First posted on March 5, 2015
Maxham daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau, aged 39, made in 1856
Once upon a time Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay, “Civil Disobedience” was a staple of freshman writing classes in colleges and universities across America. I can’t say for sure that it no longer is, but I’d bet dollars to donut holes that it is not. It would be found to be politically incorrect, I’m afraid. After all, its opening line is: I heartily accept the motto, “ That government is best which governs least.”
Such sentiment would surely violate speech codes on most college campae of today. At least it would be considered unacceptable as not politically correct. How do I know this? Well, it’s a good guess because finding an authentic copy of Thoreau’s essay that has not been bowdlerized by the speech police can be a bit tricky. I haven’t seen one that actually inserts words Thoreau never wrote; the preferred method is to simply omit the most politically incorrect passages.
There are many. Thoreau believed a lot of things that ring true for conservatives today. Thoreau’s distrust of government was not that it is sometimes or just a little corrupt or unjust but that the government is primarily an agent of corruption and injustice. Conservatives today would modify that slightly to say that there always exists a danger that government will be corrupt and unjust and that is exactly why the government should be limited and restricted to doing no more than those few things which governments must do, such as enforce a rule of law, provide a stable currency and defend against foreign enemies. It is when government tries to go beyond its necessary and proper functions that it is most likely to become the agent of corruption and injustice. In Lincoln’s words, government should do only those things which the people cannot do for themselves. Thoreau would say it this way: Government should not attempt to do those things which the people can do for themselves, and can do better:
Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed on, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage. It is excellent, we must all allow. Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. 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. For government is an expedient by which men would fain succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been said, when it is most expedient, the governed are most let alone by it. Trade and commerce, if they were not made of india-rubber, would never manage to bounce over the obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way;
Today’s “leave us alone” conservatives heartily agree.
Thoreau did not believe that the majority was always a legitimate ruler. Merely constituting a majority does not guarantee wisdom and virtue. In the following passage Thoreau seems to have contemplated what is today called the “low-information voter:”
I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for the selection of a candidate for the Presidency, made up chiefly of editors, and men who are politicians by profession; but I think, what is it to any independent, intelligent, and respectable man what decision they may come to? Shall we not have the advantage of his wisdom and honesty, nevertheless? Can we not count upon some independent votes? Are there not many individuals in the country who do not attend conventions? But no: I find that the respectable man, so called, has immediately drifted from his position, and despairs of his country, when his country has more reason to despair of him. He forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving that he is himself available for any purposes of the demagogue. His vote is of no more worth than that of any unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have been bought. O for a man who is a man, and, as my neighbor says, has a bone in his back which you cannot pass your hand through!
In the followed passage I have marked out some words, which will be evident, and entered new ones in bold type, to show how Thoreau’s essay presaged a phenomenon we are living with today:
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 Obamacare, executive amnesty, etc., 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.
Thoreau seems to have contemplated much more about what would have been to him, the future, and is now what we see before us today:
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? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will.
If I am correct and Thoreau’s essay is no longer read by college freshman, that is a tragedy. I remember reading it for the first time when I was a freshman, and reveling in it. If today’s millennials would read it they might be on the road to discovering the real roots of their discontent.
UPDATE: Thoreau’s essay is more timely than ever, as shown by this sampling from current news: California Prosecutor Falsified Transcript of Confession and this important new book, Licensed to Lie, Exposing Corruption in the Department of Justice.