- - - - - - - - - - -
Even a cursory reading of Henry David Thoreau’s immortal essay about civil disobedience reveals echoes in contemporary discussions of individual rights and the limits of government in a free society.
Its themes resonate into the 21st century. Faced with a federal government that condoned the institution of slavery and was waging a war of questionable origin in Mexico, Thoreau pushed his readers to consider the responsibility of an individual with conscience.
What Thoreau said about Mexico could have been said yesterday about whatever foreign adventure the current U.S. president has sent the military on (and I refrain from naming a specific president or adventure because this has been happening for several administrations, “right” and “left,” as of this writing – witness Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya ...):
“when ... a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.Thoreau wrote about slavery as the ultimate violation of the individual, and although it may have been revolutionary to think of a slave as an individual, his context provides insights into what it means to be an individual as well.
“What makes this duty the more urgent is that fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.”
Thoreau lays out his thesis in the opening sentences, accepting the old adage “That government is best which governs least” but taking it a step further to say, “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.”
That, then, is his central purpose here: to define how men can prepare themselves for a government that does not govern, because responsible individuals need not have a government to watch over them or watch out for them. In fact, “this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way.”
It’s important to agree on what Thoreau means by “men” here. Writing as he did midway through the 19th century, Thoreau might be forgiven a cultural mind set where a forthright and self-confident individual of action is defined as a “real man.” In our perhaps more enlightened age, let’s accept that women can be just as forthright and self-confident in this context – “manly” if you will – and even more so.
So how does a “man” – a person of conscience and conviction – prepare to live under a government that does not govern? How does one act not under the rule of the sometimes-wrong majority but under the rule of conscience?
One way to achieve this is by exercising his or her individual rights and power.
“The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right” – even, or perhaps especially, when the government presumes to make you do the opposite, Thoreau postulates.
All of the tenets of the modern libertarian movement are present in Thoreau’s essay – the power and dignity of the individual, limited (or no) government, and even the most basic of libertarian themes, the zero aggression principle.
“I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish to split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as better than my neighbors ...” Thoreau argues for the right to be left alone to live our lives as we please, and he makes it clear that he considers himself no better or worse, or more entitled to better or worse, than anyone else. But he also argues that we have an obligation not to stand by while any other individual is treated as if they are better or worse than the rest of us.
“I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also,” he writes.
The person of conscience, seeing injustice done to an individual, must take a stand. And this can mean more than simply “throwing the rascals out” at the next election: “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it.” A real start is to make sure one’s actions – or lack of action – do not condone or support evil. Thoreau threw down a gauntlet by suggesting that paying taxes to an unjust government is tacit approval of that government’s wrongful acts.
“See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, ‘I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico – see if I would go”; and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute.”
But Thoreau does not condone a violent response to the violence of slavery or an unjust war. Rather, he urges his reader, “Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”
Thoreau spends much of his essay talking about the night he spent in prison for failure to pay a poll tax, and in that act he plants the roots of the idea of nonviolent civil disobedience: “Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
A person of conscience who cannot abide an injustice may not be able to stop it but at the very least should do what he or she can not to support it with words, actions or money. The tools Thoreau proposes are not violent acts so much as passive obstacles, such as not paying a tax, even if it means incarceration. “If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose,” he writes, perhaps a bit too optimistically.
“If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and to shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.”
In arguing the means to counter what he saw as the contemporary horrors of slavery and the Mexican war, Thoreau laid the groundwork for India’s peaceful revolution for the independence from Great Britain, the foundation of the American civil rights movement’s nonviolent battle for equal treatment of blacks. Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have come to the same conclusions without “Resistance to Civil Disobedience,” but this seminal essay laid down a roadmap to freedom that, to be sure, involved pain and sacrifice and struggle – but without meeting violence with violence. By following that roadmap, they ensured that their revolutions would succeed and endure.
(If you want a handy edition of Thoreau's Resistance to Civil Government along with this introductory essay - they make wonderful gifts for your nonviolently resistant friends! - click right here. Thanks!)