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  • Thoreau's Natural Constitution
  • Deak Nabers (bio)

In the nineteenth century, natural law bore a curious relationship to slavery. The call for abolition was almost universally accompanied by an appeal to nature; so too was the defense of slavery. "[T]he very notion of the law of nature," Eric Sundquist maintains, was "riddled with assumptions that could as easily authorize racism as contravene it" (178). If the use of natural law as an antislavery instrument was limited by the ease with which it could serve conservative ends as well as radical ones, moreover, it was even further limited by nature's general irrelevance to the institutions on which its influence was being brought to bear. David Brion Davis has noted that while nineteenth-century antislavery movements were "absolutely dependent upon" the notion "of an immutable, higher law," the higher law on which they depended "tended to be so transcendent that it had little bearing on existing institutions" (405). On the one hand, natural law replicates what Sundquist calls "the law of power" (179); on the other hand, it operates without much bearing on the existing institutions. What, then, was the source of its appeal? And in what way could the antislavery activist escape the disabling tendencies built into his most powerful weapon?

These questions hover around natural law's antislavery arguments throughout the nineteenth century, but they acquired a particular bite in the 1850s, as Garrisonian forms of natural law abolition were gradually giving way to Republican forms of constitutional antislavery. Now that natural law has lost much of its moral and political appeal, it has been easy for recent students of American antislavery politics and literature, like Sundquist and Davis, to pose the questions as a form of critique: why would anyone organize an antislavery movement around such compromised principles? But we can pose the questions to the antislavery thinker from the 1850s in an inquisitive spirit as well as directing them at him in a critical spirit. Some antebellum antislavery [End Page 824] thinkers engaged the problems of natural law every bit as intensely as their latter day commentators. Although we have not tended to approach Henry David Thoreau in these terms, his political essays constitute a powerful examination of the tense and conflicted relationship between the powers and the limitations of nature's authority as an antislavery instrument. In what follows, I will maintain that these essays devote themselves to addressing, explicating, and resolving precisely the issues raised by Sundquist and Davis—that they pursue the three interlocking projects of: (1) explaining why natural law would and should be central to the antislavery political theory, (2) explicating the pressures which limit its authority as a political instrument, and (3) outlining the surprising terms on which it assumes normative authority within the practice of an antislavery politics.

It is no accident that nature would figure prominently in the antislavery imagination. The development of the Anglo-American common law of slavery had rendered the status of God's will a central component of the peculiar institution's purchase in the New World: the forms of slavery took effect only where God's natural order had been legally suspended. The move from slavery to freedom was thus not simply a movement from one legal arrangement to another; it was, even in the strict legal sense, a movement from legal authority to divine justice and natural law. But if slavery's unusual legal posture tended to funnel antislavery agitation through God and nature, actual political conflicts about slavery's status in 1850s America revealed nature's significant shortcomings as an antislavery refuge. Thoreau's antislavery essays, we will see, constitute a stunningly precise and insightful record of a multivalent process whereby the relations between slavery and nature, on the one hand, and slavery and law, on the other hand, were rearranged as the impending crisis pressed on to civil war over the course of the 1850s.

I will begin with a brief exploration of the relations between slavery and legal authority in the development of Anglo-American slave law, in mid-nineteenth-century abolitionist discourse and in Thoreau's essay "Resistance to Civil Government" (1849), before proceeding to the political debates...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 824-848
Launched on MUSE
2007-11-07
Open Access
No
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