005.

David B. Raymond, "Henry David Thoreau and the American Work Ethic," Concord Saunterer, Vol. 17, 2009.


A Brief Guide to Finding Quotes from Thoreau on Various Subjects

Go to Advanced Search on Google Books and type in your search terms.  Under Search, choose "Full view only." Under Return articles written by," type in "Thoreau."  Voila! You'll see a list of quotations that includes your search term(s).

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