Henry David Thoreau: Civil Disobedience and Our Time


Thoreau, Civil Disobedience:

“I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, — “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government.”

“Civil Disobedience” is an analysis of the individual’s relationship to the state that focuses on why men obey governmental law even when they believe it to be unjust. But “Civil Disobedience” is not an essay of abstract theory. It is Thoreau’s extremely personal response to being imprisoned for breaking the law. Because he detested slavery and because tax revenues contributed to the support of it, Thoreau decided to become a tax rebel. There were no income taxes and Thoreau did not own enough land to worry about property taxes; but there was the hated poll tax – a capital tax levied equally on all adults within a community.

Thoreau declined to pay the tax and so, in July 1846, he was arrested and jailed. He was supposed to remain in jail until a fine was paid which he also declined to pay. Without his knowledge or consent, however, relatives settled the “debt” and a disgruntled Thoreau was released after only one night. The incarceration may have been brief but it has had enduring effects through “Civil Disobedience.”

In Walden’s Pond Thoreau once said:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it.

Whereas Ralph Waldo Emerson would take his secular gospel of Transcendentalism on lecture tours, Thoreau took his to the wilds. Transcendentalism became Thoreau’s intellectual training ground. His first appearance in print was a poem entitled “Sympathy” published in the first issue of The Dial, a Transcendentalist paper. As Transcendentalists migrated to Concord, one by one, Thoreau was exposed to all facets of the movement and took his place in its inner circle. At Emerson’s suggestion, he kept a daily journal, from which most of Walden was eventually culled.

And, yet, those who try to align Thoreau with the anarchist crowd of what he’d term the “no-government” men would be wrong, as he says: “But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.” Thoreau denies the right of any government to automatic and unthinking obedience. Obedience should be earned and it should be withheld from an unjust government. To drive this point home, “Civil Disobedience” dwells on how the Founding Fathers rebelled against an unjust government, which raises the question of when rebellion is justified.

Thomas Jefferson in a letter to  James Madison (Paris, January 30, 1787) said this on rebellion:

“Societies exist under three forms sufficiently distinguishable.

1. Without government, as among our Indians.
2. Under governments wherein the will of every one has a just influence, as is the case in England in a slight degree, and in our states in a great one.
3. Under governments of force: as is the case in all other monarchies and in most of the other republics.

To have an idea of the curse of existence under these last, they must be seen. It is a government of wolves over sheep. It is a problem, not clear in my mind, that the 1st. condition is not the best. But I believe it to be inconsistent with any great degree of population. The second state has a great deal of good in it. The mass of mankind under that enjoys a precious degree of liberty and happiness. It has it’s evils too: the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. But weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing. Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem. Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”

Thoreau in his own New England vernacular would put it more pragmatically, stating that the machinic world of government acts like an agent of friction. Friction is normal to a machine so that its mere presence cannot justify revolution. But open rebellion does become justified in two cases: first, when the friction comes to have its own machine, that is, when the injustice is no longer occasional but a major characteristic; and, second, when the machine demands that people cooperate with injustice. Thoreau declared that, if the government “requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine”.

So the precedent for both revolt, rebellion, and civil disobedience are already a mainstay within our historical continuum, one that we should tap into and reenvision in our time. I’m not advocating revolt, or rebellion against our government, what I’m saying is that we need to revisit the world that brought us to the brink of such conflicts as the Civil War and other rebellious moments in our history. In some ways our moment is repeating aspects of the days that led up to the Civil War but on a different scale and under a set of different circumstances. This isn’t the place to go into detail on that issue. It could take a book to uncover such processes and the sociocultural forces, and individual, dividual, and other forces at play in our world today. What I will say is that we are at a crossroads in our nation, one that we should all be aware of and think and feel our way carefully and at length on. If we needed a great deal of revisioning, and recursion of our past into our present, it is now.  Thoreau is but one of those luminaries we should take into that reconsideration.

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