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"Resistance to Civil Government” - part 1

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  • "Resistance to Civil Government” - part 1

    Henry David Thoreau (see name pronunciation; July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American author, poet, philosopher, polymath, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist.[2] He is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay Resistance to Civil Government (also known as Civil Disobedience), an argument for disobedience to an unjust state.

    I read this essay written by H D Thoreau and found it interesting. He makes many good points. I do not agree with everything he says, and certainly do not agree with many things he writes in other articles.

    I thought some may find this interesting.

    Lou Newton

    “Resistance to Civil Government” by H.D. Thoreau

    I heart*ily accept the motto, — “That gov*ern*ment is best which gov*erns least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rap*idly and sys*tem*at*i*cally. Car*ried out, it fi*nally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That gov*ern*ment is best which gov*erns not at all;” and when men are pre*pared for it, that will be the kind of gov*ern*ment which they will have. Gov*ern*ment is at best but an ex*pe*di*ent; but most gov*ern*ments are usu*ally, and all gov*ern*ments are some*times, in*ex*pe*di*ent. The ob*jec*tions which have been brought against a stand*ing army, and they are many and weighty, and de*serve to pre*vail, may also at last be brought against a stand*ing gov*ern*ment. The stand*ing army is only an arm of the stand*ing gov*ern*ment. The gov*ern*ment it*self, which is only the mode which the peo*ple have cho*sen to ex*e*cute their will, is equally li*a*ble to be abused and per*verted be*fore the peo*ple can act through it. Witness the pres*ent Mex*i*can war, the work of com*par*a*tively a few in*di*vid*u*als using the stand*ing gov*ern*ment as their tool; for, in the out*set, the peo*ple would not have con*sented to this meas*ure. [¶1]

    This es*say can also be found in the book My Thoughts are Mur*der to the State: Thoreau’s es*says on po*lit*i*cal phi*los*o*phy.

    This Amer*i*can gov*ern*ment, — what is it but a tra*di*tion, though a recent one, en*deav*or*ing to trans*mit it*self un*im*paired to pos*ter*ity, but each in*stant losing some of its in*teg*rity? It has not the vi*tal*ity and force of a sin*gle liv*ing man; for a sin*gle man can bend it to his will. It is a sort of wooden gun to the peo*ple them*selves; and, if ever they should use it in ear*nest as a real one against each other, it will surely split. But it is not the less nec*es*sary for this; for the peo*ple must have some com*pli*cated ma*chin*ery or other, and hear its din, to sat*isfy that idea of gov*ern*ment which they have. Gov*ern*ments show thus how suc*cess*fully men can be im*posed upon, even im*pose on them*selves, for their own ad*van*tage. It is ex*cel*lent, we must all al*low; yet this gov*ern*ment never of it*self fur*thered any en*ter*prise, but by the alac*rity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the coun*try free. It does not set*tle the West. It does not ed*u*cate. The char*ac*ter in*her*ent in the Amer*i*can peo*ple has done all that has been ac*com*plished; and it would have done some*what more, if the gov*ern*ment had not some*times got in its way. For gov*ern*ment is an ex*pe*di*ent by which men would fain suc*ceed in let*ting one an*other alone; and, as has been said, when it is most ex*pe*di*ent, the gov*erned are most let alone by it. Trade and com*merce, if they were not made of In*dia rub*ber, would never man*age to bounce over ob*sta*cles which leg*is*la*tors are con*tin*u*ally put*ting in their way; and, if one were to judge these men wholly by the ef*fects of their ac*tions, and not partly by their in*ten*tions, they would de*serve to be classed and pun*ished with those mis*chie*vious per*sons who put ob*struc*tions on the rail*roads. [¶2]

    But, to speak prac*ti*cally and as a cit*i*zen, un*like those who call them*selves no-gov*ern*ment men, I ask for, not at once no gov*ern*ment, but at once a bet*ter gov*ern*ment. Let ev*ery man make known what kind of gov*ern*ment would com*mand his re*spect, and that will be one step to*ward ob*taining it. [¶3]

    Af*ter all, the prac*ti*cal rea*son why, when the power is once in the hands of the peo*ple, a ma*jor*ity are per*mit*ted, and for a long pe*ri*od con*tinue, to rule, is not be*cause they are most likely to be in the right, nor be*cause this seems fair*est to the mi*nor*ity, but be*cause they are phys*ic*ally the strong*est. But a gov*ern*ment in which the ma*jor*ity rule in all cases can*not be based on jus*tice, even as far as men un*der*stand it. Can there not be a gov*ern*ment in which ma*jor*it*ies do not vir*tu*ally de*cide right and wrong, but con*science? — in which ma*jor*it*ies de*cide only those ques*tions to which the rule of ex*pe*di*ency is ap*pli*ca*ble? Must the cit*i*zen ever for a mo*ment, or in the least de*gree, re*sign his con*science to the leg*is*la*tor? Why has ev*ery man a con*science, then? I think that we should be men first, and sub*jects af*ter*ward. It is not de*sir*a*ble to cul*ti*vate a re*spect for the law, so much as for the right. The only ob*li*ga*tion which I have a right to as*sume, is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a cor*po*ra*tion has no con*science; but a cor*po*ra*tion of con*sci*en*tious men is a cor*po*ra*tion with a con*science. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their re*spect for it, even the well-dis*posed are daily made the agents of in*jus*tice. A com*mon and nat*u*ral re*sult of an un*due re*spect for the law is, that you may see a file of sol*diers, colo*nel, cap*tain, cor*po*ral, pri*vates, pow*der-mon*keys and all, march*ing in ad*mi*ra*ble order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their com*mon sense and con*sciences, which makes it very steep march*ing in*deed, and pro*duces a pal*pi*ta*tion of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a dam*na*ble busi*ness in which they are con*cerned; they are all peace*a*bly in*clined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small mov*a*ble forts and mag*a*zines, at the serv*ice of some un*scru*pu*lous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and be*hold a ma*rine, such a man as an Amer*i*can gov*ern*ment can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts, a mere shadow and rem*i*nis*cence of hu*man*ity, a man laid out alive and stand*ing, and al*ready, as one may say, bur*ied un*der arms with fu*neral ac*com*pa*ni*ments, though it may be

    “Not a drum was heard, not a fu*neral note,
    As his corse to the ram*parts we hur*ried;
    Not a sol*dier dis*charged his fare*well shot
    O’er the grave where our hero we bur*ied.” [¶4]

    The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as ma*chines, with their bod*ies. They are the stand*ing army, and the mi*li*tia, jail*ers, con*sta*bles, posse com*i*ta*tus, &c. In most cases there is no free ex*er*cise what*ever of the judge*ment or of the moral sense; but they put them*selves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can per*haps be man*u*fac*tured that will serve the pur*pose as well. Such com*mand no more re*spect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are com*monly es*teemed good cit*i*zens. Others, as most leg*is*la*tors, pol*i*ti*cians, law*yers, min*is*ters, and of*fice-hold*ers, serve the State chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral dis*tinc*tions, they are as likely to serve the devil, with*out in*tend*ing it, as God. A very few, as he*roes, pa*tri*ots, mar*tyrs, re*form*ers in the great sense, and men, serve the State with their con*sciences also, and so nec*es*sa*rily re*sist it for the most part; and they are com*monly treated by it as en*e*mies. A wise man will only be use*ful as a man, and will not submit to be “clay,” and “stop a hole to keep the wind away,” but leave that of*fice to his dust at least: — 

    “I am too high-born to be prop*er*tied,
    To be a sec*ond*ary at con*trol,
    Or use*ful serv*ing-man and in*stru*ment
    To any sov*er*eign state through*out the world.” [¶5]

    He who gives him*self en*tirely to his fel*low-men ap*pears to them use*less and self*ish; but he who gives him*self par*tially to them is pro*nounced a ben*e*fac*tor and phi*lan*thro*pist. [¶6]

    How does it be*come a man to be*have to*ward this Amer*i*can gov*ern*ment to-day? I an*swer that he can*not with*out dis*grace be as*so*ci*a*ted with it. I can*not for an in*stant re*cog*nize that po*lit*i*cal or*gan*i*za*tion as my gov*ern*ment which is the slave’s gov*ern*ment also. [¶7]

    All men re*cog*nize the right of rev*o*lu*tion; that is, the right to re*fuse al*le*giance to and to re*sist the gov*ern*ment, when its tyr*anny or its in*ef*fi*ciency are great and un*en*dur*a*ble. But al*most all say that such is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Rev*o*lu*tion of ’75. If one were to tell me that this was a bad gov*ern*ment be*cause it taxed cer*tain for*eign com*mod*i*ties brought to its ports, it is most prob*a*ble that I should not make an ado about it, for I can do with*out them: all ma*chines have their fric*tion; and pos*si*bly this does enough good to coun*ter*bal*ance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the fric*tion comes to have its ma*chine, and op*pres*sion and rob*bery are or*gan*ized, I say, let us not have such a ma*chine any longer. In other words, when a sixth of the pop*u*la*tion of a na*tion which has un*der*taken to be the ref*uge of lib*erty are slaves, and a whole coun*try is un*justly over*run and con*quered by a for*eign army, and sub*jected to mil*i*tary law, I think that it is not too soon for hon*est men to rebel and rev*o*lu*tion*ize. What makes this duty the more ur*gent is that fact, that the coun*try so over*run is not our own, but ours is the in*vad*ing army. [¶8]

    Paley, a com*mon au*thor*ity with many on moral ques*tions, in his chap*ter on the “Duty of Sub*mis*sion to Civil Gov*ern*ment,” re*solves all civil ob*li*ga*tion into ex*pe*di*ency; and he pro*ceeds to say, “that so long as the in*ter*est of the whole so*ci*ety re*quires it, that is, so long as the es*tab*lished gov*ern*ment can*not be re*sisted or changed with*out pub*lic in*con*ven*iency, it is the will of God that the es*tab*lished gov*ern*ment be obeyed, and no longer.” — “This prin*ci*ple be*ing ad*mit*ted, the jus*tice of ev*ery par*tic*u*lar case of re*sis*tance is re*duced to a com*pu*ta*tion of the quan*tity of the dan*ger and griev*ance on the one side, and of the prob*a*bil*ity and ex*pense of re*dres*sing it on the other.” Of this, he says, ev*ery man shall judge for him*self. But Paley ap*pears never to have con*tem*plated those cases to which the rule of ex*pe*di*ency does not ap*ply, in which a peo*ple, as well as an in*di*vid*ual, must do jus*tice, cost what it may. If I have un*justly wrested a plank from a drown*ing man, I must re*store it to him though I drown my*self. This, ac*cord*ing to Paley, would be in*con*ve*nient. But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. This peo*ple must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mex*ico, though it cost them their ex*is*tence as a peo*ple. [¶9]

    In their practice, na*tions agree with Paley; but does any one think that Mas*sa*chu*setts does ex*actly what is right at the pres*ent cri*sis?

    “A drab of state, a cloth-o’-sil*ver slut,
    To have her train borne up, and her soul trail in the dirt.”

    “…while the law holds fast the thief and mur*derer, it lets it*self go loose. When I have not paid the tax which the state de*manded for that pro*tec*tion which I did not want, it*self has robbed me; when I have as*serted the lib*erty it pre*sumed to de*clare, it*self has im*pris*oned me. Poor crea*ture! if it knows no bet*ter I will not blame it. If it can*not live but by these means, I can. I do not wish, it hap*pens, to be as*so*ci*a*ted with Mas*sa*chu*setts, ei*ther in hold*ing slaves or in con*quer*ing Mex*ico. I am a lit*tle bet*ter than her*self in these re*spects.”

    — A Week on the Con*cord and Mer*ri*mack Rivers

    Prac*ti*cally speak*ing, the op*pon*ents to a re*form in Mas*sa*chu*setts are not a hun*dred thou*sand pol*i*ti*cians at the South, but a hun*dred thou*sand mer*chants and farm*ers here, who are more in*ter*ested in com*merce and ag*ri*cul*ture than they are in hu*man*ity, and are not pre*pared to do jus*tice to the slave and to Mex*ico, cost what it may. I quar*rel not with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home, co-op*er*ate with, and do the bid*ding of those far away, and with*out whom the lat*ter would be harm*less. We are ac*cus*tomed to say, that the mass of men are un*pre*pared; but im*prove*ment is slow, be*cause the few are not ma*te*ri*ally wiser or bet*ter than the many. It is not so im*por*tant that many should be as good as you, as that there be some ab*so*lute good*ness some*where; for that will leaven the whole lump. There are thou*sands who are in opin*ion op*posed to slav*ery and to the war, who yet in ef*fect do noth*ing to put an end to them; who, es*teem*ing them*selves chil*dren of Wash*ing*ton and Frank*lin, sit down with their hands in their pock*ets, and say that they know not what to do, and do noth*ing; who even post*pone the ques*tion of free*dom to the ques*tion of free-trade, and qui*etly read the prices-cur*rent along with the latest ad*vices from Mex*ico, af*ter din*ner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both. What is the price-cur*rent of an hon*est man and pa*triot to-day? They hes*i*tate, and they re*gret, and some*times they pe*ti*tion; but they do noth*ing in ear*nest and with ef*fect. They will wait, well dis*posed, for others to rem*edy the evil, that they may no longer have it to re*gret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a fee*ble coun*te*nance and God-speed, to the right, as it goes by them. There are nine hun*dred and ninety-nine pa*trons of vir*tue to one vir*tu*ous man; but it is eas*ier to deal with the real pos*ses*sor of a thing than with the tem*po*rary guard*ian of it. [¶10]

    All vot*ing is a sort of gam*ing, like che*quers or back*gam*mon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a play*ing with right and wrong, with moral ques*tions; and bet*ting nat*u*rally ac*com*pa*nies it. The char*ac*ter of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, per*chance, as I think right; but I am not vi*tally con*cerned that that right should pre*vail. I am wil*ling to leave it to the ma*jor*ity. Its ob*li*ga*tion, there*fore, never ex*ceeds that of ex*pe*di*ency. Even vot*ing for the right is do*ing noth*ing for it. It is only ex*pres*sing to men fee*bly your de*sire that it should pre*vail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to pre*vail through the power of the ma*jor*ity. There is but lit*tle vir*tue in the ac*tion of mas*ses of men. When the ma*jor*ity shall at length vote for the ab*o*li*tion of slav*ery, it will be be*cause they are in*dif*fer*ent to slav*ery, or be*cause there is but lit*tle slav*ery left to be ab*o*lished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can has*ten the ab*o*li*tion of slav*ery who as*serts his own free*dom by his vote. [¶11]

    I hear of a con*ven*tion to be held at Bal*ti*more, or else*where, for the se*lec*tion of a can*di*date for the Pres*i*dency, made up chiefly of ed*i*tors, and men who are pol*i*ti*cians by pro*fes*sion; but I think, what is it to any in*de*pen*dent, in*tel*li*gent, and re*spect*able man what de*ci*sion they may come to, shall we not have the ad*van*tage of his wis*dom and hon*esty, nev*er*the*less? Can we not count upon some in*de*pen*dent votes? Are there not many in*di*vid*u*als in the coun*try who do not at*tend con*ven*tions? But no: I find that the re*spect*able man, so called, has im*me*di*ately drifted from his po*si*tion, and de*spairs of his coun*try, when his coun*try has more rea*sons to de*spair of him. He forth*with adopts one of the can*di*dates thus se*lected as the only avail*able one, thus prov*ing that he is him*self avail*able for any pur*poses of the dem*a*gogue. His vote is of no more worth than that of any un*prin*ci*pled for*eigner or hire*ling na*tive, who may have been bought. Oh for a man who is a man, and, as my neigh*bor says, has a bone in his back which you can*not pass your hand through! Our sta*tis*tics are at fault: the pop*u*la*tion has been re*turned too large. How many men are there to a square thou*sand miles in the coun*try? Hardly one. Does not Amer*ica offer any in*duce*ment for men to set*tle here? The Amer*i*can has dwin*dled into an Odd Fel*low, — one who may be known by the de*vel*op*ment of his or*gan of gre*gar*i*ous*ness, and a man*i*fest lack of in*tel*lect and cheer*ful self-re*li*ance; whose first and chief con*cern, on com*ing into the world, is to see that the alms-houses are in good re*pair; and, be*fore yet he has law*fully donned the virile garb, to col*lect a fund for the sup*port of the wid*ows and or*phans that may be; who, in short, ven*tures to live only by the aid of the mu*tual in*sur*ance com*pany, which has prom*ised to bury him de*cently. [¶12]

    It is not a man’s duty, as a mat*ter of course, to de*vote him*self to the erad*i*cat*ion of any, even the most enor*mous wrong; he may still prop*erly have other con*cerns to en*gage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it prac*ti*cally his sup*port. If I de*vote my*self to other pur*suits and con*tem*plat*ions, I must first see, at least, that I do not pur*sue them sit*ting upon an*other man’s shoul*ders. I must get off him first, that he may pur*sue his con*tem*plat*ions too. See what gross in*con*sis*tency is tol*er*a*ted. I have heard some of my towns*men say, “I should like to have them or*der me out to help put down an in*sur*rec*tion of the slaves, or to march to Mex*ico, — see if I would go;” and yet these very men have each, di*rectly by their al*le*giance, and so in*di*rectly, at least, by their money, fur*nished a sub*sti*tute. The sol*dier is ap*plauded who re*fuses to serve in an un*just war by those who do not re*fuse to sus*tain the un*just gov*ern*ment which makes the war; is ap*plauded by those whose own act and au*thor*ity he dis*re*gards and sets at nought; as if the State were pen*i*tent to that de*gree that it hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that de*gree that it left off sin*ning for a mo*ment. Thus, un*der the name of order and civil gov*ern*ment, we are all made at last to pay hom*age to and sup*port our own mean*ness. Af*ter the first blush of sin comes its in*dif*fer*ence; and from im*moral it be*comes, as it were, un*moral, and not quite un*nec*es*sary to that life which we have made. [¶13]

  • #2
    I likely never would have read something like this. Thanks for posting it, Lou.

    I recognize a lot of his points as those embraced by Libertarians. Much of it agrees with me. Some of it really speaks to me, and how especially relevant it seems today. I can see how implications and warnings have come to ugly, evil fruition.

    It also seems to me that virtually everyone in his day disagreed with him. Just a look at how things are today makes it obvious that virtually everyone in our generation disagrees with him.

    What I really enjoyed is Thoreau's emphasis on individual responsibility towards conscience and God.


    • #3
      Originally posted by Baruch View Post
      I likely never would have read something like this. Thanks for posting it, Lou.

      I recognize a lot of his points as those embraced by Libertarians. Much of it agrees with me. Some of it really speaks to me, and how especially relevant it seems today. I can see how implications and warnings have come to ugly, evil fruition.

      It also seems to me that virtually everyone in his day disagreed with him. Just a look at how things are today makes it obvious that virtually everyone in our generation disagrees with him.

      What I really enjoyed is Thoreau's emphasis on individual responsibility towards conscience and God.
      Amen. The same here. The student that I teach had a test of this essay. So I had to read it. I was struck just as you were by the same things.

      There are three more parts.