Thoreau’s Rhetoric of Resistance. Peter Diamond - Great Books Written in Prison: Essays on Classic Works from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. (2015)

Great Books Written in Prison: Essays on Classic Works from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. (2015)

Thoreau’s Rhetoric of Resistance

Peter Diamond


While Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government was not written while he was actually in jail, the effect of the experience on his thinking and writing was significant—as would be the work’s influence upon future political thinkers. A reevaluation of this essay reveals that the ideas of resistance and civil disobedience generally attributed to him are not accurate—or at least don’t tell the whole story. The notion that Thoreau advocated only passive resistance to questionable actions of the government is further proven wrong by his essay in support of Captain John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry. Thoreau argued that the existence of a government law did not automatically make something ethical or unethical, or rightfully compel citizens to accept it, as was the case with slavery. Slavery’s presence in the Constitution did not validate its existence for Thoreau and others. In his writing, Thoreau shares with Gandhi and Nehru a certain attitude toward the prison experience: that it was a necessary part of the process of political struggle. Both Thoreau and Gandhi believed that political enlightenment, personal growth, and resistance to injustice all go hand-in-hand. Resistance to Civil Government is included in this collection because of its historically significant impact on social and political movements around the world.—J.W.R.


Henry David Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849) is among the most celebrated and influential accounts of principled action in modern American letters. The action—Thoreau’s refusal to pay his poll tax, for which he was arrested and briefly jailed—embodied his principled refusal to recognize the authority of a government that did not just sanction, but supported, slavery. While he did not write “Resistance” in prison, his imprisonment became the centerpiece of his rhetorical efforts to raise the consciousness of those of his countrymen who were “well-disposed” to lead a just and moral life but were “daily made the agents of injustice” by a wicked and tyrannical society (65). Thoreau’s essay has subsequently inspired a diverse range of figures and organizations to principled law breaking, including Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., British suffragist Constance Lytton, anarchist Emma Goldman, as well as the African National Congress in South Africa. They all were convinced of the need to act in defiance of unjust laws, though they differed widely over the nature and purpose of such resistance. Although Thoreau’s essay is widely recognized as a defense of “civil disobedience” he did not think of principled action as necessarily nonviolent, nor did he call for organized, mass demonstrations in which participants willingly accept punishment as an affirmation of the state’s sovereignty. Indeed, despite the posthumous publication of his essay under its familiar title, “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau never used that term in any of his published works.

Thoreau placed more faith in action than in words, which is why he used his incarceration as the touchstone of his principle of resistance. But actions do not always speak for themselves; at least not in the way we would hope. According to a well-known, though apocryphal, anecdote, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau in jail. “‘Henry, why are you here?’” Emerson is said to have asked his young friend. “‘Waldo, why are you not here?’” came the reply (Jones 15). While the story is often repeated to dramatize their mutual disapproval, it also illustrates the difficulty Thoreau would face in convincing his fellow townsmen that “action from principle,” even if it entailed breaking the laws of an unjust state and accepting the consequences, is an obligation that they all should recognize. As to the utility of a night spent in jail, Thoreau admonished those who, like Emerson, believed his action to be pointless and ineffective: “[T]hey do not know by how much truth is stronger than error, nor how much more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person” (“Resistance” 87, 88). Of course writing is also a form of action, one to which Thoreau dedicated immense time and attention. He took care to adopt rhetorical forms designed to frustrate passive readers and to compel them to engage in the struggle to discern the truth in all its complexity. He reveled in paradoxes and contradictions, re-wrote popular slogans so that they acquired entirely new meanings—all in an effort to create a productive uncertainty in his audience. As he wrote in his Journal, “‘Yes and No are lies—A true answer will not aim to establish anything, but rather to set all well afloat’” (qtd. in Golemba 7).

Not surprisingly, scholars have disputed the meaning of Thoreau’s “Resistance.” Some have treated it as a private expression of individual conscience, devoid of political intent (Arendt 59-60; Walzer 6, 13). Others have celebrated it as a work of political education mindful of our democratic commitments and the need for social reform (Cavell 83-88; Rosenblum 15-38). Still others insist that its fundamental moral values require that we go beyond the necessary limitations of democratic government (Jenco 355-81; Shulman 39-88; Mariotti 117-44). To understand Thoreau’s intentions, we will need to examine the evolution of his commitment to resistance, which began with a solitary act of self-reform, and culminated in as a deliberately social act of public persuasion. In fact, Thoreau’s resistance started well before, and extended well after, the night he spent in jail. It began in 1842, when he first refused to pay his poll tax (a fee levied on all males between the ages of twenty and seventy), continued with his arrest in July 1846, and ended with the publication of “Resistance” in May 1849.

Thoreau’s Opposition to Social Reform

At the time of his arrest Thoreau had lived for a year at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, where he built his own small house on land owned by Emerson. He had just turned twenty-nine, and was fully immersed in the radical project of self-reform that had seized his imagination while a student at Harvard. Inspired by Emerson’s writing, Thoreau decided to withdraw from the dulling comfort of mass society, to cultivate his intellectual and moral faculties, and to find his vocation by turning to unmediated nature. It would take Thoreau the better part of a decade to commit himself to spending time in the woods, as he put it, “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (Walden 90).

After graduating from Harvard College in 1837, he tried teaching, but without much success. Yearning for some measure of independence, Thoreau accepted Emerson’s offer of room and board for a year in exchange for help around the house and garden. The year stretched into two, as the burgeoning friendship between the two men deepened. Thoreau spent much of his time reading, walking the woods, and thinking during this period. Emerson had suggested that he keep a journal and encouraged the young man to write. Fourteen years Thoreau’s senior, Emerson had taken a personal interest in the young man’s welfare while he was still at Harvard, and Thoreau, for his part, looked to his elder for guidance. Emerson was then becoming widely known as a public intellectual whose rejection of the growing materialism and conformism of American life resonated deeply with those—young people especially—who doubted the value of what was commonly extolled as “progress.” Emerson did not just seek to undermine the regnant values of a morally and culturally flaccid society, he also provided young people with a secular religion, a call to action whereby the very nature of society might be transformed.

Transcendentalism, as this perspective was called, had its origins in the writings of Immanuel Kant and G.W. F. Hegel, two German philosophers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, who argued that there is a body of knowledge innate within humans and that this knowledge transcends the senses. They posited that this knowledge is the voice of God within us—what the Transcendentalists called conscience or the moral sense. It was central to their belief that all humans are born with this innate ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Unfortunately, as people grow older, they tend to listen to the world around them rather than to the voice within, and thus their moral sense becomes corrupted. It is consequently the duty of all good citizens to resist established conventions and expectations, and to avoid undertaking work that does not reflect a deep personal calling.

The Transcendentalists were nominally led by Emerson, whose first book, Nature, became a manifesto for a small, informal group of like-minded men and women who explored the ethical and political implications of the new movement in German thought. They were also engaged in radical attempts to alter the American political and economic system by establishing new alternatives to it. A number of the Transcendentalists attempted communal agrarian experiments, the most famous of which was Brook Farm, a commune established by the Unitarian minister, George Ripley, in 1840. The idea was to create a secure and noncompetitive environment through cooperative labor. Intellectuals would gain time for their creative efforts, and the whole would serve as a model by which class divisions between laborers and intellectuals might be overcome. Most of the Transcendentalists were invited to join, but neither Emerson nor Thoreau wanted any part of it. As Thoreau wrote in his journal, “As for these communities—I think I had rather keep a bachelor’s hall in hell than go to board in heaven” (1:277).

Both men lectured on the subject of reform in 1844 before groups of radical reformers gathered at Boston’s Amory Hall. Emerson took the opportunity to praise solitary examples of resistance to government, but he criticized those reformers who joined “associations,” finding them to be “tediously good in some particular but negligent or narrow in the rest; and hypocrisy and vanity are often the disgusting result.” Emerson also believed that the very act of association is self-defeating, for it forces persons to submerge their talents and compromise their best ideas and values. He argued that while reformers mistakenly believe by uniting they increase their strength, they are in fact diminished by the demands imposed by any collective enterprise. “What is it we heartily wish of each other?” Emerson asked. “Is it to be pleased and flattered? No, but to be convicted and exposed, to be shamed out of our nonsense of all kinds, and made men of, instead of ghosts and phantoms” (Essays, Second Series 154, 161). When Thoreau’s turn came to address the Amory Hall reformers, he took Emerson’s advice literally, brutally calling them “the impersonation of disorder and imperfection,” and advising them that they would be better off reforming themselves than seeking to reform others. Instead of healing themselves, he complained, reformers preferred to “rely solely on logic and argument, or on eloquence and oratory for success,” rather than on deeds (“Reform” 182, 184).

Thoreau also gave another of Emerson’s arguments his own unique twist, explaining that associations would cause individuals to lose confidence in the value of their own best efforts, not by their disapproval, but by their approval. Both men regarded dissent as the proper expression of self-reform, and popular approval, even within a small association, its death. They believed that associations suffered from the same herd mentality as society at large, and were consequently an obstacle to human progress. “There is no objection to action in societies or communities when it is the individual using the society as his instrument, rather than the society using the individual,” he explained.

While one’s inspiration is so high and pure as to be necessarily solitary and not to be made a subject of sympathy or congratulation, he may safely use any instrument in his way, whether wood or iron or masses of men. But when the vote of the society rises to a level with his own prayers, and its resolution in the least confirms his own, he may suspect himself, or he may suspect his companions [186-87].

Such was the case, for example, when Nathaniel P. Rogers, editor of New Hampshire’s abolitionist journal, the Herald of Freedom, called for the dissolution of all anti-slavery societies because, like all organizations, they inevitably impede self-reform. When Rogers was fired, Thoreau published an essay in The Dial, the Transcendentalist journal, praising him for his “clean attachment to the right” (“Herald” 49-50).

Thoreau continued to oppose organized social reform in the following year, when the noted anti-slavery orator, Wendell Phillips, was invited to speak before the Concord Lyceum. When conservative members of the Lyceum committee resigned in protest, Thoreau defended Phillips’s right to speak in a letter to the Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper. Referring implicitly to the conservatives, Thoreau pointed out that Phillips “at least is not responsible for slavery, nor for American Independence; for the hypocrisy and superstition of the church, nor the timidity and selfishness of the state; nor for the indifference and willing ignorance of any. He stands so distinctly, so firmly, and so effective, alone, and one honest man is so much more than a host” (“Wendell Phillips” 59-60). Thoreau’s sarcasm recalls a complaint he voiced to his Amory Hall audience: that people learn little of value in associations, where conformity is the norm and opposition voices are silenced (“Reform” 185). And yet, for all his celebration of Phillips’ potent solitariness, Thoreau must surely have known that lecturing on behalf of solitary self-reform was itself an eminently social, or “outward,” practice that relied on the sort of argument and oratory he had dismissed in his Armory Hall lecture. Perhaps he had begun to realize that self-reform was less likely to occur in societies that attempt to silence dissenting voices.

The Context of Thoreau’s Reform Writings

While the young Thoreau urged his listeners to obey their individual callings, rather than adhere to the expectations or desires of their “neighbors and kind friends and patrons,” as time passed he would find it increasingly difficult to disparage organized efforts at reform, especially the abolition movement, as the country became more embroiled over the problem of slavery. In 1836, upon gaining its independence from Mexico, Texas immediately sought to join the Union. As Len Gougeon points out, its admission as a slave state threatened to increase the influence of the South in national politics and, consequently, abolitionists throughout the North vociferously fought Texas’ petition. Despite their opposition, Texas entered the Union in December of 1845. In May of the following year, Mexico, which had never accepted Texas’ independence, declared war on the United States (“Thoreau and Reform” 200-01). For Thoreau, opposition to the war meant opposition to public opinion and a politics that tolerated slavery, militarism, and imperial expansion.

In addition to his published support of particular reformers, Thoreau’s opposition to slavery initially took the form of passive resistance. By refusing to pay his poll tax, he was following the lead of abolitionists in Massachusetts who were attempting to demonstrate their opposition to a government that supported slavery. In 1840 Thoreau’s friend, Bronson Alcott, was arrested for refusing to pay his poll tax, though he spent even less time in jail than Thoreau, for his tax was paid within a couple of hours by Samuel Hoar, Concord’s leading citizen. In 1843 the English reformer and friend of Alcott, Charles Lane, was similarly arrested, and just as quickly rescued by Hoar. This may have been one reason why Thoreau was reportedly “‘as mad as the devil’” upon being turned out of his cell the morning after his arrest (qtd. in Harding 204-05). A man who did nothing lightly, who welcomed the opportunity “to occupy an honorable and manly position” in society (to use the words he used to praise Rogers) (“Herald” 49), he resented having his incarceration appear to be merely symbolic, rather than a substantial act of conscience.

In the months following his arrest, Thoreau remained at Walden Pond, where he completed two drafts of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, his meditation on America’s founding. Like “Resistance to Civil Government,” A Week bears witness to injustice, in this case by reminding Americans of the cruelty and injustice suffered by American Indians at the hands of their European forbears. In the book Thoreau also sought to awaken what he saw as an increasingly complacent contemporary society by furnishing Americans with stories of heroism that would inspire them to combat such current moral evils as slavery and imperialism. “In my short experience of human life,” Thoreau wrote, “the outward obstacles, if there were any such, have not been living men, but the institutions of the dead … for it is not to be forgotten, that while the law holds fast the thief and murderer, it lets itself go loose” (130). Thoreau may well have had in mind an incident that occurred shortly after his return to Walden, in 1851. A fugitive slave was discovered aboard a ship in Boston harbor, and promptly returned by the ship’s owner, who feared reprisals by the slave’s master. The event infuriated abolitionists, and led Emerson to complain that commercial interests were leading to the moral bankruptcy of society (Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero 127-29).

Thoreau also continued to lecture before the Concord Lyceum while at Walden and thereafter. In January and February of 1848 he delivered two lectures on “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government.” Alcott attended one of the lectures, and was pleased that Thoreau had mentioned Alcott’s own brush with the law. He must have been surprised when, in May of the following year, Thoreau published his essay in Elizabeth Peabody’s Aesthetic Papers under the title “Resistance to Civil Government,” without mentioning his friend’s arrest.

Thoreau’s Rhetoric of Resistance

Thoreau’s revisions to his essay are significant, for they reflect his decision to signal his opposition to “non-resistance,” the doctrine of William Lloyd Garrison’s New England Non-Resistance Society. Non-resistance combined pacifism with anarchism insofar as it prohibited not only all violence, but also all cooperation with any state that relies on coercion to enforce its laws. From that standpoint, holding public office, paying taxes, or even voting, were considered immoral acts. Thoreau’s new title implicitly demonstrated his rejection of Garrison’s doctrine. And since Lane defended Alcott’s tax refusal in the pages of the Liberator as an act of “non-resistance,” it is probable that Thoreau no longer wished to have his disobedience associated with that of Alcott (Rosenwald 155). Indeed, by the time he published “Resistance,” the country was at war with Mexico, and Thoreau now recognized that social reform could not depend on individual acts of self-reform alone, such as those he had undertaken at Walden Pond. Rather, Thoreau had come to believe that justice demanded active resistance to the government. Passive and private resistance—such as one’s refusal to pay a poll tax—would not suffice. Rather, just resistance called for a public, and, if need be, violent, response to the state’s shedding of innocent blood.

Thoreau wrote “Resistance” in response to a simple question: “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today?” He answered that a man “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” (67). While he reached the same conclusion as those who advocated non-resistance, Thoreau insisted at the outset that he did not wish to be associated with “those who call themselves no-government men.” Instead, he would “speak practically and as a citizen,” which meant giving a clear and sensible account of what one should expect from any government. For Thoreau, that meant adhering to the revolutionary principles associated with America’s founding. “To be strictly just,” he wrote, “[a government] must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it” (89). Thoreau’s language harks back to the Declaration of Independence, though we should not assume that he was relying on the mythos of America’s founding as an example of consent. As the author of A Week, Thoreau well knew that America’s actual founding entailed the violent conquest of native peoples long before the revolution of 1776 or the compact of 1787. As Thoreau pointed out in “Resistance,” adherence to that fraudulent mythos allowed Daniel Webster to say of slavery: “‘Because it was a part of the original compact, let it stand.’” Webster may have deserved to be called “the Defender of the Constitution,” but in Thoreau’s opinion he was “unable to take a fact [such as slavery] out of its merely political relations, and behold it as it lies absolutely to be disposed of by the intellect.” Webster was not able to recognize that the Constitution, as a pro-slavery document, was itself “the evil” because he was “not a leader but a follower. His leaders are the men of ’87” (74, 87-88). For Thoreau, each individual must literally express the consent idealized in our founding documents for him or herself.

It must surely have struck his fellow townsmen as bizarre that Thoreau, who had refused to contribute to the support of a local clergyman, gave the Concord town clerk the following declaration in support of his refusal: “Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined.” But what others may have considered strange, Thoreau regarded as an example of “the free exercise of judgment or of moral sense” that was badly lacking among the great “mass of men” (79, 66). Thoreau refused to pay his church tax in 1840, two years before he stopped paying his poll tax. Both refusals were private, passive acts of resistance. Through his act of “public” resistance, Thoreau undertook the political education of his fellow citizens, thereby intending to create “corporation[s] of conscientious men” whose conduct would serve as a “counter friction” to the machinery of state power. Such associations, he believed, could make a tangible difference in society: a “minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority” but “irresistible when it clogs [the machine] by its whole weight” (65, 74, 76).

Thoreau’s position has not gone unchallenged. Critics contend that it is implausible and even dangerous to imagine, as Thoreau famously put it, that “the only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right” (65). The inherent subjectivity of Thoreau’s position, critics point out, would result in anarchy or worse, since it militates against promises to obey all laws and governmental institutions, as such, for their very existence is based on the public’s recognition of their right to command. For his part, Thoreau believed all persons possess a faculty of judgment he referred to as a “moral sense” and a constitution “written in [their] heart” by God (“Slavery”103). By calling for “action from principle,” which he defined as “the perception and performance of right,” he implied that everyone has a duty not only to do what is right, but also to ascertain the meaning of “right,” through unfettered deliberation. Thoreau believed in the existence of a higher law that imposes strict ethical standards on everyone. He was aware of the potential for disagreement, but he was also confident (perhaps naively so) that “the faintest assured objection which one healthy man feels will at length prevail over mankind” (Walden 216).

Critics have also complained that Thoreau misconceived the extent to which we are interdependent beings, whose collective lives require that we solve our problems through the democratic political process. He regarded politics as an essentially sordid business, which a virtuous citizenry must learn to transcend. By contrast, Thoreau regarded John Brown, recently captured after his violent raid at Harpers Ferry, as “a man of rare common sense and directness of speech, as of action; a transcendentalist above all, a man of ideas and principles…. For once we are lifted out of the trivialness and dust of politics into the region of truth and manhood” (“A Plea” 115, 125). Lincoln opposed Brown’s violent abolitionism because it failed to recognize that such lawlessness not only erodes the rule of law but also undermines the ability of politicians—citizens taking part in the democratic process—to build consensus. It is important to recognize that Thoreau brooked no opposition on this point. To those who feared that action from principle would produce violence, he replied, “But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now” (“Resistance” 77).

It is not difficult to understand Thoreau’s contempt for “what is called politics,” as he put it. The growing equality of condition that for Alexis de Tocqueville marked the triumph of democracy in Jacksonian America, had allowed majorities to exercise a despotic and insidious control over the formation and expression of ideas. “The same equality,” wrote Tocqueville, “which makes [a person] dependent of each separate citizen leaves him isolated and defenseless in the face of the majority. So in democracies public opinion has a strange power of which aristocratic nations can form no conception. It uses no persuasion to forward its beliefs, but by some mighty pressure of the mind of all upon the intelligence of each it imposes its ideas and makes them penetrate men’s very souls” (435). It was in this context that Thoreau declared, “the mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense” (“Resistance” 66). In these circumstances, given the climate of opinion in the country, being “political,” that is, involving oneself in the affairs or institutions of government, entailed the implicit legitimization of slaveholding and imperial expansion. Moreover, for Thoreau it was no longer enough to be a law-abiding citizen, for one’s presence in the majority only served to legitimize immoral laws and practices; one now had a duty to be a dissident.

The rise of equality during the first half of the nineteenth century also meant the decline of hierarchical and paternalistic groups and classes that had characterized American society in pre-Revolutionary days. People were increasingly faced with the task of creating identities for themselves and others in a marketplace dominated by public opinion. Then, as now, politicians soon learned that it was easy to produce and exchange false or misleading images and statements in such an environment (Pocock 538). Not surprisingly, Thoreau rejected “what is called politics” on grounds that politics had become a superficial and coarsening affair, whose essential falsity follows from the nature of what could be achieved politically (“Life Without Principle” 177). It was from this standpoint that he declared government to be “at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all government are sometimes, inexpedient.” As Tocqueville observed (650), this is especially so in time of war, which tends to destroy political liberty. “Witness the present Mexican war,” offered Thoreau, “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” (“Resistance” 63).

Thoreau’s response to this state of affairs was to deny the efficacy of politics, as it was then understood. “Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing the rights of man?” (89). For Thoreau, the problem with democracy “as we know it” inheres in the electoral principle of majority rule. Voting is a feeble expression of an individual’s conscience, for one’s capacity for vital action is submerged in the will of the majority. Although democracy invites individuals to “cast [their] whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but [their] whole influence,” in fact “the mass of men” are more interested in earning a living than they are with seemingly abstract and far-off concerns, “and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico.” Indeed, in such circumstances justice is not likely to be done by encouraging more people to vote. Even those “who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war” will be unlikely to commit themselves to acting on what is right when the majority is disposed to continue the status quo (76, 68, 69).

What is needed, Thoreau argued, is for the conscientious individual in the minority to give up what is called politics in favor of action from principle, which, in the face of injustice, requires the transgression of unjust laws. He did not argue that the individual is morally obliged to contribute to the public good, by “devot[ing] himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him.” Thoreau denied that conscientious individuals have a moral obligation to devote themselves wholly to public service; indeed, he was rarely more caustic than when musing about “Doing-good.” “If I were to preach at all in this strain,” he wrote in Walden, “I should say rather, Set about being good…. If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious intention of doing me good, I should run for my life.” This does not imply that Thoreau was careless or oblivious of the common good; rather, he understood that nothing a person does is unconnected with the life of a society. For a person serves society, not by devoting himself to a cause, but by pursing his calling wherever it leads. What Thoreau said, ironically, of the Do-gooder—“I would not stand between any man and his genius”—applies without irony to all (73-74).

Everyone is morally obliged, Thoreau argued, “at least, to wash his hands of [any wrong], and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support” (“Resistance” 71). And when the state fails to act justly, he argued that private individuals have a duty to try to reform the state: They must help to create the conditions in which individuals are able to engage in “essentially revolutionary” acts of self-reform, or in other words, in “action from principle.” For Thoreau, all meaningful social reform starts and finishes with that. More specifically still, Thoreau recognized that active resistance—breaking the law—is the only means by which to effect such change. He was aware that most people fear the consequences of such action, believing that resistance will only make things worse. What they need to understand, said Thoreau, is that “it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. [But] why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform?” Besides, the state is nothing other than the coercive means by which the people execute their will. “It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way” (73, 64). In an unjust world, breaking the law may be the only means to get government out of the way, and to create the conditions for individuals to engage in self-cultivation.

Thoreau, Prison and Persuasion

For Thoreau, self-reform entailed continuous intellectual effort to live a “life of principle,” and thereby to embody the higher law. His life at Walden, including his continuing refusal to pay his poll tax, followed by his night in jail, were the beginnings of that ongoing project. By publishing “Resistance,” Thoreau turned what began as an act of self-reform into one of social reform, as he realized that the time had come to do “my part to educate my fellow countrymen.” He now fully realized that resistance isn’t actualized until it becomes a public act. This meant convincing, first his fellow townsmen at Lyceum meetings, and then the public at large by publishing “Resistance,” that they needed to withdraw their support, “both in person and property,” from the government (84, 74). Moreover, it entailed a most unlikely course of action: persuading them that going to jail was not merely the right thing to do, but a politically effective response to the government’s economic and military policies.

To those who believed a night’s incarceration to be pointless and ineffective, Thoreau offered a dramatic account of his brief incarceration that inverted the prevailing images of prison and outside society. Whereas most prison narratives rely on the prisoner’s suffering to enhance the authority of their moral and political claims—one thinks of Socrates and Jesus, Boethius and Thomas More—Thoreau’s story depicts his prison experience in idealized terms, as a place of refuge from the brutalizing oppression of a state that must physically compel its citizens to obey by threats and by force because it cannot appeal to their intellectual or moral faculties. In this reversal, the relaxed geniality of the prison atmosphere, the whitewashed walls and simple furnishing of his cell are made to evoke his circumstances at Walden. Rather than being a site of confinement, the prison affords Thoreau an occasion for inward-looking self-reform and hence self-liberation from the soul-corrupting world without. “It was like travelling into a far country,” he wrote, “such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night.” He was now free to see through the town’s practices and institutions, and to glimpse how much the town’s residents resembled the old burghers of pre-revolutionary Europe (82).

In Walden he likened himself to “chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up” (84); in “Resistance” the image of Socrates’ gadfly is more apt. Like Socrates, he sought to persuade and reproach his neighbors and fellow citizens for failing to live up to their own ideals. His voice could be strident, and his expectations unrealistic, but his message was underwritten with the authority of his own action. As he proclaimed in “Resistance,” “it is not so important that many should be as good as you, as that there be some absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump” (69). Thoreau was not claiming the mantle of “absolute goodness,” but rather bearing witness to its existence in the higher law, and urging his listeners and readers to undertake the project of self-reform upon which he believed all genuine social reform rests.

Thoreau’s doctrine and his example have spread far beyond its intended audience. Decades later Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., both claimed him as the inspiration for their practice of passive or nonviolent resistance, though Thoreau himself was quite willing to endorse violence in opposition to chattel slavery, as he did when he praised John Brown’s failed raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The dramatic and far-reaching changes brought about by the efforts of Gandhi and King, manifest as they are in the democratic political practices and institutions of their respective societies, are apt to draw our attention away from where Thoreau would have us place the emphasis. He would have us maintain a certain intellectual distance from “what is called politics” in modern democratic societies; the better to see through the empty talk and corrupting practices that we tend to take for granted. Instead, he would have us focus our energies on self-reform, on becoming self-reliant individuals who are willing and able to engage in the political action and resistance upon which social reform depends. Such action takes courage, and a determination to resist the comforting illusion that public opinion is the measure of all value.

Works Cited

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