Victor Nuovo: On Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’
Editor’s note: This is the 36th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” rightly belongs among the founding documents of this nation. It complements the “Declaration of Independence.” It adds something altogether new to political thought, and therefore should be counted as a world classic.
In the first instance, like the “Declaration,” it was a declaration of independence, as fundamental in its resolution and its consequences as its predecessor. In 1776, the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain, and thereby they became sovereign independent states. In 1846, one citizen, Henry David Thoreau, asserted the right of individuals to engage in acts of resistance against their government for reasons of conscience. He justified this action by appealing to a higher law, one that is purely just, which required his obedience even if it should cause him to rebel against the authority of his government and to disobey its laws.
Thoreau’s act of civil disobedience consisted in his refusal to pay his taxes, which was required by law. Yet he claimed to have right on his side, “the right to refuse allegiance to and resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.”
He had two grievances against the United States government. One was its war with Mexico (1846–48), which he judged to be an act of aggression and territorial expansion by the government. The other was the institution of slavery, which it condoned. They were connected, for the territorial expansion that occasioned the Mexican War caused an increase in the number of slave-holding states and growth of the slave-economy in the nation.
Certainly the government’s sanction of slavery and its imperialist expansionist policies were morally wrong, and they wrecked much havoc, against Mexico, against African slaves, and against indigenous people, whose lands were seized and who were likewise enslaved. It should be noted that the President whose policies he condemned and whose government he renounced was James Polk, a protégé of Andrew Jackson, a nationalist, an imperialist, and slave holder, who is also greatly admired by the current occupant of the White House.
I will have more to say about Polk and the Mexican War in future essays. My present concern is with the very idea of civil disobedience, which it occasioned. I should begin by pointing out that Thoreau did not use this term, but the idea is his, which is all that matters. He preferred to write about resistance and rebellion.
To begin with, it is customary in accounts of political theory to distinguish between three types of government according to the number of those who govern: one, few, or many, hence: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. The founders of this nation, who prided themselves in having successfully rebelled against the tyranny of Great Britain and desiring to create a free and independent nation, believed that of these three forms of government, democracy is the best, because it is most inclusive, and that in this respect democracy is the end or goal of political progress.
Yet they worried that the principle of majority rule, by which democracies operate, could become a cause of tyranny; “the tyranny of the majority.” Thoreau shared this worry. He concluded that the progress towards a more perfect government was not complete until the individual as such became supreme. “The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual.” Hence, “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 power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”
He then offers a vision of what is to come if a “free and enlightened state” were to be realized. He imagines “a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own purpose, if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit [the fruit of difference and dissent] and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.” Thoreau wrote “all men,” where, to be consistent, he should have written “all persons” of whatever gender or sexual preference, and ethnicity. We must make these changes, for it brings purity to his idea.
What was it to be like, this “more perfect and glorious State”? Thoreau wrote that he imagined it, but believed it never “anywhere seen.” It is a state that exceeds the promise of democracy, where everyone votes, but only the majority rules. It is a state in which the voice of every individual, if it is rational and just and not merely hateful, is never silenced; a society of persons enlightened by truth and justice, who regard each other with kindness and neighborliness and affection, one that is truly open in every way. Is it ever to be realized?
Thoreau’s answer would have been “Yes and No.” He imagined perfection as a goal that requires an infinitude of time to achieve, a goal that through our moral effort becomes nearer and nearer but is never perfectly realized, one that mathematicians would say is approached asymptotically. It is a political vision true to transcendentalist principles, and I’m inclined to believe, one that is true, if people can join together and work for it in harmony.
Thoreau believed moral perfection is achieved not by the individual alone, but by individuals in society, hence it is political perfection as well. The will to achieve it is a political will, to infinite progress, guided by principles of liberty, equality, enlightenment, neighborliness, and kindness, planted in a soil fertilized by dissent. It is a noble vision deserving of an Amen.
Postscript: In some collections of Thoreau’s writing, the work “Civil Disobedience” is given an alternative title, “Resistance to Civil Government.” Under either title, it is a classic.
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