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Transcendental Legacy: Political Reform

Responses to Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government"

Much has been written on Thoreau's landmark essay; indeed, it has been used as a model for modern day leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma GandHi. Andrew Trask states, "It is important to remember that Dr. King viewed civil disobedience only as one part of a larger program of reform." He continues, "There are elements of Dr. King's "direct action" of civil disobedience that we must consider: "pure" nonviolence, pragmatic action, and finally, the difference between just and unjust laws." These ideas are clearly Thoreauvian in nature. Furthermore, Gandhi advocated the use of civility at all times—"the civil register", which extols respect for the opposition and behavior out of understanding rather than anger. And like Thoreau, Gandhi was constantly seeking the higher truth with regard to man's relationship in the universe. Although these men were the most famous followers of Thoreau's ideals, this essay had more wide reaching political and social impact than most people understand. The Danish resistance (1940's) used his theory in Occupied Denmark, in 1950's America it was adhered to by stringent opponents to McCarthyism. In the 1960's it was a means of using passive resistance to create pressure for overturning the laws and customs of racial Segregation and in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. And in the 1970's, it was unearthed by a new generation of anti-war activists. However, it is interesting to note that not all modern day critics agree with Thoreau's determination towards mass nonviolence. James Goodwin writes: "Although Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., credited Thoreau as an inspiration to their mass campaigns of passive resistance, in crucial instances his thought appears to be more closely aligned to a doctrine of individual nihilism than to the philosophy of mass nonviolence. One such instance is contained in Thoreau's response to John Brown." In comparing Thoreau's John Brown pieces to his earlier "Civil Disobedience", Leon Edel concludes, "His defense of John Brown, with his espousal of violence, is hardly the voice of the same man…Thoreau's involvement in his cause has in it strong elements of hysteria." I think it's important to realize that Thoreau was horrified and impassioned by the plight of John Brown and certainly the idea of slavery on a broader scale, and this feeling was obvious in his "Plea for John Brown." Probably most telling to Thoreau's change in narrative voice in these two pieces was Thoreau's anticipation that Brown would be labeled as pathological by a government staunchly opposed to change.

Certainly, in examining "Resistance to Civil Government", it is not simply a question of whether or not a modern day Thoreau would have obeyed traffic signs. On a larger scale, Thoreau was a firm believer in autonomy, professing individual defiance of unjust laws, and a stubborn resistance to government intrusion into society. Is it not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right? Thoreau wasn't opposed to societal laws in general, but in those that rendered the individual incapable of functioning with a good conscience—for example, the laws in regard to slavery. Just because we are members of a given society doesn't mean we have to agree with the laws imposed upon us, especially if those laws are deemed inequitable. It is important to understand that Thoreau was not anti-government, he was pro "improved" government. "But to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it." Other than passing laws according to mass opinion, the government should practice altruism as the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Thoreau saw a government that in his perception was often immoral, overbearing, and self-righteous. He soundly criticized those citizens who "lead lives of quiet desperation" with all the superfluities absolutely unnecessary in customary society.

As a Transcendentalist, Thoreau was particularly disdainful of violent acts, believing that any dispute could be resolved peaceably through reason and intellect. "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." People who obeyed the tax laws in order to support the State at war were aiding injustice on many planes. "The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished, and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way." As a Transcendentalist, Thoreau advocated the character of individual men in making improvements to himself and society as a whole. In fact, the government often existed to treat virtuous citizens as criminals in order to inact the laws at hand. This institution succeeded in punishing slaves as well as Thoreau himself. He went to jail in a quiet protest of the abolitionist cause and the Mexican War. When the neighborly tax collector confronted Thoreau about his delinquency in paying, he agreed with Thoreau's reluctance to support an unworthy cause but hauled him off to jail anyway. According to Patrick Ruffini in his essay, "Civil Disobedience, Now more than ever: "Thoreau's observation crystallizes the moral confusion of a government official knowing you as a human being, but treating you as a number regardless."

In order to appease the masses confounded by Thoreau's acquiescence in being detained, Thoreau detailed his explanation in a lecture presented twice in 1848. It was published in 1849 as "Resistance to Civil Government" and posthumously in 1866 as "Civil Disobedience." If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. Why should a court of law determine whether or not a man had the right to be free, if that individual exercised his will with regard to sound mind and conscience? The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free. They are the lovers of law and order, who observe the law when the government breaks it. According to Sanderson Beck: "We must learn to obey the laws of our own being which will never be in opposition to a just government. Thoreau's great innovation is in the ways he suggested for opposing an unjust government in order to be true to the higher laws of one's own being."

In today's world, Thoreau essay is time honored.

This American government,-- what is it but a tradition... endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man, for a single man can bend it to its will. It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves; and, if ever they should use it in earnest as a real one against each other, it will surely split.
Wouldn't Thoreau roll over in his grave at the state of politics in America today? Or rather, he would urge us to stand up as individuals, take revolutionary action against the established order with autonomy, reason and intellect.
Shannon Riley, Virginia Commonwealth University

Thoreau says, "Government is best when it governs not at all." This is easily compared to the Golden Rule--Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You--in that if everyone is attending to their own business, in search of their own truth, all else would likely fall into place. The Golden Rule applies because naturally if each of us is in instep with our own truth our neighbors would be treated as ourselves--It is a perfect solution to an age-old problem yet we rarely apply it in our daily lives.

Emerson comments in Politics about how Paul and other prophets made it a point to practice self-control and such and how if we practiced this moral behavior and thought, it would overflow into our form of government. Interestingly though I can understand why readers would misinterpret Thoreau's piece as somewhat of a piece on anarchy as it is another idealistic essay. We might get the impression Thoreua is advocating no government at all and I don't know if humans are prepared to live without rules and government. But Thoreau seems more inclined to suggest that humans who are inclined to seek the truth of their own lives are better in touch with their consciences and the results are then really self explanatory or assumed. He does say, "not at once no government, but at once a better government."

If we could only apply that to today's government –well just imagine! It's hard not to remember Thoreau's own incident when he didn't pay his taxes—we might think he was disregarding the government but he did accept his punishment! I would have to say that by spending his time in jail he did profess his belief in some form of government. But Thoreau's point seems to be he will only advocate government but so far. If the government tries to take over minds and injustice is being done in a way—such as slavery, etc.—-he cannot justify that. He says, "Justice is more important than law" and in my opinion nothing rings clearer that this. Humans should count more that a law and God would say the law is nothing when compared to human life. But I can see where people might have a problem with this idea. It seems to be either justice or law and we can't have it both ways. I can't see this being resolved any time soon, as it is age old. Actually it has to do with belief and if one believes and whether one believes the conscience as a leader in moral implications. And that seems to open Pandora's box. I mean every one has a conscience but the point is whether or not the conscience is rooted in good or evil and further what each person's individual concept of good and evil is. I don't know if there is an answer. Thoreau is trying here! As an example what if –and we know this to be true—certain persons believe slavery is constitutional and in their conscience they believe it is moral? Is this from God…the devil…or the human? Is it then ok if the person says it is ok as part of his belief system? Thoreau would advocate we have the right to make noise if we must—if our individual conscience demands the noise-- thus no government has the right to rule a person's conscience.
Lee Gentry, Virginia Commonwealth University

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