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Henry David Thoreau and “Civil Disobedience,” Part 1


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Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was an introspective man who wandered the woods surrounding the small village of Concord, Massachusetts, recording the daily growth of plants and the migration of birds in his ever-present journal. How, then, did he profoundly influence such political giants as Mohandas Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, and Martin Luther King Jr.?

The answer lies in a brief essay that has been variously titled but which is often referred to simply as “Civil Disobedience” (1849). Americans know Thoreau primarily as the author of the book Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) but it is “Civil Disobedience” that established his reputation in the wider political world. It is one of the most influential political tracts ever written by an American.

“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.” To understand why the essay has exerted such powerful force over time, it is necessary to examine both Thoreau the man and the circumstances of his arrest.
Thoreau the man

Henry David Thoreau was born into the modest New England family of a pen-maker. With a childhood surrounded by rivers, woods, and meadows, he became an avid student of nature. His friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, offered the following psychological portrait:

He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the State; he ate no flesh; he drank no wine; he never knew the use of tobacco; and though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. He chose, wisely no doubt for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature…. No truer American existed than Thoreau.

If it is possible for one word to summarize a man, then that word would be the advice he offered in Walden: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Thoreau was a self-consciously simple man who organized his life around basic truths. He listened to the inner voice of his conscience, a voice all men possess but few men follow. As he explained in Walden,

To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

Thoreau’s attempt to apply principles to his daily life is what led to his imprisonment and to “Civil Disobedience.” Oddly enough, his contemporaries did not see him as a theorist or as a radical, viewing him instead as a naturalist. They either dismissed or ignored his political essays, including “Civil Disobedience.” The only two books published in his lifetime, Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), both dealt with nature, in which he loved to wander.

He did not have to wander far to find intellectual stimulation as well. During the early 19th century, New England was the center of an intellectual movement called Transcendentalism. In 1834, while Thoreau was a student at Harvard, the leading Transcendentalist moved into a substantial house at the outskirts of Concord, thus converting the village into the heart of this influential movement. That man was Emerson.

There has never been rigorous agreement on the definition of Transcendentalism, partly because Emerson refused to be systematic; but there are broad areas of agreement among Transcendentalists. As a philosophy, it emphasizes idealism rather than materialism; that is, it views the world as an expression of spirit and every individual as an expression of a common humanity. To be human is to be born with moral imperatives that are not learned from experience but which are discovered through introspection. Therefore, everyone must be free to act according to his conscience in order to find the truth buried within.

Although Emerson’s focus on the individual must have appealed to Thoreau, there was an inherent tension between Thoreau’s practical, earthy ways and the abstract quality of Transcendentalism. Thoreau wanted to incorporate principles into daily life; he wanted to taste and feel principles in the air around him. He wrote in Walden,

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.

Despite their differences, Thoreau was deeply influenced by Emerson, whom he met in 1837 through a mutual friend. Four years later, Thoreau moved into the Emerson home and assumed responsibility for many of the practical details of Emerson’s life.

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.

But Thoreau still longed for a life both concrete and spiritual. He wanted to translate his thoughts into action. While Transcendentalists praised nature, Thoreau walked through it. Especially in his later years, Emerson seemed distant from Thoreau’s lusty approach to life, which he described as “the doctrine of activity.” Given this difference of approach, it is no wonder that Emerson did not embrace the ideas within “Civil Disobedience.” Nor did he approve of Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes.
Imprisoned for a night

“Civil Disobedience” was Thoreau’s response to his 1846 imprisonment for refusing to pay a poll tax that violated his conscience. He exclaimed in “Civil Disobedience,”

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.

Imprisonment was Thoreau’s first direct experience with state power and, in typical fashion, he analyzed it:

The State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.

Prior to his arrest, Thoreau had lived a quiet, solitary life at Walden, an isolated pond in the woods about a mile and a half from Concord. He now returned to Walden to mull over two questions: (1) Why do some men obey laws without asking if the laws are just or unjust; and, (2) why do others obey laws they think are wrong?

In attempting to answer these questions, Thoreau’s view of the state did not alter. It was that view, after all, which led him to prison in the first place. Judging by the rather dry, journalistic account of being in jail, his emotional reaction did not seem to alter significantly; he was not embittered by the experience. The main criticism he expressed was aimed at those who presumed to pay his fine, an act that the jailer said “made him mad as the devil.”

Toward the men who were his jailers, Thoreau seems to have felt more disdain than anger, stating,

They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are under-bred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall…. I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.

It was the reaction of the townspeople of Concord, his neighbors, that distressed Thoreau and made him dissect the experience so as to understand their behavior. He ended his short, matter-of-fact account of his night in prison with a commentary on the townsfolk, which expressed how his eyes had been opened:

I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly propose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions.

There is no cynicism in Thoreau’s description of his neighbors, whom he admits he may be judging “harshly,” since “many of them are not aware that they have such an institution as the jail in their village.” Instead he was unsettled by the realization that there was a wall between him and the townsfolk, a wall to which Gandhi referred in an account of his second imprisonment in South Africa. Gandhi wrote,

Placed in a similar position for refusing his poll tax, the American citizen Thoreau expressed similar thought in 1849. Seeing the wall of the cell in which he was confined, made of solid stone 2 or 3 feet thick, and the door of wood and iron a foot thick, he said to himself, “If there were a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was still a more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was.”

Thoreau may have also brooded over the reaction of Emerson, who criticized the imprisonment as pointless. According to some accounts, Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?” Emerson was “out there” because he believed it was shortsighted to protest an isolated evil; society required an entire rebirth of spirituality.

Emerson missed the point of Thoreau’s protest, which was not intended to reform society but was simply an act of conscience. If we do not distinguish right from wrong, Thoreau argued that we will eventually lose the capacity to make the distinction and become, instead, morally numb.

Near the end of his life, Thoreau was asked, “Have you made your peace with God?” He replied, “I have never quarreled with him.” For Thoreau, that would have been the real cost of paying his poll tax; it would have meant quarreling with his own conscience, which was too close to quarreling with God.

“Civil Disobedience” ends on a happy note. After Thoreau’s release and unpleasant experience with his neighbors, the children of Concord had brightened his mood by urging him to join a huckleberry hunt. Huckleberrying was one of Thoreau’s valued pastimes and his skill at locating fruit-laden bushes made him a favorite with children. And, should a child stumble, spilling berries, he would kneel by the weeping child and explain that if children did not stumble, then berries would never scatter and grow into new bushes.

He ended his chronicle of prison,

[I] joined a huckleberry party, who were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour … was in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off, and then the State was nowhere to be seen.

Thus, Thoreau shed the experience of prison, but he could not shed the insight he had gained into his neighbors nor the questions that accompanied his new perspective. The text of “Civil Disobedience” constitutes the answer he discovered by listening to the “quiet voice within.”

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

This article was originally published in the March 2005 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).