Sunday, November 15, 2009
A Lesson to learn from a “liberal icon”, “Civil Disobedience” author
Thoreau did not start out a nature novelist as his first foray into writing was in the Transcendentalist paper “The Dial” with his poem “Sympathy”. In his day he was the equivalent of today’s “green-peace” though he did not educate the masses from a fast moving boat but that of his writing.
There was another side to this man of nature and harmony and it was this man that penned “Civil Disobedience”. In the tranquil surroundings of 19th Century New England, Thoreau received his inspiration to write the tome due to his personal experience and distaste to the threat to personal freedom when he was imprisoned in 1846 (for just one night) as a result of his refusal to pay taxes in protest.
He wrote in Civil Disobedience “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”
The adverse effect of the power the State had over him after they arrested him was of a profound nature, so much so that another passage in his book read “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. Let us see who is the strongest. “
Ironically, Thoreau would have stayed in jail forever if necessary to make his stand against the tyranny of the State if it had not been for his family members paying his fines on the same day as his imprisonment without his knowledge. Thus he spent on day in jail but it only took that day to shape his dissent and beliefs.
He also wrote, in Civil Disobedience” about his jailers “They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are under-bred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall.... I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.
Thoreau was an inspiration to a couple of other liberal icons, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. When Gandhi’s referred to his second imprisonment in India he stated “Placed in a similar position for refusing his poll tax, the American citizen Thoreau expressed similar thought in 1849. Seeing the wall of the cell in which he was confined, made of solid stone 2 or 3 feet thick, and the door of wood and iron a foot thick, he said to himself, “If there were a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was still a more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was.”
There are a lot of similarities that we, as Americans share with Thoreau in today’s struggle against the State we call our Government. There many who never heard of Thoreau and quite a few more that have never read the two books he published about nature. There are many others that hold Thoreau up as a literary icon and do not know of his anti-tax “Civil Disobedience” book that cuts against liberal ideology today.
We are not as ignorant as our socialist American neighbors would have us believe. According to Wendy McElroy, author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998), Thoreau opening lines in “Civil Disobedience “sets the tone by endorsing Thomas Jefferson’s much quoted sentiment on government — “That government is best which governs least.”
Then Thoreau carries Jefferson’s logic one step further:
Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “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. Government is at best but an expedient....
Whatever his position on government, one point is clear: Thoreau denies the right of any government to automatic and unthinking obedience. Obedience should be earned and it should be withheld from an unjust government. To drive this point home, “Civil Disobedience” dwells on how the Founding Fathers rebelled against an unjust government, which raises the question of when rebellion is justified.
To answer, Thoreau compares government to a machine and the problems of government to “friction.” Friction is normal to a machine so that its mere presence cannot justify revolution. But open rebellion does become justified in two cases: first, when the friction comes to have its own machine, that is, when the injustice is no longer occasional but a major characteristic; and, second, when the machine demands that people cooperate with injustice. Thoreau declared that, if the government “requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. “
So I end this “history” lesson to give thanks to all of those who stand in defiance to this tyrannical and oppressive regime of the Socialist in power today. We can all consider ourselves to be “civil disobedient” in the mold of Thoreau!
Henry David Thoreau - "Civil Disobedience" Essay