The Legacy of "Resistance to Civil Government"

"Readings of Thoreau's Resistance to Civil Government" Wynn Yarborough, VCU
"Images for reform: "means and ends, seed and fruit" and civil disobedience by Antonio Casado da Rocha

Much has been written on Thoreau's landmark essay on "Civil Disobedience." Indeed, it has been used as a model for modern day leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi. Andrew Trask states, "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. "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." (Richard Lenat)

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, 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 laws in general, but to 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.

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.
Would 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