Thoreau Cabin

Hidden Histories of Furman University: Lake Walk

Thoreau Cabin

Greenville, South Carolina 29617, United States

Created By: Brandon Inabinet


"I wish my countrymen to consider, that whatever the human law may be, neither an individual nor a nation can ever commit the least act of injustice against the obscurest individual without having to pay the penalty for it. A government which deliberately enacts injustice, and persists in it, will at length even become the laughing-stock of the world." -Henry David Thoreau, "Slavery in Massachusetts" (1854)

James C. Furman and many of the founding voices in Furman history would turn over in their graves if they knew an abolitionist "encampment" sat on campus today.

The question of slavery was perhaps up for debate in the South more than most know. Students regularly debated slavery freely and voted on both sides of the question, and the Greenville area long supported Union over secession to protect slavery. Still, abolitionists in the North were loathed. Not only were they loathed for moral pretense on the issue, southerners perceived them as exaggerating the plight of slaves to enhance their own reputations, stealing "property," and sending mailers down South to foment rebellion.

Many of these men also may have thought it an embarassment that one of the institution's first graduates, from the "Furman Academy & Theological Institute" in Edgefield, S.C. became an abolitionist. His name was William Henry Brisbane (1806-1878).

A classmate of James C. Furman, Brisbane never questioned slavery early in life, despite reading an abolition pamphlet in 1833. Appointed editor of The Southern Baptist and General Intelligencer in 1835, Brisbane regularly posted pro-slavery arguments. But one day, when attempting to refute Baptist educator Francis Wayland’s famous "Personal Liberty" essay, Brisbane realized he had no response. He instead went public as a critic of slavery. Arrested twice and threatened by a mob for his emerging antislavery ideas, in 1838 Brisbane sold off his enslaved people to family members and refugeed to Cincinnati, Ohio. His first publication, the "Speech of the Rev. Wm. H. Brisbane, Lately a Slaveholder in South Carolina: Containing an Account of the Change in his Views," (1840) was widely circulated in abolitionist newspapers, and his Slaveholding Examined in the Light of the Holy Bible (1847) became one of the movement's most influential texts. Brisbane offered strong biblical refutation of slavery. Even more revealing was his litany of personal stories comparing the cruelty of the slaveholders he had known in South Carolina with their high social standing. For Brisbane, practice as well as theory showed slavery's inconsistency with Christian doctrine.

Thoreau, author of Civil Disobedience, had of course said exactly Brisbane's position, not James C. Furman's was in the right--a person doing something difficult and breaking with his family and friends on higher principles was "divine" and rooted in nature, whereas continuing in a wicked practice because it was backed in current law was mechanical and inhumane. From that realization, we get 19th century Transcendentalism.

The building of the cabin, in 2009 by a Furman May-semester course, had no specific political intention--just built by students reading Walden and re-creating Thoreau's living conditions as he communed with nature. But in the path of Furman University's history, it can now take on meaning as an "outpost" of differing ideologies.

This point of interest is part of the tour: Hidden Histories of Furman University: Lake Walk


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