Tuesday, July 11, 2017

According to One's Own Nature

On Civil Disobedience 

Walden and Other Writings

"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. . . . when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other.  If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man."   - Henry David Thoreau

On or about July 23, 1846 Henry David Thoreau was detained in Concord for nonpayment of the poll tax, and he spent the night in the Concord Jail. He described his experience in jail thus:  "The rooms were whitewashed once a month; and this one, at least, was the whitest, most simply furnished, and probably the neatest apartment in the town." He described his fellow inmate ("room-mate") as someone accused of "burning a barn" who had been incarcerated for three months waiting for trial. He was "quite domesticated and contented, since he got his board for nothing, and thought that he was well treated." They each had a window of their own to look out and Thoreau noted that "It was like traveling to a far country, such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night." The next day some anonymous person paid the tax and Thoreau was once again a free man.

The episode would be little noted but for the essay that Thoreau proceeded to write, an essay that would become one of the great Western statements on the importance of conscience. The essay is now known as "On Civil Disobedience" although its original title was "Resistance to Civil Government". It is short, less than twenty pages in the edition I read, but it lays out Thoreau's thoughts on the nature of Government: where it gets its authority, when it must be resisted, and more. 

He begins the essay with the motto, "That government is best which governs least;" and he immediately makes a case for a government that "governs not at all", at least when men are "prepared for it". He will go on to identify three objections that he, and others, have against the government: namely, maintaining a standing army, the mistreatment of native Americans, and the institution of slavery. He claims that the American government has lost some of its integrity and is not worthy of our respect. However he quickly notes that he is not a "no-government man", because "to speak practically and as a citizen" he does not want no-government but merely "better government". That is he wants a government he can respect.

How does he recommend that he and his friends should resist a government that has lost his respect? He does not speak of a "call to arms".  He is not a man like John Brown would become in less than a decade; rather he lays out a pacifist strategy of civil resistance to the government. He describes this resistance in several ways throughout the essay, including: refusing allegiance to the state of Massachusetts; receding from government (withdrawing his association with it); resigning your office (for those who have been appointed); refusing to pay taxes; and refusing to serve in an "unjust war" (the Mexican-American war had begun in April, 1846 and would continue until February, 1848).

To a great extent the essay is both anti-war and anti-slavery. Thoreau references sources as disparate as Confucius and the Bible to under gird his arguments. Although he makes an effort to sound practical at times his primary tendency is one of dissociation from the current American government. His rhetoric demonstrates a moral absolutism that is reminiscent of the speeches of William Lloyd Garrison. He is a genuine radical as he makes statements like: "If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself . . . The people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people." He castigates as "the most serious obstacle to reform" those liberals who personally disapprove of slavery or the war yet still support the government. Moreover, he observes that "action from principle . . . is essentially revolutionary". His personal episode in jail is one small example of the consequences of his adherence to principle. "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."

These are strong words that suggest why the ideas presented in this essay have continued to have a profound effect until our own day. It is why the essay has influenced subsequent thinkers like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others. It is why this essay is considered one of the "great essays" of Thoreau's era and our own.


Stephen said...

I count Thoreau as one of my major influences, in part for his moral courage -- a courage that was entirely involved in his own actions, not in mass agitation for more influence in the machine. These days I think most people associate him with Walden, and nothing else.

James said...


Thoreau is on my short list of thinkers who have influenced me. I admire his individualism and principled life. While I love Walden I also have found his essays and journals worthwhile reading.

Fred said...


Thanks for reminding me. I think it would be a good time to reread Civil Disobedience. I had heard that it was Emerson who paid Thoreau's bail. Unfortunately I can't give you any source for that. It was a long time ago.

R.T. said...

Your posting is a wonderful hymn to Thoreau. He was right about limited government, and I will be revisiting Thoreau -- thanks to you -- because I need a refresher course in how to take a stand against government's terrible tentacles. Thanks!

James said...


Thanks for your comments. I share your expression of support for limited government. Although, it is hard to imagine how much the government has grown over the decades and, in spite of that how loud the supporters of big government scream if you even consider slowing the rate of growth.

Stephen said...

As Oliver Wilde said....“The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.”

Ruth said...

I can't wait to reread this again. I read it in college and forgot A LOT, of which you remind me. I can't say I will agree with everything, but it will be well worth another review.

James said...

This is a great short essay that rewards rereading. Like most great essays it is thought-provoking even when we disagree.