‘All machines have their friction,’ Thoreau admitted, but when injustice is too great, you should ‘let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.’
In March 1845, the United States acquired a new president – James K. Polk – a forceful, aggressive political outsider intent on strengthening his country and asserting its pre-eminence in front of other world powers, especially Mexico and Great Britain. Within a year of his inauguration, he had declared full-scale war on Mexico because of squabbles over the Texan border, and was soon rattling his saber at Britain over the ownership of Oregon. To complete the picture, Polk was a vigorous defender of slavery, who dismissed the arguments of abolitionists as naive and sentimental.
Polk was a popular president, admired by many for his gung-ho manner, but a sizeable minority of the citizenry disliked him intensely. One especially committed opponent was a writer from Massachusetts called Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau is now a canonical American literary figure, studied in every high school for his lyrical masterpiece, Walden. But there is another, more political side to Thoreau, now usually air-brushed out of the story, which came to the fore in relation to the President.
Thoreau quickly realised he was opposed to everything Polk stood for: he hated what became the Mexican-American war, instinctively siding with the losing Mexican side, was wary of Polk’s squabbles with Britain and was appalled by the administration’s policy of hunting down and returning runaway slaves to their masters in the South.
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