Civil Disobedience. Just the title of Thoreau’s essay makes me grin and almost rub my hands together in mischievous delight. I’ve always believed that everyone practices some form of civil disobedience in their lives. For some, it’s the daily wink-wink type of disobedience like disregarding the speed limit, having a couple cocktails before driving home, or running a stop sign. All of these and many others are condoned in some fashion by non-enforcement of existing laws or by economic interests at odds with common sense. And, for the most part, we seem to be ok with these forms of disobedience until someone gets hurt. Indeed, this form of disobedience is not really done as an agitation for change but more for personal convenience. For others, civil disobedience is a weapon for change, a refusal to conform, a protest against war, or an action relating to some other moral issue deeply felt by an individual or individuals.
In my mind, civil disobedience is generally non-violent action, and Thoreau does not advocate violence. He does point out the shortcomings of government as it exists today and its ability to do violence to its own citizens and citizens of other countries. He is very eloquent in his descriptions of the shortcomings of governments to date. But he is equally articulate about the responsibilities of people to think about the kind of government they desire and acting towards that desire.
Thoreau is characteristically blunt in his assessment of the government, its susceptibility to being manipulated by the few, and its ability to do harm:
“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, 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.”
“How does it become a man to behave toward the American Government to-day? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”
“Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?”
“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subject afterward. 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. It is truly enough said that a corporation has on conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.”
“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.”
But he uses that particular weapon for general purposes as well, as he states here:
“It is for no particular item in the tax bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually.”
Nor is he too worried about the consequences, as his well-publicized night in jail attests too. Granted, he only spent one night in a pretty benign village jail. My one night in a county juvenile facility was not nearly as pleasant as his stay seemed to be. Nevertheless, he feels that one should take the consequences head-on:
“Under a government that imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison.”
But for me the best words of wisdom are about personal responsibility and the hope that we all take time to think about and imagine what government we really want:
“I 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. A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should be doing something wrong.”
“The best thing a man can do for his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out those schemes which he entertained when he was poor.”
“For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever.”
“They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humanity; but they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward the fountain-head.”
“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.”
“I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which I have also imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”
[TRIGGER WARNING: POLITICS! Skip this paragraph if you might be offended by other people’s political views] There are just so many little tidbits in there that remind me how much I love Thoreau’s writings and philosophy. It’s amazing how well this essay still rings true today as well, albeit with a couple of words switched out, such as “slave” for “_______”. You can put your governmental grievance in the space. I know I have contemplated not paying my taxes in the past, usually as the only way I can see to not fund America’s wars (as Thoreau did not want to fund the Mexican-American war) or see my tax money go to the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about and Thoreau would have abhorred. In keeping with Thoreau’s request that everyone make know the kind of government they could respect, I’ll just say that my government would not involve itself in never-ending wars for profit, torture, abnegate habeus corpus, or spy on its own citizens, among other things.
I have read this essay many times in the past and will do so as many times as possible in the future. So it is with great joy that I learned about the Sharp Teeth Press edition of Civil Disobedience. I would have eaten ramen and drank bad tea or done whatever it took to get a copy as soon as possible. Luckily, $125 for the regular edition, I didn’t have to worry too much. I can now look forward to many readings of this beautifully executed little book.
Being a single essay, this is a small book of 32 pages but presented in a way that adds even more power to the essay. The thick Rives BFK paper allows the type to bite deeply into page. The hand-made paper sides contrast nicely with the brown cow leather spine; especially with the unevenness of the border that makes each book slightly different. Nate Van Dyke’s portrait of Thoreau for the frontispiece is striking and his expression perfectly suited to the seriousness of the essay. The use of the pilcrow, or paragraph mark, instead of indents takes some getting used to but adds to the uniqueness of the edition. I did reference my Easton Press edition of Civil Disobedience and Other Essays because it has some illuminating footnotes but there was nothing that so important that I missed it being included here.
This essay should be required reading for all and it is wonderful to see it get the fine press treatment. I would love to see more like it from Sharp Teeth Press.
AVAILABILITY: This book is in an edition of 150. As of this writing is still available directly from the press here.