American Portraits

Henry David Thoreau: What I Have to Do…

In this lesson, students will learn about the life and views of Henry David Thoreau. They will explore how his actions embody the virtue of integrity and, through his example, will learn how they can pursue integrity in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Civil Discourse image

Civil Discourse

Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Rule of Law image

Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.


“As I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. . . . I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar.” Locked in jail, Henry David Thoreau felt free….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can the example of Henry David Thoreau help you develop integrity?

Virtue Defined

Integrity is personal consistency in moral goodness.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the life and views of Henry David Thoreau. They will explore how his actions embody the virtue of integrity and, through his example, will learn how they can pursue integrity in their own lives.


  • Students will analyze the views and actions of Henry David Thoreau throughout his life.
  • Students will understand how acting with integrity can affect their purpose and integrity.
  • Students will apply this knowledge to the pursuit of integrity in their own lives.


Henry David Thoreau was born in Massachusetts in 1817. He was a follower of transcendentalism, a philosophy that emphasized the essential goodness of man as well as the benefits of individual independence from society. Thoreau befriended Ralph Waldo Emerson, who allowed Henry to stay in his home on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. It was there, after being jailed for failing to pay poll taxes, that Thoreau penned Resistance to Civil Government, better known as Civil Disobedience. After leaving Walden Pond, he continued writing, fought for the abolition of slavery, and traveled across North America advocating for conservation of natural resources. Thoreau died in 1862, but his writings continue to inspire great thinkers even today.


  • Transcendentalism
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Poll tax
  • Abolition
  • Confined
  • Industrial Revolution
  • Spartan
  • Mexican-American War
  • Underground Railroad
  • Civil disobedience
  • Incarcerated
  • Lamented
  • Bemoaned
  • John Brown
  • Fugitive Slave Law
  • McCarthyism

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Why was Henry David Thoreau sent to prison?
  • Why did Thoreau think it was important to do stand up against something he believed to be wrong?
  • How are Henry David Thoreau’s actions consistent with the principle of integrity?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Cain, William E., and William B. Cain, ed. A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Harding, Walter Roy. The Days of Henry Thoreau. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • Lenat, Richard. “Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau.” Thoreau Reader. 2002.
  • Richardson, Robert D., Jr., and Barry Moser. Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
  • Thoreau, Henry David. Journals of Henry David Thoreau. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994–1997.
  • Thoreau, Henry David. Nancy L. Rosenblum, ed. Thoreau: Political Writings. New York: Cambridge

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