Henry David Thoreau’s 196th birthday occurred this past Friday, July 12. Thoreau was a member and major figure within the “Transcendentalist” philosophical movement in American culture during the antebellum period of the 19th century. A major tenet of the philosophy is a firm belief in the individual, and Thoreau embodied this not only in thought, but in spirit — to which his excursion at Walden pond is a testament.
In 1846, Thoreau was imprisoned for refusing to pay a poll tax. In his mind, the poll tax funded a war which he opposed (the Mexican-American War), but also — and more importantly — he saw the tax as funding the institution of slavery. Thoreau had a deep, moral opposition to slavery and his refusal to pay the tax was the manifestation of this belief.
During his imprisonment, Thoreau wrote what is arguably his most important work: An essay on Civil Disobedience. In this short essay, Thoreau beautifully argues for the legitimacy of opposition to the State in questions of injustice as well as a commentary on the legitimacy of government in general and democracy in particular:
After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it.
…Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.
In other words, obeying the law represented consent towards the practice of slavery which was too much for Thoreau’s conscience to bear.
While imprisoned, Thoreau was visited by fellow Transcendentalist philosopher and personal mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson looked through the bars at Thoreau sitting in his cell and asked him, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” It was not that Emerson was ignorant of Thoreau’s plight, but that he disagreed with his method. In Emerson’s opinion, change would only occur when a general, spiritual awakening encapsulated the American public. He saw Thoreau’s actions as a waste of time.
In response, though, Thoreau could only say, “Ralph, what are you doing out there?“
Thoreau’s actions were above political change. They resided within Thoreau’s heart as an endeavour his conscience required. He refused to be an “agent of injustice” and support the institution of slavery vicariously through funding the program.
He did not feel as if it was every man’s moral duty to pursue the constancy of correcting harmful institutions, but — at the very least — each man of conscience must “wash his hands of it” and not support the furthering and entrenchment of its existence:
It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.
Nevertheless, Thoreau’s example has inspired the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr and Gandhi to hold their ground the face of injustice. There may exist a time when expediency is appropriate and arguably we live in such a time, but, in the cases such as slavery in the 19th century or the institutional abuse of the civil rights of African-Americans in the 20th, the time was appropriate for one person to “wash their hands” of support for it entirely — not merely to affect change, but because it was just the right thing to do.
May we all remember the endeavor which Thoreau pursued and let it continue to inspire us to stand up to injustice in our own ways:
Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
But, ultimately, let us remember the simplest and most practical advice he gave us: “…that government is best which governs least.”
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