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Historical Context in Civil Disobedience

The Transcendentalist Movement: The spiritual and philosophical movement of transcendentalism emerged in New England in the 1820s and 30s at the hands of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and others. The movement, which arose as part of the American religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening, drew heavily from Platonism, German and British Romanticism, Unitarianism (a new sect of Christianity sweeping New England at the time), and Eastern philosophy, particularly the Hindu Upanishads. The transcendentalists—true to their Romantic roots—prioritized the individual, believing in the validity of internal intuitions and flashes of personal inspiration. Thoreau reflects his transcendentalist background in “Civil Disobedience” in his insistence on individual autonomy.

Historical Context Examples in Civil Disobedience:

Civil Disobedience

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"Webster..."   (Civil Disobedience)

During the early 19th century, Daniel Webster (1782–1852) was an influential American statesman. Through his legal counsel, he helped support the authority of the federal government and set Constitutional precedents. Thoreau appears to claim that despite Webster’s accomplishments, he failed to question the role of government in an individual’s life.

"Confucius..."   (Civil Disobedience)

The Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE) is considered one of the most influential thinkers and teachers in history. His writings and philosophy, known as Confucianism, emphasize morality, positive relationships, justice, and honesty. Thoreau and other transcendentalists were greatly influenced by Confucius and other Eastern philosophers.

"esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin..."   (Civil Disobedience)

Thoreau is referring to General George Washington (1732–1799) and Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), two of the founding fathers of the United States of America. Thoreau critically refers to some of his peers as “children” of these founders to point out that while they claim ancestry, they lack the spirit of such leaders.

"Paley..."   (Civil Disobedience)

William Paley (1743–1805) was a writer, utilitarian, and philosopher. His 1785 book, Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, contains a chapter titled “Duty of Submission to Civil Government”—mentioned here by Thoreau—which possibly inspired Thoreau’s own essay. Paley is perhaps best known for his argument for the existence of a God, known as his “watchmaker analogy,” in which he claims that since the insides of a watch reveal an intricate nature constructed by an intelligent being, then the same argument can be made for how the universe works.

"in the Revolution of '75..."   (Civil Disobedience)

This is a reference to the Revolutionary War, fought from 1775 to 1783, in which the American colonies rebelled against the British Empire in order to establish independence from British rule. Thoreau refers to this revolution in order to make a parallel comparison to his current situation and argument.

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