Part 6 - Henry David Thoreau
Many people can read, understand, and agree with the common sense principles of individual freedom and limited government presented by our builders thus far. But too many sympathetic to these ideas are convinced that in today’s United States, with the awesome power of government and its minions, they are impossible to implement, and if they are to be implemented, it will only be through violent revolution. This simply is not true, as Henry David Thoreau demonstrated.
Thoreau (1817-1862), although famous for his writings on nature and the tranquillity of isolation, made his most important mark in his essay Civil Disobedience. He inspired and continues to inspire generations of Americans, teaching liberty-minded individuals that grand results can be brought about by peaceful means, through the practice of civil disobedience.
Most Americans, educated in government schools, begin their adult lives thinking government is inevitably powerful and necessarily legitimate. It is rare that someone indoctrinated into this submissive and conformist frame of mind actually discovers his or her own power as a rational, thinking individual to the point of going against the crowd. For most people, the illusion of security is more important than good conscience or the confidence that comes from being an independent thinker. But, as Thoreau showed us, it only takes a minority of people thinking they own themselves for whole societies to change.
In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau wrote: That government is best which governs least, and That government governs best that governs not at all.
These were revolutionary statements in Thoreau's time, and even more so today, when governments are at least twenty times larger and hundreds, or thousands of times more numerous.
Too many of our fellow countrymen are tricked into believing they owe allegiance to a bloated, top-heavy government that, in actual practice, acts as if it owns them. Ironically, they also seem to think as citizens, they control government, which is clearly not the case. One election every two years is not control, nor is one vote in 67 million. Being forced to pay for something you don’t want or need is not control. Yet cries of patriotism, religious fervor, mass hysteria, and plain, old-fashioned fraud have silenced would-be dissenters, and millions of Americans believe not going along with government edicts will inevitably lead to jail or is not worth the inconvenience. Thoreau taught us otherwise.
In July 1846, while spending time near Walden Pond, Massachusetts, Thoreau ran into a tax collector, who demanded he pay six years of delinquent poll taxes. Ever committed to his principles, Thoreau refused because of his opposition to slavery and to the Mexican-American War. He consequently spent a night in jail. Against his wishes, he was freed the next day after his aunt paid his taxes. But like all traumatic experiences, imprisonment, even for a night, had a lasting impact on Thoreau. He went on to lecture and write about his experience, abuses of power, and the rights of the individual.
Civil Disobedience, or Resistance to Civil Government as it is also known, is a masterwork of individualist philosophy in which Thoreau lambasts the state, its abuses, and the fallacies that accompany so-called legitimate governments. However, regardless of one’s belief about the nature of government, the main idea with Thoreau is the power of the individual and his ability to take action.
Thoreau eloquently writes:
Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?
There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.
Thus, for the Walden author, it is the individual who must peacefully take action against immoral governments. The essence of civil disobedience is not anarchy or chaos, but standing up to tyranny, toward which all governments gravitate. Governments inevitably grow beyond legal or constitutional chains that voters naively believe protect them, until someone has the courage to say No!
This was elegantly demonstrated by Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Her single act of defiance against local laws of racial segregation inspired the famous boycott against the Montgomery Bus Company, led by a young, unknown preacher by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. This boycott powerfully demonstrated the effectiveness of Thoreau’s ideas.
Thoreau also inspired Russian author Leo Tolstoy (author of War and Peace) and served as a strong inspiration for Mohandas Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s successful implementations of nonviolent civil disobedience as a means of social change. While I am not a pacifist, there is no reason such examples cannot continue to serve the struggle against tyrannical government in America.
As Thoreau put it:
This American government—what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity...this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way...the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted 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.
As an out-of-control federal government constantly escalates its intrusions into our daily lives, yesterday’s unthinkable could become tomorrow’s necessity. We cannot let that happen. We must take a lesson from Thoreau and stand up for the rights of that smallest and rarest of minorities: the individual.
Our next builder, Rose Wilder Lane, who provided the world with an elegant definition of freedom, explained that we all have the freedom to choose—if only we would exercise it. She also happened to have a very famous mother.
Law never made men a whit more just - H D Thoreau
PREVIOUS - Frederic Bastiat
NEXT - Rose Wilder Lane