Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862)
“In the mountains where Henry David Thoreau preached civil disobedience,” the news story began, “some stiffnecked tax resisters are locked in a battle of will with U.S. authorities over an isolated house.” In protest against U.S. military interventions around the world, Randy Kehler and Betsy Corner waged “a battle” by refusing to pay federal income taxes over a number of years. Going Thoreau one better, they gave the tax money to victims of war, homelessness, and injustice.
Subsequently, supporters in the Western Massachusetts village of Colrain risked arrest by occupying the 91-year-old house after Kehler was carried away to jail; in doing so, they joined an estimated 10,000 people throughout the U.S. who resist federal taxes that pay for war and nuclear armaments. Some knowingly, others unknowingly, perhaps, followed the “good ole American” precedent set by Thoreau and others 150 years before.
In 1846, Thoreau was provoked to active resistance by U.S. intervention in Mexico, in this country’s first major imperialist war; Kehler and Comer were provoked by U.S. interventions in El Salvador, Panama — those successive, relentless imperial sorties during the 1980s, as they were provoked earlier by Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Nicaragua. Kehler, forty-seven years old at the time of his arrest in December 1991, had spent 22 months in federal prison for draft resistance during the decade-long war in Southeast Asia.
Although Henry David Thoreau regarded himself as a mystic and natural philosopher, he has probably pushed more people into action than have most so-called revolutionaries. Born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau ventured from his native city only occasionally, but — like his contemporary Emily Dickinson of Amherst — learned more from his relatively circumscribed life than most people learn by traveling the world. His approach to mining nature’s secrets during two year’s residence at Walden Pond, then along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, to Maine and Cape Cod remains as valid today as it was in the mid-19th century. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” he wrote in Walden, “to front only the essential facts of life...
I wanted to live deep and to suck out all the marrow of life ... to drive life into a comer, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Prior to his two years at Walden Pond in the 1840s, Thoreau had grown up in Concord, graduated from nearby Harvard College, then returned to live with his family and to teach school in Concord, where he was a close associate of Emerson and other members of the Transcendental Club, and wrote for The Dial magazine. After the sojourn at Walden Pond, he stayed in Concord, writing and making occasional trips to Maine, Cape Cod, and New York (where he met Walt Whitman), and—in the early 1860s — to the Great Lakes and along the Mississippi River. He died in 1862, at 45, of tuberculosis.
One can hardly overemphasize the timeliness of Thoreau’s writings at present, as well as in the 19th and 20th centuries. For citizens, he provides a vigorous, authoritative, and inspiring rationale for resisting a repressive, war-making State. His work often led persons very different from Thoreau in temperament and background “to construct peace.” Over the two centuries, that influence has been acknowledged by nonviolent activists and theorists from Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Philip Berrigan, by Danes resisting Nazism in the 1940s, and Chinese students waging a pro-democracy movement in 1989. Reflecting on his night in jail, initially in a lecture, then in the published essay, “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau advocated an adamant stand against paying taxes that “enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.” He was angered particularly by his fellow abolitionists, perhaps including Emerson, for their failure to take a more militant stand against slavery. Emerson’s uneasiness with Thoreau is evident in several journal entries at the time, as well as in their (probably apocryphal) exchange at the Concord jail: Emerson: “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau: “Waldo, what are you doing out there?”
Thoreau spoke not as a lawyer or politician, but as a moralist, because, as he said in Walden, “Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only instrument that never fails.” He understood that those most responsible for an evil — at that time, slavery — succeed not because of their behavior, but because others who recognize the evil do nothing to stop it. “Practically speaking, the opponents of a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the South,” he said, “but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity.”
In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau also challenged passive citizens who think they can have a better society merely by wishing for it. “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it,” he argued. “It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.” Writing in his journal soon after his night in jail Thoreau said of tepid citizens, “Better are the physically dead for they more lively rot.”
Rereading “Civil Disobedience,” one imagines what he might say about the politics of greed and the accompanying collapse of his country’s infrastructure since the Iraq war. The fact that contemporary writers of Thoreau’s stature seldom attend to today’s civil disobedients as closely as he did to those of his own time speaks also of America’s decline.
One can hardly take up “Civil Disobedience” without the blood stirring, without being drawn into the central issues of Thoreau’s era and our own — issues that touch on the nature of government, community, individual rights, but also of language, discourse, writing, argument, rhetoric. It is such an extraordinarily rich document — vigorous, concrete, passionate, witty, philosophical, even as it provokes more questions about governance, perhaps, than it answers.
Historically, Thoreau’s statement belongs to a tradition that dates from at least the 17th century and touches on arguments and cases that involved the Quakers particularly, over three centuries, in England and America. He also profited from and built upon many statements similar to his own in the years associated with the abolitionist struggle and protests against the Mexican War, by Emerson, Bronson Alcott and the transcendentalists, and by William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou. It is no accident that, in resisting imperial wars and policies since the Second World War, activists inevitably re-work some of the ground plowed by Thoreau 150 years before.
For centuries, men and women committed to nonviolence have tried to figure out ways not only to resist a system that upheld slavery and oppression, but also to prevent their country from imitating European imperialists in conducting their affairs. Although not the first such effort (David R. Weber, in Civil Disobedience in America: A Documentary History, includes several essays written prior to Thoreau’s), “Civil Disobedience” brought together the arguments proposed by others in an eloquent and economical way; it remains, along with the Declaration of Independence and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one of the most influential documents in the tradition. Even if Thoreau was not a pacifist, his stance before the State was more revolutionary than those of most recent nonviolent activists, and his argument and statement are central to anyone committed to bringing about social change.
Just how far Thoreau would go to resist government is dramatized by his “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” written a decade after “Civil Disobedience.” Reflecting the intellectual and moral vigor of the 1850s, when Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman published other American masterpieces, the essay took a position shared by William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and others who came to regard the Civil War as a holy war against slavery.
In his visits to Worcester, a hotbed of abolitionism twenty miles southwest of Concord, for example, Thoreau spoke to a sympathetic audience. Thoreau’s admirers there included Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Elihu Burritt, Abigail Kelley and Stephen Symonds Foster, and other militants. Some Worcesterites, as with Bostonians and Concordians, probably found Thoreau’s “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” about the militant abolitionist’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, too radical for their taste. But characteristically, Thoreau felt compelled “to correct the tone and statements” of editors and politicians regarding Brown’s character and actions. In his address, Thoreau told his audience at Mechanics Hall, Worcester, “It costs us nothing to be just.”
Hardly a disciple of nonviolence, Thoreau nonetheless belongs to an American tradition of justice-seekers that includes John Woolman, Jane Addams, Dorothy Day, Ammon Hennacy, and David Dellinger. And since about 1960, civil disobedients — draft resisters, the Catonsville Nine, members of Clamshell Alliance and Plowshares — have regarded Thoreau as their inspiration and guide. By their commitment to civil disobedience, in resisting injustice and war, they keep Thoreau’s memory alive.
Modern scholars, including Walter Harding and Richard Lebeaux, have done their part as well, in enabling us to see the life and thought of the great moralist in context. It remains for the rest of us to see that Thoreau’s words and example inform our efforts to alter the priorities of our society and government to reflect his moral and ethical concerns. We do so by resisting unjust laws and practices, as he did, and by “building a new society in the shell of the old,” as the Wobblies and Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, recommended. Individual resisters who live Thoreau’s principles make a difference, if only “as a majority of one,” as Thoreau once said.
Slavery in Massachusetts - July 4, 1854 speech in Framingham, Massachusetts
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