Today, July 12, marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau, known best for chronicling his experiment in simple and self-sufficient living in Walden. Less remembered, however, is that while living at Walden Pond, he gave an 1848 lecture on “Resistance to Civil Government”— since published as Civil Disobedience—which had much farther reaching effects. The book helped inspire the World War II resistance, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, those struggling against apartheid, and others. And it still has much to say today, if we will listen.
“I heartily accept the motto, 'That government is best which governs least'; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe — 'That government is best which governs not at all'"
"Government is at best an expedient."
"Government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted."
"Statesmen and legislators…all their wit and usefulness lie within certain not very wide limits."
"If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance…America would not long retain her rank among the nations."
"The state...is not armed with superior honesty, but with superior physical strength."
"If I deny the authority of the state…it will soon take and waste my property and so harass me and my children without end. This is hard. This makes it impossible for a man to live honestly, and at the same time comfortably."
"A government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice. Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?"
"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 we should be men first, and subjects afterwards."
"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."
"Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform."
"If [government] requires you to be an agent of injustice to another…break the law...What I have to do myself is to see…that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn."
"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."
"Government...to be strictly just, it 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."
"The freest of my neighbors...cannot spare the protection of the existing government, and they dread the consequences to their property and families of disobedience to it."
"I was not born to be forced."
"There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly."
Americans’ lives are more complicated than Thoreau’s was on Walden Pond. But Civil Disobedience is even more important today because the complexity of our world often disguises the foundational issue of the very small, logically defensible role for government in the lives and liberties of its citizens. With a government whose omnipresence would appall him, Thoreau would find us further from his ideals today than when he wrote.