The Political Principles of Thoreau

            Henry David Thoreau was, in many ways, ahead of his time in his political beliefs. During his brief life, he lectured occasionally and struggled to get his writings published. Gaining very little recognition during his lifetime, his death in 1862 went virtually unnoticed, and his true genius as a social philosopher and writer was not fully recognized until the twentieth century. Ironically, "Civil Disobedience," the anti-war, anti-slavery essay for which he is probably best known, has become a manual for social protest by giving support to the passive resistance of Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other conscientious objectors (Paul 233).

            Thoreau’s "Civil Disobedience" was mainly a protest against slavery: "I cannot for an instant recognize the political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also" (854). On a deeper level, the essay was a general protest against any form of political injustice and an affirmation of the obligation of passive resistance, encouraging individuals to disobey any laws they felt were unjust.

            In 1846 while living at Walden, Thoreau demonstrated the doctrine of passive resistance when he was arrested for not paying poll taxes because of his opposition to Texas entering the Union as a slave state and his opposition to the Mexican War. He was robbed of the chance to test the tax when he was released from jail the next day after a relative paid what was owed. Desiring to make the public aware of the abolitionist cause, Thoreau composed an essay that considered the rights and duties of the individual in relation to government. He noted that man is not bound to a government that legislates injustice. This essay was originally published in 1849 as "Resistance to Civil Government" and posthumously in 1866 as "Civil Disobedience" (852).

            "Civil Disobedience," begins with the well-known motto - "That government is best which governs least" (852). This carried to its natural conclusion is no government at all, which he says will happen when people are prepared. Thoreau realizes that the immediate need is not for no government but for better government. "Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it" (853). Thoreau asks whether it is not better to decide right and wrong by conscience which everyone has. "It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right" (853).

           Thoreau's strong objection to the Mexican War was voiced as a central argument in "Civil Disobedience" when he urged individuals to resist lending support to a cause they did not believe in, even if they were in the minority. Not only should men refuse to fight in an unjust war, they should refuse to support the unjust government that conducts the war.

            Despite caring little for organized reform movements, Thoreau could not resist the cause of the abolitionists. Previously, he had helped some runaways and after the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Law that called for the capture and return of runaway slaves, he delivered his "Plea for Captain John Brown." Once again, Thoreau denounced the federal government for sanctioning the institution of slavery and praised the morality of Brown’s violent resistance to slavery.

            Thoreau's attitude toward reform involved his transcendental efforts to live a spiritually meaningful life in nature. As a transcendentalist, Thoreau believed that reality existed only in the spiritual world, and the solution to people’s problems was the free development of emotions ("Transcendentalism"). Thoreau emphasized self-reliance, individuality, and anti-materialism and sharply questioned the basic assumptions of the way men lived.

            Transcendentalism proved to be the intellectual force that charged Thoreau’s imagination to write about the possibilities of an ideal existence for man. He viewed transcendentalism as the religious and intellectual expression of American democracy: all men had an equal chance of experiencing and expressing divinity (perfection) directly, regardless of social status, wealth, or politics (Meltzer 87). His writings reflected optimism and faith in man’s capabilities to rise above any unsatisfactory situation in life through the power of intellect.

            Thoreau’s summation of the role of government is eloquently stated in these lines from "Civil Disobedience." "There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly" (867).

Works Cited

Meltzer, Milton, ed. Thoreau: People, Principles, and Politics. New York: Hill, 1963. 80-88.

Paul, Sherman, ed. Walden and Civil Disobedience. By Henry David Thoreau. Boston: Houghton, 1960. 231-233.

Thoreau, Henry David. "Resistance to Civil Government." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Fifth ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 1999. 852-867.

"Transcendentalism." The World Book Encyclopedia. 1994 ed.

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