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HENRY DAVID Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience discourse first appeared as an essay “Resistance to Civil Government; a Lecture delivered in 1847” in Aesthetic Papers, a New England periodical. Thoreau had recently spent more than two years in a cabin near Walden Pond, Massachusetts.
However, Thoreau’s philosophical views led him from this tranquility into action that, years later, was to motivate Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Vietnam protesters, and even Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Thoreau’s original “Resistance to Civil Government” in Aesthetic Papers had good literary company. This periodical was published by Elizabeth Peabody, a bookstore owner in Boston who was also a sister-in-law of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and one of the “Peabody Sisters of Salem”.
Now better known as Civil Disobedience, the essay opens with “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least.’ In fact, Thoreau said he wasn’t the first to express this opinion; according to The Annotated Walden, the sentiment might have come from the masthead of The Democratic Review, a journal of the era.
The essay’s second paragraph asks, “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?”
Were similar sentiments tweeted today, I can imagine the brouhaha. Indeed, recall NPR’s recent celebration of The Declaration of Independence.
Thoreau also wrote, “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.”
I observe that Thoreau’s use of the word “right” was in the sense of “righteous,” not in any political spectrum.
“What is the price-current,” he asked, “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 others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and God-speed, to the right, as it goes by them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man.”
Thoreau was an abolitionist, but not content with those who simply paid lip service to the concept and then looked away. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” he wrote, “the true place for a just man is also in prison…. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race should find them…. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.”
No wonder his words had influence on the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
According to The Annotated Walden, Thoreau’s words “helped the Danish resistance movement take action against the Nazis who had invaded their country. In the 1950’s Senator Joseph McCarthy had Civil Disobedience removed from some local libraries and from those which the United States Information Service had establish in various cites throughout the world. But American opinion turned against McCarthy and stripped him of his power.”
Thoreau’s essay resonated with the 1960s’ civil rights and Vietnam era. The Annotated Walden notes how the essay “took on a new meaning and was more widely read than ever before. But Civil Disobedience is not merely a document that seems timely today; it is good for all seasons.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017