Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Civil Disobedience?

And just like this poor feline, most people who attempt civil disobedience in America learn that the leash is pretty strong, and so is the arm that holds it. Is that Thoreau's point in his essay "Civil Disobedience?"


Thoreau was quite unhappy about slavery and about the Mexican War. (This would be the war that "freed" Texas from Mexico. The problem wasn't exactly the war, but what kind of state Texas would be if and when it was admitted to the Union. Would it be slave or free? And what were we doing slugging it out with Mexico over Mexico's own territory? Can you just invade a sovereign nation and grab the land because you want to? Lots of people were unhappy about the Iraq --oops -- Mexican war.)

Thoreau was so unhappy, he declined to pay his taxes, for which offense he spent a night in jail. While there, he discovered that his body could be locked up, but his mind was free to ramble, and it rambled right on over to considering who has the right to tell him what to do. The government, he decided, does not have the right to govern him in ways contrary to his own conscience. It must respect him as an individual; he does not owe it respect as a government, unless it keeps its end of the bargain.

In case you purged everything that came earlier in the semester, remember that this is straight out of Rousseau, who believed that the only legitimate government is the one that supports the rights of the individual. Further, Rousseau asserted that individuals who are NOT so supported can choose to opt out of being governed. Rousseau, remember, believed that people were basically good. It was only governments that were bad. Thoreau saw the obvious problem with this and decided to say that government attracts to itself people who are not as good, as intelligent, or as "able" as most people. It's a kind of idiot farm, really. And as such, nobody has to pay any attention to it if they don't want.

Does this seem simplistic? It's a little naive, for sure, because Thoreau was operating on the basic principal that people would, left to their own devices, treat each other well and do the right things. Obviously he had never heard of Enron. And too, he was living in Concord, not in a slum in New York or Philadelphia, where he might have been less charitable about his landlord.

At any rate, he wants to refuse to support the government the only way he can, which is to withhold his taxes. Not content with that, however, he reminds his neighbors that they, too, are acting immorally when they pay taxes to a corrupt government. Further, he reminds us that merely "voting right" is slactivism of the worst kind; it does nothing to better the condition of one's fellow man. Even further, he says that in a society that imprisons men unjustly (and he implies that he was himself unjustly jailed), the only place for a truly just person is in jail right alongside them.

To "opt out" of government may seem like a great idea, but there are problems. For one, even in Thoreau's time, the taxes did more than pay for wars; they built roads, schools, and provided courts and law enforcement. In our own time, we might complain about taxes, but we do not have the money ourselves to pave our own highways, build our own schools, or hire bodyguards to replace public police.

Another problem is that governments do, in fact, offer us a kind of protection and legitimacy that we take for granted because they are invisible. We are free to travel about the world as American citizens, and if we get into trouble abroad, the embassies are there to back us up (sometimes). Not having citizenship can be a real problem -- just ask the Palestinians.

A third problem is what to do with those who decide not to be governed. Do they have to live in a special no-service area? Do they have to pay to use roads and schools? To whom do they resign, anyway: "Dear Congress, I hereby declare that you don't govern me"?

Thoreau resigned from paying the mandatory tithe in Massachusetts by saying that he does not wish to be enrolled in any organization that he never joined in the first place. It seems simple enough. It's only when we apply that idea to citizenship itself that it becomes quite a thorny issue.


  1. After reading your post and looking at the reading, I have realized what I think Thoreau’s problem is. This problem would be that he was stubborn and a bit cocky. I can’t quite understand why some people get so intensely obsessed with certain aspects and believes and I never will. The more I hear about Thoreau, the more it makes me think of one of my brother. NO ONE can talk about music, movies, politics, religion, or any other major controversial topic with him. My brother is super intense about certain things. "Civil Disobedience" was what Thoreau was passionate about and well it is still being talked about. The last thing I would like to say is for Thoreau and my brother, just relax and take a breather.

  2. Wow, if Thoreau heard that, he'd blow a gasket. He would say that no moral person could take a breather in a nation where slavery was condoned by the government. Then he'd foam at the mouth and stomp off into the woods. Sometimes the air gets a bit thin up there on the moral high ground.

  3. I also like Thoreau, dislike paying taxes. However, I would never consider not paying them. I value the roads, schools and police enforcement that the taxes go to pay for. I agree with Thoreau on the fact that the government can somewhat control what we do physically but they can't control our thoughts.

  4. Oh by the way the above comment was by Katy Simpkins

  5. i agree with shylah he did seem a bit cocky and for his time it could of worked if he didnt want to be governed by a government or anything that he didnt join, but in our time it would never work with as much as the government does for us but his ideas could be kept and changed a bit to fit our time with more power behind the people and less with the government

  6. Emily Dean said...

    Well if he didnt like it he should have got onto a ship and gone back to Merry Ol' England then. Haha, no. I though that it was kind of noble of Thoreau to stand up for what he believed in. At least he didnt get shot down trying to walk on the capital or something like that. He used a very mature approach to dealing with something that he didnt believe in or support and tried to hit the government were it hurts there pockets. Even though it back fired and he was sent to jail, which he seemed to enjoy and in some cases is the better place for some people because it is warm, dry, and you are feed. And Thoreau was never technically in jail because his mind was free to think. So to him it was just a vacation gone bad.

  7. I was just about to post very similarly to what Shylah said. He just seems very caught up in all of it. Agreeing with you, Mrs. Hanks, he just makes himself sound so naive. I think he and Emerson have this little bandwagon that people are interested in, but nobody is actually jumping on. And nobody is jumping because what is it really going to do? No matter what, somebody is going to believe the government is corrupt and somebody is going to rebel. I think it's great that Thoreau is voicing what he believes, but in some parts he just goes over the top.

  8. I like Thoreau better than i like Emerson.I like to think Thoreau was a bit more of a critical thinker. However, i believe both of them to be naive. Its easy to think of the world as being good when you dont have much to worry about and you have the time and money to head into the woods for a couple days to find a meaning to life. I think Emerson and Thoreau may of came up with a more refined concept if they had spent a week in a factory but im sure they didnt agree with factories.

  9. I think its very interesting that because he refused to pay his taxes, the government put him in jail for one night haha. He's a smart man and I solute him for it. And while he was in jail he realized that nobody aka the government should control someone when they don't want to be controlled. It kind of reminds you of a thing we call communism.

  10. Adam Said...

    I might be crazy but Thoreau seems like the kid in school that always got in trouble because he didn't feel that the teachers had the power to tell him/her what to do. He didn't want to be controlled by the government so he quit paying taxes... I don't think there a special place that i know of in the United States that doesn't have some sort of use of something that was paid for by taxes. So therefore, if he didn't pay taxes i think we should move to a place where he wouldn't have to pay taxes. Like a island in the middle of no where or in the middle of the jungle in Africa. Through all of my hatred towards his actions, I do agree with him on one thing. I do not believe that anyone should be told how to think.If that is done, life begin to become bland and to put constrains on thinking takes all creativity out of life.