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  • The Voluntaryist

Ideas Have Consequences— Abolitionist Henry David Thoreau



One of the most significant essays of all times Is Henry David Thoreau's “Civil Disobedience.” Originally delivered In 1848 as a talk on the relation of the Individual to the State and the story of Thoreau's tax resistance, It was published the following year under the title of "Resistance to Civil Government". In his essay, Thoreau deals with several themes of crucial importance.


Thoreau not only rejected unjust laws but he also withdrew his support from the men who made them. He realized that there were a large number of people who paid obedience to the law, simply because It was the law. This class of people unquestioningly obeyed the law. As Thoreau observed, "Law never made men a whit more just; and by means of their respect, for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice." To the extent that laws embodied justice, and only to that extent, would Thoreau obey them. Laws embodying injustice he disregarded or disobeyed.


The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 requiring the return of slaves who had escaped from captivity was a classic example of a law which Thoreau rejected. Rather than enforce this law, Thoreau believed the Governor of Massachusetts should have resigned. By remaining in office and executing a law which embraced an Injustice, the Governor subordinated his conscience to the law. Thoreau demanded that office-holders shed the mantle of their office and take personal responsibility for what they did. Lawyers, too, were part of the defensive machinery of the State. Although they should be defenders of truth and justice, Thoreau saw that "the lawyer's truth is not Truth, but consistency, or a consistent expediency...." Rather than defend the natural rights of the Individual, lawyers looked to the Constitution and thereby increased the State's legitimacy. But Thoreau went further than refusing to obey unjust laws and refusing to support the agents of the State. He questioned the authority and legitimacy of the government itself. It was for no particular item in the tax bill that he refused to pay: "I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually." For his refusal to pay its poll tax, Sheriff Sam Staples kidnapped Thoreau and held him overnight against his will.


Thoreau exhorted all thinking people to right action in accord with their individual conscience. He realized that ideas have consequences and that the types of ideas we act on largely determine the types of results we get. Voting was nothing more than a "sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions." The essential complaint that Thoreau had with voting was that the voter was not "vitally concerned" that right should prevail because he was willing to leave the decision to the will of the majority. When Thoreau decided not to pay his poll tax, he did not consult the majority but acted directly on his perception of the right. In contrast, had he voted on the subject of paying his taxes and allowed the majority opinion to be the one he acted upon, Thoreau, by his own standards, would have shown a disregard for achieving actually what was right. Instead of aiming at doing right, he would have aimed at fulfilling the will of the majority. Thus Thoreau considered that "even voting for the right is doing nothing for it." In short, Thoreau rejected electoral politics. He came into this world, "not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad." He believed that people should simply go about the business of living their lives, so long as they gave no practical support to the State.


Resistance to injustice and the State is clearly a matter of individual conscience. Many of us refuse to vote or engage in electoral politics as a matter of conscience. Each person has to know his or her own conscience in order to determine the right course for him or herself. Paul Jacob chose to go underground rather than surrender to the federal authorities. Carl Watner chose to go to jail rather than obey a judge's unjust order where he cooperates with the Internal Revenue Service. As Thoreau stated, "The only obligation which (any of us) have a right to assume, is to do at any time what (we) think right." "Action from principle.”


Any one who has had any experience in politics must know how hopeless it is to attempt to effect any reform — especially any reform in the direction of freedom — by that means. At its very best, an election is merely an attempt to obtain the opinion of the majority in a given subject, with the intention of making the minority submit to that opinion. This is in itself a radical wrong. The majority has no more right, under Equal Freedom, to compel the majority. When a man votes he submits to the whole business. By the act of casting his ballot, he shows that he wishes to coerce the other side, if they are the majority. He has, consequently, no cause for complaint if he is coerced himself. He has submitted in advance to the tribunal, he must not protest if the verdict is given against him. If every individual is a sovereign, when he votes he abdicates. If we deny the right of the majority to interfere in our affairs, ít would be absurd to vote and thereby submit ourselves to the will of the majority. Must we then sit still and let our enemies do as they please? The answer is nonviolent resistance. The most perfect nonviolent resistance has often been practiced by the Quakers. During the Civil War the Quakers all absolutely refused to serve in the army. In European countries they have resisted conscription in the same manner. What could be done about it? A few were imprisoned, but they stood firm, and finally, by nonviolent resistance, they have gained immunity from this particular form of tyranny.


To gain anything by political methods, it is first necessary to gain a majority of the votes cast, and even then you have to trust to the integrity of the men elected to office. But with nonviolent resistance this is unnecessary. A good strong minority is all that is needed. It has been shown that the attitude of the State is merely a crude expression of the general consensus of the opinion of its subjects. In determining this consensus, quality must be taken into consideration as well as quantity. The opinion of one determined and intelligent man may far outweigh that of twenty lukewarm followers of the opposition. A quote from Donisthorpe:


"To apply this consideration to practical politics, It may be true that the majority In this country are favorable, say, to universal vaccination. It does not follow that a compulsory law embodies the will of the people; because the very man who is opposed to that law is at least ten times more anxious to gain his end than his adversaries are to gain theirs. He is ready to make far greater sacrifices to attain it. One man rather wishes for what he regards as a slight sanitary safeguard; the other is determined not to submit to a gross violation of his liberty. How differently the two are acutated! One man is willing to pay a farthing in the pound for a desirable object; the other is ready to risk property and perhaps life to defeat that object. In such cases as this, it is sheer folly to pretend that counting heads is a fair indication of the forces behind."


A strong, determined and intelligent minority, employing methods of nonviolent resistance (maybe even showing their efforts to the rest of the world), would be able to carry all before it. Another thing must be remembered. Nonviolent resistance can never pass a law. It can only nullify laws. Consequently, it can never be used as a means of coercion and is particularly adopted to the attainment of Voluntaryism, Abolitionism or True Anarchy. All other schools of reform propose to compel people to do something. For this they must resort to force, usually by passing laws. These laws depend upon political action for their inauguration and physical violence for their enforcement. Abolitionists or Voluntaryists are the only reformers who do not advocate physical violence. Tyranny must ever depend upon the weapon of tyranny, but Freedom can be inaugurated only by means of Freedom. Simply a campaign of education. As converts are gradually gained, nonviolent resistance will grow stronger. At first it must be very slight, but still has its effect. Even the refusal to vote does more than is often supposed. In some states the number of persons who, from lethargy or from principle, refuse to vote, is large enough to alarm the politicians or media. They actually talk at times of compulsory voting. This shows how much even such a small amount of nonviolent resistance is feared. As the cause gains converts and strength, this nonviolent resistance can assume a wider field. The more it is practiced, greater attention will be drawn to underlying principles. Thus education and nonviolent resistance go hand in hand and help each other, step by step, towards the goal of human freedom.


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