The fourth chapter of The Power of Nonviolence: Writings by Advocates of Peace brings us to Henry David Thoreau‘s seminal 1849 essay on Civil Disobedience. This is the essay that turned words into action. It turned the future into right now. This essay educated two of the most powerful leaders of the 20th century, Gandhi and King. It provided the foundations for their nonviolent movements.
Like many of his fellow transcendentalists, Thoreau was an abolitionist. He reacted strongly to President Polk’s incitement of the Mexican War in 1846. The war was intended to annex territory for slavery. Congressman Abraham Lincoln’s outspoken opposition to the war essentially ended his political career for 8 years.
Thoreau took it a step further. He saw that living in a the the free state of Massachusetts and speaking out against slavery did not absolve him of involvement in the war, and in furthering slavery. Thoreau saw that his support of the government — his payment of taxes — made him complicit. Despite having coined the phrase in the beginning of this essay that teeters between libertarian and anarchist:
The government is best which governs least
That government is best which governs not at all
Thoreau makes clear that he does not oppose having a government or even paying taxes. In fact, he seeks a way out of having to oppose the government, but cannot. Thoreau finds himself left with no choice but to to refuse to pay his taxes, and go to jail. And so Civil Disobediance (CD) is born.
There was now a way to not legitimizing the violence of unjust laws by meeting them with violent resistance. Unjust laws would be met on a braver field. They would be met with moral authority. They would be met with a refusal to comply. From this comes Gandhi’s March to the Sea and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Thoreau puts succinctly the dilemma that has faced change agents time and again:
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 trangress them at once?
Thoreau’s argument for action quoted below is even echoed in Mario Savio’s famous 1964 call for free speech:
if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be an agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.
- Power of Nonviolence Emerson War: Peace Book Chapter 3 10/3/11 (peacecouple.com)
- Power of Nonviolence Mighty Penn: Peace Book Chapter 1 of the Week 9/19/11 (peacecouple.com)
- Power of Nonviolence Zinn-troduction: Peace Book Chapter of the Week 9/12/11 (peacecouple.com)