[Today is Thoreau’s 200th birthday. (Happy birthday, Henry!) As such, it was worth writing something about his work while relaxing on a beach in Hawaii. Also, make sure to check out the brand-new and exquisite biography by Laura Dassow Walls.]
I recently completed a two-week-long NEH seminar on “Transcendentalism and Social Reform,” which took place in idyllic Concord, MA. It was superb. I was excited for the opportunity, especially as I commence a book project on the political theologies of the Transcendentalists. It was also beneficial in another way: it made me develop more appreciation for Henry David Thoreau, perhaps the Transcendentalist I’ve mostly ignored thus far in my scholarship. His literary work is well known, but I was taken by his political writings that demonstrated a depth of which I had been ignorant. The evolution from his “Civil Disobedience” (1849) to “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854) and, finally, to “A Plea for John Brown” (1859) embody much of my project’s thesis: the role of religion in radicalizing Americans’ response to slavery. I left Concord more dedicated to including him in my work than I had before.
Of course, neither Thoreau nor his political writings were completely new to me. I’ve assigned his “Civil Disobedience” each time I’ve taught the American survey class. It usually prompts excellent discussion on the mix of patriotism, nationalism, and justice. The essay took on a new hue, however, when I taught it Fall 2016: by sheer coincidence, we were scheduled to discuss it the week after Trump’s election and on the heels of the #NotMyPresident protests throughout the nation. My students, typically shy to discuss anything political, jumped at the opportunity to defend or denounce rioters. What are the avenues available to those who deeply disagree with democratically elected officials? How do we balance a society of “law and order” on the one hand, and equal justice on the other? Thoreau’s essay, written in response to his opposition to America’s conquest of Mexico, proved a potent launching pad for discussion.
When Thoreau wrote in the essay that, “under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” he was speaking from experience. In protest against the Mexican-American War, Thoreau refused to pay the poll tax and was subsequently imprisoned. If the federal government was participating in activities one deems immoral and indefensible, then it is illogical to financially support them with taxpayer money. Though he only spent one night in jail—much to Henry’s chagrin, his sister bailed him out quite quickly—the episode proved the catalyst for his writing.
In the resulting essay, which drew from an 1848 public lecture, Thoreau outlined the dangers of democratic governance. The voice of the people does not always lead to equal justice and fair representation. “When the power is once in the hands of the people,” he wrote, “a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest.” This was an argument many made during the 1830s and 1840s, including Native Americans, suffragists, and Mormons, but was particularly prominent amongst abolitionist arguments. Democracy was still an experiment, and the results were not as favorable as many wanted to believe.
Further, to Thoreau, paying taxes and participating in elections only validated the political structure. These actions perpetuated the very evils that activists were supposed to be working against. Blind allegiance did not serve the agitator’s purpose. “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law,” he reasoned, “so much as for the right.” There are laws higher than those prescribed in a man-made government. Because citizens are expected to blindly follow their civic leaders, “the mass of men serve the state” only “as machines, with their bodies.” Such blind patriotism “command[s] no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt.” True principles required, at times, radical action. Patriots must stand up for their principles and be willing to suffer the consequences.
This position is not justified on banal disagreements, of course. The circumstances must be dire. For Thoreau, America’s defense of slavery was such a cause.
How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.
The essay is powerful and poignant. I strongly recommend it. You can read the entire thing here.
So what relevance does Thoreau’s message have for today? Plenty, I’d argue. Though circumstances are not as dire as in Thoreau’s time, his message of separating patriotism from nationalism is apt. The citizen’s duty is not to be a machine in the cog of government, but a living organism evolving, adapting, and responding to their climate.
Further, the prioritization of principles over pragmatism is one that I, someone who is naturally conciliatory and non-confrontational, often struggle with. But in Thoreau’s world there are principles that should never be sacrificed.
If we revisit and resurrect his thoughts on the limits of democratic governance and patriotic action, I believe that Thoreau might serve as a modern-day prophet two-hundred years after his birth, and over a hundred and fifty years after his death.
And to make it more resonant with today’s discourse, perhaps we can resurrect the original title of the essay as it appeared in 1849: “Resistance to Civil Government.”