On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

Clay Burell writes a blog that is engaging and literate and that on occasion terrifies me. His recent series of posts raises real questions about the Bush administration and the current election, but also about what we, as teachers, are doing in the face of Rome burning. (Sorry Clay, I will spell your last name correctly. It’s a promise.)

As a teacher of American Literature I turn to Henry David Thoreau and teach his essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience published in 1849 under the original title: Resistance to Civil Government.

Radical Roots: Thoreau

Thoreau was famously thrown into the local jail for not paying his taxes. He spent one night in jail, I think, and someone brought him dinner – but the point is, he was mad and making a statement. He didn’t want to support two things – the war with Mexico and slavery – and he felt that by paying his taxes his was tacitly supporting the war by buying that gun and tacitly supporting slavery.

Here is some powerful stuff that would be fighting words today:

The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.

He’s condemning exactly the kind of thing that took us to war with Iraq. A few people using the US government as their personal tool. And he continues:

Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it….
After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, 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. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men understand it….

Majority rule is inherently unfair, says Thoreau – the majority is physically stronger and can be tyrants then against those who oppose their ideas. He says that there are three classes of men, those who serve the state with their bodies, those who serve with their minds, and those who serve with their consciences:

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stone; […] Others–as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders–serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as the rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few–as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men–serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. …

And then the indictment of the citizen. We are sheep who are sad the world is so messed up but, heh? What are we supposed to do?

What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot today? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for other to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. (emphasis mine) At most, they give up only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man. But it is easier to deal with the real possessor of a thing than with the temporary guardian of it.

You can’t just VOTE! (although you MUST vote) You have to DO SOMETHING!!

All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.

We have to act and assert our own freedom and independence. We can not just move along and moo, like cattle. We have to see injustice and be prepared to act. Why, he asks do we vilify those who make us see ourselves as we are? Why do we call them traitors? Why are we looking for someone just like us to tell us what to do? Why do we not listen to the wise folks (even if there aren’t many of them)?

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 the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the 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 put out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?

So, here is what he asks. He says throw yourself on the machine and make it stop.

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth–certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it 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. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

When all sense and reason is gone the only response to injustice is to stand against it.

Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place today, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less despondent spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles.

Thoreau was an idealist, but he believed that we should challenge the rule of the majority and be clear that when we are in the majority we run the risk of becoming tyrants ourselves. It’s not enough just to vote. You have to live out your convictions. Yes, these are radical words much like the words of SDS president Paul Potter, at a 1965 Ann Arbor Teach-In against the Vietnam war, when asked his audience, “How will you live your life so that it doesn’t make a mockery of your values?”

And you know how the SDS is received these days. The same, I suggest, would be the treatment of Thoreau should he appear on Meet the Press tomorrow.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Clay Burell says:


    Time to plug this in the comment thread.

  2. Kate Tabor says:

    I’m lucky. I don’t have to even stretch to include politics in my classroom. And just as old Uncle Walt said in class last week, in a timeless reaction shot:
    Enough! enough! enough!
    Somehow I have been stunn’d. Stand back!
    Give me a little time beyond my cuff’d head, slumbers, dreams, gaping;
    I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake.
    — Song of Myself – section 38)

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