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Henry David Thoreau and “Civil Disobedience,” Part 2


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Although many Quaker writers had argued from conscience for civil disobedience against war and slavery, Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” essay is not tied to a particular religion or to a specific issue. It is a secular call for the inviolability of conscience on all issues, and this aspect may account for some of the essay’s enduring legacy. The personal quality of “Civil Disobedience” also contributes to its impact, as the essay exudes sincerity more commonly found in diaries and correspondence than in political tracts.

The opening sentence of “Civil Disobedience” sets the tone by endorsing Thomas Jefferson’s much quoted sentiment on government — “That government is best which governs least.” Then Thoreau carries Jefferson’s logic one step further:

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….

After what appears to be a call for anarchism, Thoreau pulls back and dissociates himself from “no-government men.” Speaking in practical terms and “as a citizen,” he states, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.”

Whatever his position on government, one point is clear: 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.

To answer, Thoreau compares government to a machine and the problems of government to “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.

Conscience vs. the collective

This is the key to Thoreau’s political philosophy. The individual is the final judge of right and wrong. More than this, since only individuals act, only individuals can act unjustly. When the government knocks on the door, it is an individual in the form of a postman or tax collector whose hand hits the wood. Before Thoreau’s imprisonment, when a confused taxman had wondered aloud about how to handle his refusal to pay, Thoreau had advised, “Resign.” If a man chose to be an agent of injustice, then Thoreau insisted on confronting him with the fact that he was making a choice. As Thoreau explained,

[It] is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel, — and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government.

But if government is “the voice of the people,” as it is often called, shouldn’t that voice be heeded? Thoreau admits that government may express the will of the majority but it may also express nothing more than the will of elite politicians. Even a good form of government is “liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.” Moreover, even if a government did express the voice of the people, this fact would not compel the obedience of individuals who disagree with what is being said. The majority may be powerful but it is not necessarily right. What, then, is the proper relationship between the individual and the government?

Perhaps the best description of Thoreau’s ideal relationship occurs in his description of “a really free and enlightened State” that recognizes “the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived.” It is a state that “can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor,” allowing those who did not embrace it to live “aloof.”
War and slavery

According to Thoreau, the government of his day did not come close to this ideal for two basic reasons: slavery and the Mexican-American war.

It is important to remember that, although Thoreau’s imprisonment was a protest against slavery, “Civil Disobedience” was written after the outbreak of the Mexican-American war and protests both slavery and war. In fact, the opening paragraph of the essay mentions the war while saying nothing of slavery.

“Civil Disobedience” portrays the Mexican-American war as an evil comparable to slavery. The 1840s expressed a spirit of expansion called “Manifest Destiny” — the idea that it was the destiny of Americans to expand across the continent, civilizing the wilderness and the natives as they went. Part of the expansion was an annexation of Texas, which sparked a war with Mexico, which also claimed the area. The annexation was doubly offensive to Thoreau because it permitted slavery in the new territory.

Moreover, the domestic consequences of the conflict deeply disturbed him. Taxes soared; the country assumed a military air. Thoreau was horrified to learn that some of his neighbors actively supported the war. He was perplexed by those who did not support the war but who financed it through the taxes they paid. After all, he considered the war to be “the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool.” Without cooperation from the people, “a few individuals” would not succeed in wielding that tool.
Blind obedience to the state

In fact, the cooperation of the tool itself — the standing army — is required. Thoreau wonders about the psychology of men who would fight a war and, perhaps, kill others out of obedience. He concludes that soldiers, by virtue of their absolute obedience to the state, become somewhat less than human. He writes, “Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy-Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts — a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity.” This is how “the mass of men” employed by the state render service to it, “not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies.” In doing so, the men relinquish the free exercise of their moral sense and, so “put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones.”

Thoreau asks,

How does it become a man to behave toward the American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.

But his “well-meaning” neighbors — even those who were opposed to slavery and the Mexican-American war — did associate with and obey the American government. Thoreau ascribes their behavior to ignorance and concludes, “They would do better if they knew how.”

The problem remains, however, why do people like Emerson — who cannot be called ignorant — render any obedience to laws with which they disagree?

One reason is obvious: the people who believe they need a government are willing to accept an imperfect one. Such people, Thoreau explains, accept government as a “necessary evil.” Other people support government out of self-interest; Thoreau specifically mentions merchants and farmers in Massachusetts who profit from the war and from slavery.

Still others obey because they fear the consequences of disobedience. This is the neighbor who says, “If I deny the authority of the State when it presents its tax-bill, it will soon take and waste all my property, and so harass me and my children without end.” Thoreau knows that his neighbor is correct in his assessment of what may happen. “When I converse with the freest of my neighbors,” he writes,

I perceive that … they dread the consequences to their property and families of disobedience…. This is hard. This makes it impossible for a man to live honestly, and at the same time comfortably, in outward respects.

By his own lights, Thoreau was fortunate in this respect. He had neither property to be seized nor children to go hungry. Accordingly, he did not criticize men who reluctantly obeyed an unjust law out of fear for their families.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

This article originally appeared in the April 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).