Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience

About four years ago my wife and son and I went to Washington D.C. to visit my aunt and uncle who live there, and also to take our son to many of the museums, historical sites, and government buildings which are located there. We toured the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, The Holocaust Museum, the Smithsonian Institute – you name it, we saw it. But the thing that really stayed in my son’s mind was a small group of people just outside the White House, bundled up in winter coats and earmuffs, beating on drums and chanting loudly, the fog breath wafting from their faces as they protested in the cold winter air.

“What are they doing?” my son asked.

“Protesting,” I said. “Trying to get the people in the White House to listen.”

“What will the people in the White House do?” he asked.

“Probably nothing,” I answered as we walked toward the protestors. Ironically, the government has learned that to fight with protestors usually just brings more attention to the cause.

They held up a hand-made sign that accused President Clinton of being “dishonest” or something, and as my wife and I had nothing against Bill Clinton, we decided not to engage in conversation with the small group, figuring that Clinton’s private life was the least of all things this country had to worry about.

But the important point of this story is that the people had the freedom to stand right outside the White House and make a racket about something they believed in. This was not the last time we saw protestors in D.C.

My son said, “If we did that in Jacksonville in front of the courthouse, they would probably make us stop.”

“Not really,” my wife said. “There have been protest rallies in Jacksonville for various causes.” Which was true, but it is also true, from my observation, that nowhere in the country can people protest like they do in D.C. because, I guess, the authorities in D.C. have the healthy attitude that the people really own the city. This was stated to me more than once both by state park guides and police officers.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1950’s there was a Senator named Joe McCarthy who ruined a lot of people’s careers by accusing them of being communists or communist sympathizers. Most of the time these people were not actually communists and, even if they were, that was no reason to ruin their lives.

McCarthy also banned books. According to Walter Harding in his book “The Variorum Civil Disobedience”, books by Henry David Thoreau were in all the public libraries until the mid-fifties when McCarthy got them banned. McCarthy didn’t like the books that featured Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” which called for American citizens to disobey laws if the laws were wrong. One of the main laws that Thoreau hated was the “right” to own slaves. Thoreau saw it as outrageous that people even had to debate the issue. To him, it was obvious that slavery was evil and he once said of the governor of Massachusetts (a state that condoned commerce in slavery), “He is not MY governor.”

A black man named Anthony Burns was a slave in Alexandria, Virginia in the 1850’s. His so-called “owner” was a man named Charles Suttle. Anthony Burns escaped from the Virginia plantation and made his way to Boston, Massachussetts. During this time there was an ongoing nationwide debate about whether or not slavery should be abolished. In 1854 the escaped man was arrested in Boston and a trial was held. On June 2, 1854, Burns was “convicted” of being a slave and returned to Charles Suttle. Anthony Burns finally gained his freedom when a black church raised $1300.00 to purchase Burns’ freedom. Then, as now, if you don’t have money, the law treats you differently than if you do. I have also learned this lesson from firsthand experience, but I have no wish to go into that matter now.

Henry David Thoreau gave a speech at an anti-slavery rally in 1854. He started by saying that he had intended to give the same speech at a town meeting in Concord, but when he got there he found that none of the citizens or politicians wanted to hear it. They were there to discuss the settlement of land in Nebraska and said that his speech would be “out of order.” Thoreau is deliciously sarcastic as he expresses his dismay that all these people were so interested in some far-away wilderness when there was such an injustice being done right in their own back yard, so to speak. Here’s what he said:

“I LATELY ATTENDED a meeting of the citizens of Concord, expecting, as one among many, to speak on the subject of slavery in Massachusetts; but I was surprised and disappointed to find that what had called my townsmen together was the destiny of Nebraska, and not of Massachusetts, and that what I had to say would be entirely out of order. I had thought that the house was on fire, and not the prairie; but though several of the citizens of Massachusetts are now in prison for attempting to rescue a slave from her own clutches, not one of the speakers at that meeting expressed regret for it, not one even referred to it. It was only the disposition of some wild lands a thousand miles off which appeared to concern them. The inhabitants of Concord are not prepared to stand by one of their own bridges, but talk only of taking up a position on the highlands beyond the Yellowstone River …

They who have been bred in the school of politics fail now and always to face the facts. Their measures are half measures and makeshifts merely …

Again it happens that the Boston Court-House is full of armed men, holding prisoner and trying a MAN, to find out if he is not really a SLAVE. Does any one think that justice or God awaits Mr. Loring’s decision? For him to sit there deciding still, when this question is already decided from eternity to eternity, and the unlettered slave himself and the multitude around have long since heard and assented to the decision, is simply to make himself ridiculous. We may be tempted to ask from whom he received his commission, and who he is that received it; what novel statutes he obeys, and what precedents are to him of authority. Such an arbiter’s very existence is an impertinence. We do not ask him to make up his mind, but to make up his pack.

The Governor’s exploit is to review the troops on muster days. I have seen him on horseback, with his hat off, listening to a chaplain’s prayer. It chances that that is all I have ever seen of a Governor. I think that I could manage to get along without one. If he is not of the least use to prevent my being kidnapped, pray of what important use is he likely to be to me?”

Thoreau has such a way of speaking that I am tempted to quote him too much; I can’t say it any better than he. Thoreau was once jailed to refusing to pay taxes because he didn’t want to support a government that upheld slavery and also, a government involved in a war with Mexico, which he considered an immoral war. He wrote about this experience in an essay called “Resistance to Civil Government”. The name of the essay was later changed to “Civil Disobedience.”

On his website, Richard Lenat writes:

“… Although it is seldom mentioned without references to Gandhi and King, “Civil Disobedience” has more history than many suspect. In the 1940’s it was read by the Danish resistance, in the 1950’s it was cherished by people who opposed McCarthyism, in the 1960’s it was influential in the struggle against South African apartheid, and in the 1970’s it was discovered by a new generation of anti-war activists.”

In his autobiography, Martin Luther King, Jr. states:

“I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest.”

Our world ca
n seem so complex. It’s hard to imagine refusal to pay taxes when they are deducted from one’s paycheck every week. It’s not easy to stand up for something when you don’t know if others will join you. We hear of people being falsely accused of crimes and years later, proven innocent by DNA tests. Many of the freedoms we have now, we take for granted, and some of the restrictions, we also take for granted. Wouldn’t this be a great world if our leaders would simply use common sense and be truly motivated, not by power or greed, but by what is good for all people?

I would like to acknowledge Richard Lenat’s website as the source of some of the information in the preceding article.

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