Philosophymagazine

Philosophy and Science for the Third Millennium


On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

An Essay by Henry David Thoreau


Philosophymagazine

 

Summary—On the Duty of Civil Disobedience is Thoreau’s classic protest against government interference with individual liberty.  One of the most famous essays ever written—it came to the attention of Gandhi and formed the basis of his passive resistance movement.

 

Profile—Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) was born in Concord Massachusetts on 12 July 1817.  He haunted the woods and fields as a boy and at the age of sixteen he went to Harvard where he was a receptive student—proficient in Greek, Latin, and the English classics.  After graduation he taught school for a time, but he soon gave this up to lecture and write.  From April 1841 to May 1843 Thoreau lived under Emerson’s roof while serving the philosopher as a general handyman—although their relationship was also one of master and disciple.  A sturdy individualist and a lover of nature, Thoreau was typical of his time and place—the epitome of the Yankee spirit.  In March 1845 he set out to live life in a new way and began his famous experiment in essential living.  Convinced that the less labor a man did, the better for him and the community, Thoreau retired to the shore of Walden Pond where he lived for two-and-a-half years in a hut of his own construction.  There he read, wrote, and made friends of beasts, birds and fish—recording his fascinating woodland life in the book Walden—a record of that experiment in simple living.  In this fascinating work Thoreau describes his Robinson Crusoesque existence, bare of creature comforts but rich in contemplation of the wonders of nature and the ways of man.  During the first year of his hermitage, Thoreau was arrested for refusing to pay his poll tax, an episode which led to the writing of On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.  From 1849 to 1853 he made several brief trips which supplied the material for his posthumously published books—Excursions, The Maine Woods, and A Yankee in Canada.  He died on 6 May 1862 at the young age of forty-five.

 

No truer American ever existed than Thoreau.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

People only see what they are prepared to see.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Genius is merely the art of generalizing and choosing.

—Eugne Delacroix

 

Mozart is too simple for beginners and too difficult for experts.

—Vladimir Horowitz

 

He who is neither good nor wise is nonetheless satisfied with himself.

—Socrates

 

Restricting a body of knowledge to a small group deadens the philosophical spirit of a people and leads to spiritual poverty.

—Albert Einstein

 

Descartes had a very clear idea of the type of reader he was trying to reach—that of the cultured public—the ladies of the salon rather than the pedants of the university.

—FE Sutcliffe

 

When war breaks out people say its stupid and can’t last long.  But being stupid doesn’t prevent it from lasting.  Stupidity has a knack of getting its way, which we would see if we were not always wrapped up in ourselves.

—Albert Camus

 

The violent reaction to the recent development of modern physics can only be understood when one realizes that the foundations of physics have started moving—and that this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science.

—Werner Heisenberg

 

Modern man has acquired the willpower to carryout his work proficiently without recourse to chanting, drumming or praying.  He is able to translate his ideas into actions without a hitch, while primitive man was hampered by fears and superstitions at each step along the way.  Yet in maintaining his creed, modern man pays the price in a remarkable lack of introspection.  He is blind to the fact that, with all his rationality and efficiency, he is possessed by powers beyond his control that keep him restlessly on the run.

—Carl Jung

 

You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up.  And you are here because you know something.  What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it.  You’ve felt it your entire life.  That there’s something wrong with the world.  You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad.  It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.  Like everyone you are a slave.  You were born into bondage, born into a prison you cannot smell or taste or touch—a prison for your mind.

—Morpheus

 

Nothing is more real than nothing.

—Samuel Beckett

   

I want to be the perfect philosopher.

—Christopher Bek

  

I know I am intelligent because I know that I know everything.

—Christopher Bek

  

The pen is mightier than the Glock—and no one’s pen is mightier than mine.

—Christopher Bek

  

Alberta doctors are to health and wellness what quicksand is to surefootedness.

—Christopher Bek

  

I have this reoccurring dream that I am being paid Derek mo-money Morris-money to philosophize.

—Christopher Bek

  

The separate concepts of faith and reason will now fade into the past to be replaced by the combined concept of mathematical reason.

—Christopher Bek

  

The theory of one brings the reader face to face with the stunning realization that the universe is bounded—rather than unbounded, as Einstein and others have asserted.  The theory of one delivers the ocean.  It is the theory that spells the end of physics.  It is the monolith of 2001—a spacetime odyssey.

—Christopher Bek

  

Recognizing lightspeed and Planck’s constant as the boundary between spacetime and nothingness reveals the mechanism that allows electrons and positrons to exit and re-enter the universe at any point in spacetime.  We can also see that the boundary between spacetime and nothingness is the medium that supports both light and matter waves.

—Christopher Bek

  

The single greatest thought problem occupying the world of physics during the past seventy-five years involved the attempt to unite the macrocosmos of relativity with the microcosmos of quantum theory.  The theory of one resolves this seventy-five year old thought problem by recognizing the fact that lightspeed and Planck’s constant are the very same boundary of the spacetime continuum.

—Christopher Bek

  

My unified field theory solves the problem Einstein spent the last thirty years of his life working on by recognizing conscious as electrons or monads—ie. metaphysical gonads.  What we call consciousness is simply the accumulation of inertial effects experienced by the monads as they travel through four-dimensional relativistic bubbles or, alternatively, through quantum foam.

—Christopher Bek

  

Totalitarianism is the practice of governance that attempts to monopolize all possible influences affecting the behavior of individuals.  It atomizes people and existentially alienates them from themselves and each other, thus forcing them to capitulate to the to the external authority of government in order to survive.  Totalitarianism depends upon the masses to control the masses by either physical or metaphysical force.  The Canadian Government defines itself as totalitarian in that it denies the children access to the mind of God by buggering them with a wrongheaded education that is founded on a false, flat, dehistorized version of mathematics.

—Christopher Bek

  

It is said that every man is either born a Platonist or an Aristotelian.  While Plato (428-347 BC) gazed in awe at the universe, Aristotle (384-322 BC) tried to explain how it worked.  Plato’s theory of knowledge and theory of forms holds that true or a priori knowledge must be certain and infallible, and it must be of real objects or Forms.  The foundation for Plato and Aristotle was laid by the Greeks Thales (624-546 BC) and Pythagoras (582-500 BC) in founding mathematics.  Mathematics is the systematic treatment of Forms and relationships between Forms.  It is the science of drawing conclusions and is the primordial foundation of absolutely all other science.  The Greeks synthesized mathematical elements from both the Babylonians and the Egyptians in developing the concepts of proofs, axioms and the logical structure of definitions—all of which come together to produce what we call mathematical or a priori reason—which, when combined with empirical or a posteriori validation, enables us to arrive at a priori knowledge, which is the highest form of knowledge and is certainly the form of knowledge for which the Government of Canada refers when proclaiming—Knowledge le savoir.  While Thales introduced geometry to ancient Greece, it was Pythagoras who first provided a mathematical proof of the Pythagorean theorem, which establishes a priori knowledge that the square of the length of the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the two sides.  Interestingly, Einstein’s special relativity in 1905 is little more than an application of the Pythagorean theorem.

—Christopher Bek

  

The word philosophy comes from ancient Greece and is defined as the love of wisdom.  Socrates (470-399 BC) set the table for Plato (427-347 BC) by radically insisting that we must first answer the question of what X is before we can say anything else about X.  Plato then founded philosophy by daring to ask what existence would be like outside the cave.  Plato’s theory of knowledge and theory of Forms holds that true or a priori knowledge must be certain and infallible.  The Greeks Thales (624-546 BC) and Pythagoras (582-500 BC) founded geometry as the very first mathematical discipline.  Mathematics is the systematic treatment of Forms, the science of drawing conclusion and the primordial foundation of absolutely all other science.  While the Church was jumping up and down on everyone’s head in the Western world for over a millennium, Arab mathematicians like Muhammad al-Khwrizm (780-850) were carrying the ball in founding algebra and algorithms.  An algorithm is the procedural method for calculating and drawing conclusions with Arabic numerals and the decimal notation.  Al-Khwrizm served as librarian at the court of Caliph al-Mamun and as astronomer at the Baghdd observatory.  Interestingly, both the terms algebra and algorithm stem from the God, Allah.  According to Arab philosophy, mathematics is the way God’s mind works.  The Arabs believe that, by understanding mathematics, they are comprehending the mind of God.  In fact the very core of their religion lies with the belief that the people must submit to the will of God’s sovereignty—meaning simply that the Godmade laws of nature (ie. mathematics) trump the manmade laws of government.  The Latin version of al-Khwrizm’s work is responsible for a great deal of the mathematical knowledge that resurfaced during the Renaissance.  The notion that mathematics and God are the very same thing was adapted as the foundation for the Renaissance by thinkers like Descartes, Pascal, Fermat, Newton, Locke and Berkeley.  Then, in what John Stuart Mill called the single greatest advance in the history of science, Descartes fulfilled the Pythagorean dream in conceiving analytic geometry and modern mathematics by synthesizing Greek geometry with Arab algebra.

—Christopher Bek

 

I do my best thinking in a warm bed.

—Ren Descartes

 

Average goodness is no longer enough.

—Nicholas Berdyaev

  

There is a story is told by Kierkegaard of an absent-minded man so abstracted from his own life that he hardly knows he exists until, one fine morning, he wakes up to find himself dead.

—William Barrett

 

All the choir of heaven and furniture of earth—in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world—have not any substance without the mind.  So long as they are not perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or in the mind of any spirit, they have no existence whatsoever. 

—George Berkeley

 

Relativity, like the quantum theory, draws man’s intellect still farther away from the Newtonian universe, firmly rooted in space and time and functioning like some great, unerring, and manageable machine.  Einstein’s laws of motion, his basic principles of the relativity of distance, time, and mass, and his deductions from these principles comprise what is known as the special theory of relativity.  In the decade following the publication of this original work, he expanded his scientific and philosophical system into the general theory of relativity, through which he examined the mysterious force that guides the whirling of the stars, comets, meteors, and galaxies, and all the moving systems of iron, stone, vapor, and flame in the immense inscrutable void.  Newton called this force universal gravitation.  From his own concept of gravitation Einstein attained a view of the vast architecture and anatomy of the universe as a whole.

—Lincoln Barnett

  

Since time is an impalpable quantity it is not possible to draw a picture or construct a model of a four-dimensional spacetime continuum.  But it can be imagined and it can be represented mathematically.  And in order to describe the stupendous reaches of the universe beyond our solar system, beyond the clusters and star clouds of the Milky Way, beyond the lonely outer galaxies burning in the void, the scientist must visualize it all as a continuum in three dimensions of space and one of time.  In our minds we tend to separate these dimensions; we have an awareness of space and an awareness of time.  But the separation is purely subjective; and as special relativity showed, space and time separately are relative quantities which vary with individual observers.  In any objective description of the universe, such as science demands, the time dimension can no more be detached from the space dimension than length can be detached from breadth and thickness in an accurate representation of a house, a tree, or Betty Grable.  According to the great German mathematician, Herman Minkowski, who developed the mathematics of the spacetime continuum as a convenient medium for expressing the principles of relativity—Space and time separately have vanished into mere shadows—and only a combined notion of the two preserves any reality.

—Lincoln Barnett

  

The element of caprice in atomic behavior cannot be blamed on man’s coarse-grained implements.  It stems from the very nature of things, as shown by Heisenberg in 1927 in his famous statement of physical law known as the Uncertainty Principle.

—Lincoln Barnett

  

The other gateway to this knowledge may be opened by the Unified Field Theory upon which Einstein has been at work for a quarter century.  Today the outer limits of man’s knowledge are defined by Relativity, the inner limits by the Quantum Theory.  Relativity has shaped all our concepts of space, time, gravitation, and the realities that are too remote and too vast to be perceived.  Quantum Theory has shaped all our concepts of the atom, the basic units of matter and energy, and the realities that are too elusive and too small to be perceived.  Yet these two great scientific systems rest on entirely different and unrelated theoretical foundations.  The purpose of Einstein’s Unified Field Theory is to construct a bridge between them.  Believing in the harmony and uniformity of nature, Einstein hopes to evolve a single edifice of physical laws that will encompass both the phenomena of the atom and the phenomena of outer space.  Just as Relativity reduced gravitational force to a geometrical peculiarity of the spacetime continuum, the Unified Field Theory will reduce electromagnetic force—the other great universal force—to equivalent status.

—Lincoln Barnett

  

Today most newspaper readers know vaguely that Einstein had something to do with the atomic bomb—beyond that his name is simply a synonym for the abstruse.  While his theories form part of the body of modern science, they are not yet part of the modern curriculum.  It is not surprising therefore that many a college graduate still thinks of Einstein as a kind of mathematical surrealist rather than as the discoverer of certain cosmic laws of immense importance in man’s slow struggle to understand physical reality.

—Lincoln Barnett

  

What Plato called Forms were essences for him—ie. really real— and more real than the particular things that derived their own individual being from participation in the Forms.  The circle, that is, about which the geometrician reasons is the essence common to every individual circle in nature, and without which the individual circles could not exist; it is more real than the individual circle that he may draw on the blackboard for illustration.  Now, the circle that the mathematician reasons about is one he never draws upon the blackboard; it cannot be drawn because it never comes into existence; it is outside time and therefore eternal.  So too it never comes to be in actual physical space; and it is non-spatial in the same sense in which it is non-temporal.  All the Forms, for Plato, thus constitute a realm of absolute realities beyond time, change, and existence, and existence is merely a shadowy replica of essence.  When an Idea comes into existence, it is through a fall (a kind of original sin) from some higher realm of Being.  Time itself—that invisible and tormenting medium of our own individual existence—becomes merely a shadowy image of eternity.

—William Barrett

  

Existentialism is an attempt to gather all of the elements of human reality into a total picture of man.

—William Barrett

  

From the beginning of Christianity Saint Paul has told us over and over again that the faith he preaches is foolishness to the Greeks for they demand wisdom—which Saint Paul believed meant rational philosophy and not religious faith.

—William Barrett

  

In Plato’s extraordinary emphasis upon mathematics we see the vestiges of Pythagoreanism in which mathematics has been given a sacred, a religious status.  Behind Plato’s emphasis upon mathematics lies his theory of Forms—the “really real” objects in the universe are the universals or Forms.  Particular things are real only insofar as they exist eternally.

—William Barrett

  

The price one pays for having a profession is a dformation professionelle, as the French put it—a professional deformation.  The reaction of professional philosophers to Existentialism was merely a symptom of the philosophers imprisonment in the narrowness of their own discipline.  Never before has there been a dformation professionelle more in evidence.  The divorce of mind from life was something that simply happened as the result of philosophers pursuing their own specialized interests.

—William Barrett

  

The psychology of a Pascal is different from that of a Saint Augustine in that Pascal’s observations of the human condition are among the most negative that have ever been made.  Readers of Sartre who have protested that his psychology is too morbid or sordid, and possibly therefore only an expression of the contemporary Paris school of despair, would do well to look into Pascal.  They will find his view of our ordinary human lot every bit as mordant and clinical as Sartre’s.  “The natural misfortune of our mortal and feeble condition,” Pascal says, “is so wretched that when we consider it closely, nothing can console us.” Men escape from considering it closely by means of the two sovereign anodynes of habit and diversion.  Man chases a bouncing ball or rides to hounds after a fleeing animal; or the ball and fleeing game are pursued through the labyrinth of social intrigue and amusement; anything, so long as he manages to escape from himself.

—William Barrett

  

The terror of confronting oneself in situations calling for subjective judgment is so great that most people immediately panic and run for cover under the first obvious argument that seems to apply.

—William Barrett

    

In 1654, a time when the Renaissance was in full flower, the Chevalier de Mere, a French nobleman with a taste for both gambling and mathematics, challenged the famed French mathematician Blaise Pascal to solve a puzzle.  The question was how to divide the stakes of unfinished game of chance between two players when one of them is ahead.  The puzzle had confounded mathematicians since it was posed some two hundred years earlier by the monk Luca Paccioli.  This was the man who brought double-entry bookkeeping to the attention of the business managers of his day—and tutored Leonardo da Vinci in the multiplication tables.  Pascal turned for help to Pierre de Fermat, a lawyer who was also a brilliant mathematician.  The outcome of their collaboration was intellectual dynamite.  What might appear to have been a seventeenth-century version of the game of Trivial Pursuit led to the discovery of the theory of probability, the mathematical heart of the concept of risk.  Their solution to Paccioli’s puzzle meant that people could for the first time make decisions and forecast the future with the help of mathematics.  In the medieval and ancient worlds, even in preliterate and peasant societies, people managed to make decisions, advance their interests, and carryon trade but with no real understanding of risk or the nature of decisionmaking.

—Peter Bernstein

  

In 1952 a young graduate student named Harry Markowitz studying operations research demonstrated mathematically why putting all your eggs in one basket is an unacceptable strategy and why optimal diversification is the best one can do.  His revelation touched off an intellectual movement that has revolutionized Wall Street, corporate finance and decisionmaking of all kinds.  Its effects are still being felt today.

—Peter Bernstein

  

Be still and know that I Am God.

—The Bible

  

Where the word of a King is—there is power.

—The Bible

  

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine—but a broken spirit drieth the bones.

—The Bible

  

Christ looked at them and said—With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

—The Bible

  

Respect all men.  Love the brotherhood.  Fear God.  Honor the King.

—The Bible

  

The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.

—The Bible

  

If Cleopatra’s nose would have been shorter, the entire face of the world would be different.

—Blaise Pascal

  

Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.  There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him—a vapor, a drop of water is enough to kill him.  But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him.  The universe knows none of this.

—Blaise Pascal

  

I am a superior species.

—Jolene Blalock

  

Anyone who is not totally offended by quantum theory does not understand it.

—Niels Bohr

  

We all agree that your theory is crazy.  The question that divides us is whether it is crazy enough.

—Niels Bohr

  

We are both spectators and actors in the great drama of existence.

—Niels Bohr

  

Not all physicists believe that a unified theory is possible.  The Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli (1900-58) once joked—What God has put asunder, no man shall ever join.

—John Boslough

  

Physicists are searching for a single interaction at the heart of the universe that is the key to all physical phenomena.

—John Boslough

  

The universe seems to operate according to several sets of different rules that act in layers independently of one another.

—John Boslough

  

I want to be the perfect agent.

—Sydney Bristow

  

John Locke and Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire and others envisioned a new world in which the arbitrary authority of the Church and an arrogant aristocracy would cease to exist; a world in which reason and democracy would temper provincial ethnic and religious hatreds between states and races; a world of unfettered freedom, without radical differences in the distribution of wealth, in which an individual might better his lot through hard work and without fear of obstruction by the state.  The constitution was the jewel in the crown of this new world.  The individual would be no longer an object of domination but rather a subject vested with rights—a citizen.

—Stephen Bronner

  

Work out your salvation with diligence.

—The Buddha

  

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

—Edmund Burke

  

I want to be the perfect actor.

—Albert Camus

  

An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.

—Albert Camus

  

I am not interested in being a hero.  What interests me is being a man.

—Albert Camus

  

I sometimes wonder what future historians will say of us.  It seems to me a single sentence should suffice for modern man—He fornicated and read the papers.  After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.

—Albert Camus

 

 

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—and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.  Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.  The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government.  The standing army is only an arm of the standing government.  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 a comparatively few individuals using the standing government as their tool—for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.

This American government—what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity?  It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will.  It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves; and, if ever they should use it in earnest as a real one against each other, it will surely split.  But it is not the less necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have.  Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed on, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage.  It is excellent, we must all allow; yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way.  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.  For government is an expedient by which men would fain succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been said, when it is most expedient, the governed are most let alone by it.  Trade and commerce, if they were not made of India rubber, would never manage to bounce over the obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way; and, if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of their actions, and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railroads.

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.  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.  Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable?  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 subjects 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 no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.  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.  A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, aye, against their commonsense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart.  They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined.

Now, what are they?  Men at all?  or small moveable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?  Visit the navy yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts—a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniments though it may be—

Not a drum was heard, nor a funeral note,

As his corse to the ramparts we hurried,

Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot,

O’er the grave where our hero we buried.

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; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.  Such command no more respect than men of straw, or a lump of dirt.  They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs.  Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens.  Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the State chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the Devil, without intending it, as God.  A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the State with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated by it as enemies.  A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be clay and stop a hole to keep the wind away, but leave that office to his dust at least—

I am too high-born to be propertied,

To be a secondary at control,

Or useful serving-man and instrument,

To any sovereign state throughout the world.

He who gives himself entirely to his fellow-men appears to them useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.  How does it become a man to behave toward this 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.

All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.  But almost all say that such is not the case now.  But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of ‘75.  If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should not make an ado about it, for I can do without them: all machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counterbalance the evil.  At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it.  But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.  In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.  What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact, that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.

Paley, a common authority with many on moral questions, in his chapter on the “Duty of Submission to Civil Government,” resolves all civil obligation into expediency; and he proceeds to say, “that so long as the interest of the whole society requires it, that is, so long as the established government cannot be resisted or changed without public inconveniency, it is the will of God, that the established government be obeyed, and no longer.”“This principle being admitted, the justice of every particular case of resistance is reduced to a computation of the quantity of the danger and grievance on the one side, and of the probability and expense of redressing it on the other.” Of this, he says, every man shall judge for himself.  But Paley appears never to have contemplated those cases to which the rule of expediency does not apply, in which a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may.  If I have unjustly wrested a.  plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though, I drown myself.  This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient.  But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it.  This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.  In their practice, nations agree with Paley; but does any one think that Massachusetts does exactly what is right at the present crisis?—

A drab of state, a cloth-o-silver slut,

To have her train borne up, and her soul trail in the dirt.

Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may.  I quarrel not with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home, cooperate with, and do the bidding of those far away, and without whom the latter would be harmless.  We are accustomed to say, that the mass of men are unprepared; but improvement is slow, because the few are not materially wiser or better than the many.  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.  There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free-trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both.  What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot today?  They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect.  They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret.  At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them.  There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man; but it is easier to deal with the real possessor of a thing than with the temporary guardian of it.

All voting is a sort of gaming, like chequers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it.  The character of the voters is not staked.  I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail.  I am willing to leave it to the majority.  Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency.  Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it.  It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.  A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.  There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men.  When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote.  They will then be the only slaves.  Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.

I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for the selection of a candidate for the Presidency, made up chiefly of editors, and men who are politicians by profession; but I think, what is it to any independent, intelligent, and respectable man what decision they may come to, shall we not have the advantage of his wisdom and honesty, nevertheless?  Can we not count upon some independent votes?  Are there not many individuals in the country who do not attend conventions?  But no—I find that the respectable man, so called, has immediately drifted from his position, and despairs of his country, when his country has more reason to despair of him.  He forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving that he is himself available for any purposes of the demagogue.  His vote is of no more worth than that of any Unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have been bought.  Oh for a man who is a man, and, as my neighbor says, has a bone in his back which you cannot pass your hand through! Our statistics are at fault—the population has been returned too large.  How many men are there to a square thousand miles in this country?  Hardly one.  Does not America offer any inducement for me to settle here?  The American has dwindled into an Odd Fellow, one who may be known by the development of his organ of gregariousness, and a manifest lack of intellect and cheerful self-reliance; whose first and chief concern, on coming into the world, is to see that the alms-houses are in good repair; and, before yet he has lawfully donned the virile garb, to collect a fund for the support of the widows and orphans that may be; who, in short, ventures to live only by the aid of the mutual insurance company, which has promised to bury him decently.

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.  See what gross inconsistency is tolerated.  I have heard some of my townsmen say—I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico and see if I would go—and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute.  The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war; is applauded by those whose own act and authority he disregards and sets at nought; as if the State were penitent to that degree that it hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that degree that it left off sinning for a moment.  Thus, under the name of order and civil government, we are all made at last to pay homage to and support our own meanness.  After the first blush of sin, comes its indifference; and from immoral it becomes, as it were, unmoral, and not quite unnecessary to that life which we have made.

The broadest and most prevalent error requires the most disinterested virtue to sustain it.  The slight reproach to which the virtue of patriotism is commonly liable, the noble are most likely to incur.  ‘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.  Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the Union, to disregard the requisitions of the President.  Why do they not dissolve it themselves—the union between themselves and the State—and refuse to pay their quota into its treasury?  Do not they stand in the same relation to the State, that the State does to the Union?  And have not the same reasons prevented the State from resisting the Union, which have prevented them from resisting the State?

How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely, and enjoy it?  Is there any enjoyment in it, if his opinion is that he is aggrieved?  If you are cheated out of a single dollar by your neighbor, you do not rest satisfied with knowing that you are cheated, or with saying that you are cheated, or even with petitioning him to pay you your due; but you take effectual steps at once to obtain the full amount, and see that you are never cheated again.  Action from principle—the perception and the performance of right—changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with any thing which was.  It not only divides states and churches, it divides families, aye, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.

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.  But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is 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 be on the alert 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?

One would think, that a deliberate and practical denial of its, authority, was the only offense never contemplated by government; else, why has it not assigned its definite, its suitable and proportionate penalty?  If a man who has no property refuses but once to earn nine shillings for the State, he is put in prison for a period unlimited by any law that I know, and determined only by the discretion of those who placed him there; but if he should steal ninety times nine shillings from the State, he is soon permitted to go at large again.  If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out.  If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.  Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.  What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways.  They take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone.  I have other affairs to attend to.  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.  every thing to do, but something; and because he cannot do every thing, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong.  It is not my business to be petitioning the governor or the legislature any more than it is theirs to petition me; and, if they should not hear my petition, what should I do then?  But in this case the State has provided no way: its very Constitution is the evil.  This may seem to be harsh and stubborn and unconciliatory; but it is to treat with the utmost kindness and consideration the only spirit that can appreciate Or deserve it.  So is all change for the better, like birth and death which convulse the body.  I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them.  I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one.  Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors, constitutes a majority of one already.

I meet this American government, or its representative the State government, directly, and face to face, once a year, no more, in the person of its tax-gatherer; this is the only mode in which a man situated as I am necessarily meets it; and it then says distinctly, Recognize me; and the simplest, the most effectual, and, in the present pasture of affairs, the indispensablest mode of treating with it on this head, of expressing your little satisfaction with and love for it, is to deny it then.  My Civil neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the very man I have to deal with—for it is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel—and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government.  How shall he ever know well what he is and does as an officer of the government, or as a man, until he is obliged to consider whether he shall treat me, his neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a neighbor and well-disposed man, or as a maniac and disturber of the peace, and see if he can get over this obstruction to his neighborliness without a ruder and more impetuous thought or speech corresponding with his action?  I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name—if ten honest men only—aye, if one honest man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America.  For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done for ever.  But we love better to talk about it—that we say is our mission.  Reform keeps many scores of newspapers in its service, but not one man.  If my esteemed neighbor, the State’s ambassador, who will devote his days to the settlement of the question of human rights in the Council Chamber, instead of being threatened with the prisons of Carolina, were to sit down the prisoner of Massachusetts, that State which is so anxious to foist the sin of slavery upon her sister—though at present she can discover only an act of inhospitality to be the ground of a quarrel with her—the Legislature would not wholly waive the subject the following winter.

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.  The proper place today, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles.  It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race, should find them; on that separate, but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her but against her—the only house in a slave-state in which a free man can abide with honor.  If any think that their influence would be lost there, and their voices no longer afflict the ear of the State, that they would not be as an enemy within its walls, they 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.  Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.  A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.  If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose.  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.  If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, “But what shall I do?” my answer is, “If you really wish to do any thing, resign your office.” When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.  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.

I have contemplated the imprisonment of the offender, rather than the seizure of his goods—though both will serve the same purpose—because they who assert the purest right, and consequently are most dangerous to a corrupt State, commonly have not spent much time in accumulating property.  To such the State renders comparatively small service, and a slight tax is wont to appear exorbitant, particularly if they are obliged to earn it by special labor with their hands.  If there were one who lived wholly without the use of money, the State itself would hesitate to demand it of him.  But the rich man-not to make any invidious comparison-is always sold to the institution which makes him rich.  Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him; and it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it.  It puts to rest many questions which he would otherwise be taxed to answer; while the only new question which it puts is the hard but superfluous one, how to spend it.  Thus his moral ground is taken from under his feet.  The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as what are called the “means” are increased.  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.  Christ, answered the Herodians according to their condition.  “Show me the tribute-money,” said he—and one took a penny out of his pocket—If you use money which has the image of Caesar on it, and which he has made current and valuable, that is, if you are men of the State, and gladly enjoy the advantages of Caesar’s government, then pay him back some of his own when he demands it; “Render therefore to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God those things which are God’s,”—leaving them no wiser than before as to which was which; for they did not wish to know.

When I converse with the freest of my neighbors, I perceive that, whatever they may say about the magnitude and seriousness of the question, and their regard for the public tranquility, the long and the short of the matter is, that they cannot spare the protection of the existing government, and they dread the consequences of disobedience to it to their property and families.  For my own part, I should not like to think that I ever rely on the protection of the State.  But if I deny the authority of the State when it presents its tax-bill, it will soon take and waste all 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 in outward respects.  It will not be worth the while to accumulate property; that would be sure to go again.  You must hire or squat somewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon.  You must live within yourself, and depend upon yourself, always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs.  A man may grow rich in Turkey even, if he will be in all respects a good subject of the Turkish government.  Confucius said—If a State is governed by the principles of reason, poverty and misery are subjects of shame; if a State is not governed by the principles of reason, riches and honors are the subjects of shame.  No—until I want the protection of Massachusetts to be extended to me in some distant southern port, where my liberty is endangered, or until I am bent solely on building up an estate at home by peaceful enterprise, I can afford to refuse allegiance to Massachusetts, and her right to my property and life.  It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State, than it would to obey.  I should feel as if I were worth less in that case.

Some years ago, the State met me in behalf of the church, and commanded me to pay a certain sum toward the support of a clergyman whose preaching my father attended, but never I myself.  “Pay,” it said, “or be locked up in the jail.” I declined to pay.  But, unfortunately another man saw fit to pay it.  I did not see why the schoolmaster should be taxed to support the priest, and not the priest the schoolmaster: for I was not the State’s schoolmaster, but I supported myself by voluntary subscription.  I did not see why the lyceum should not present its tax-bill, and have the State to back its demand, as well as the church.  However, at the request of the select-men, I condescended to make some such statement as this in writing—”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.” This I gave to the town-clerk; and he has it.  The State, having thus learned that I did not wish to be regarded as a member of that church, has never made a like demand on me since; though it said that it must adhere to its original presumption that time.

I have paid no poll-tax for six years.  I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the imp grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up.  I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way.  I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was.  I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar.  I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax.  They plainly did not know how to treat-me, but behaved like persons who are underbred.  In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall.  I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out.  again without let or’ hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous.  As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog.  I saw that the State was half-witted; that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.

Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.  It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength.  I was not born to be forced.  I will breathe after my own fashion.  Let us see who is the strongest.  What force has a multitude?  They only can force me who obey a higher law than I.  They force me to become like themselves.  I do not hear of men being forced to live this way or that by masses of men.  What sort of life were that to live?  When I meet a government which says to me, “Your money or your life,” why should I be in haste to give it my money?  It may be in a great strait, and not know what to do—I cannot help that.  It must help itself: do as I do.  It is not worth the while to snivel about it.  I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society.  I am not the son of the engineer.  I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other.  If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.

The night in prison was novel.  and interesting enough.  The prisoners in their shirt-sleeves were enjoying a chat and the evening air in the doorway, when I entered.  But the jailer said, “Come, boys, it is time to lock up,” and so they dispersed, and I heard the sound of their steps returning into the hollow apartments.  My roommate was introduced to me by the jailer, as “a first-rate fellow and a clever man.” When the door was locked, he showed me where to hang my hat, and how he managed matters there.  The rooms were whitewashed once a month; and this one, at least, was the whitest, most simply furnished, and probably the neatest apartment in the town.  He naturally wanted to know where I came from, and what brought me there; and, when I had told him, I asked him in my turn how he came there, presuming him to be an honest man, of course; and, as the world goes, I believe he was.  “Why,” said he, “they accuse me of burning a barn; but I never did it.” As near as I could discover, he had probably gone to bed in a barn when drunk, and smoked his pipe there; and so a barn was burnt.  He had the reputation of being a clever man, had been there some three months waiting for his trial to come on, and would have to wait as much longer; but he was quite domesticated and contented, since he got his board for nothing, and thought that he was well treated.

He occupied one window, and I the other; and I saw, that, if one stayed there long, his principal business would be to look; out the window.  I had soon read all the tracts that were left there, and examined where former prisoners had broken out, and where a grate had been sawed off, and heard the history of the various occupants of that room; for I found that even here there was a history and a gossip which never circulated beyond the walls of the jail.  Probably this is the only house in the town where verses are composed, which are afterward printed in circular form, but not published.  I was shown quite a long list of verses which were composed by some young men who had been detected in an attempt to escape, who avenged themselves by singing them.  I pumped my fellow-prisoner as dry as I could, for fear I should never see him again; but at length he showed me which was my bed, and left me to blowout the lamp.

It was like traveling into a far country, such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night.  It seemed to me that I never had heard the town-clock strike before, nor the evening sounds of the village; for we slept with the windows open, which were inside the grating.  It was to see my native village in the light of the middle ages, and our Concord was turned into a Rhine stream, and visions of knights and castles passed before me.  They were the voices of old burghers that I heard in the streets.  I was an involuntary spectator and auditor of whatever was done and said in the kitchen of the adjacent village-inn—a wholly new and rare experience to me.  It was a closer view of my native town.  I was fairly inside of it.  I never had seen its institutions before.  This is one of its peculiar institutions; for it is a shire town.  I began to comprehend what its inhabitants were about.  In the morning, our breakfasts were put through the hole in the door, in small oblong-square tin pans, made to fit, and holding a pint of chocolate, with brown bread, and an iron spoon.  When they called for the vessels again, I was green enough to return what bread.  I had left, but my comrade seized it, and said that I should lay that up for lunch or dinner.  Soon after, he was let out to work at haying in a neighboring field, whither he went every day, and would not be back till noon; so he bade me good-day, saying that he doubted if he should see me again.

When I came out of prison—for some one interfered, and paid that tax—I did not perceive that great changes had taken place on the common, such as he observed who went in a youth, and emerged a tottering and gray-headed man; and yet a change had to my eyes come over the scene—the town, and State and country—greater than any that mere time could effect.  I saw yet more distinctly the state in which I lived.  I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly propose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions, as the Chinamen and Malays are; that, in their sacrifices to humanity, they ran no risks, not even to their property; that, after all, they were not so noble but they treated the thief as he had treated them, and hoped, by a certain outward observance and a few prayers, and by walking in a particular straight though useless path from time to time, to save their souls.  This may be to judge my neighbors harshly; for I believe that many of them are not aware that they have such an institution as the jail in their village.

It was formerly the custom in our village, when a poor debtor came out of jail, for his acquaintances to salute him, looking through their fingers, which were crossed to represent the grating of a jail window, “How do ye do?” My neighbors did not thus salute me, but first looked at me, and then at one another, as if I had returned from a long journey.  I was put into jail as I was going to the shoemaker’s to get a shoe which was mended.  When I was let out the next morning, I proceeded to finish my errand, and, having put on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party, who were impatient to put themselves Under my conduct; and in half an hour—for the horse was soon tackled—was in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off, and then the State was nowhere to be seen.  This is the whole history of My Prisons.

I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject; and, as for supporting schools, I am doing my part to educate my fellow-countrymen now.  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.  I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man, or a musket to shoot one withthe dollar is innocent—but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance.  In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases.  If others pay the tax which is demanded of me, from a sympathy with the State, they do but what they have already done in their own case, or rather they abet injustice to a greater extent than the State requires.  If they pay the tax from a mistaken interest in the individual taxed, to save his property, or prevent his going to jail, it is because they have not considered wisely how far they let their private feelings interfere with the public good.  This, then, is my position at present.  But one cannot be too much on his guard in such a case, lest his action be biased by obstinacy, or an undue regard for the opinions of men.  Let him see that he does only what belongs to himself and to the hour.

I think sometimes, Why, this people mean well; they are only ignorant; they would do better if they knew how; why give your neighbors this pain to treat you as they are not inclined to?  But I think, again, this is no reason why l should do as they do, or permit others to suffer much greater pain of a different kind.  Again, I sometimes say to myself, When many millions of men, without heat, without ill-will, without personal feeling of any kind, demand of you a few shillings only, without the possibility, such is their constitution, of retracting or altering their present demand; and without the possibility, on your side, of appeal to any other millions, why expose yourself to this overwhelming brute force?  You do not resist cold and hunger, the winds and the waves, thus obstinately; you quietly submit to a thousand similar necessities.  You do not put your head into the fire.  But just in proportion as I regard this as not wholly a brute force, but partly a human force, and consider that I have relations to those millions as to so many millions of men, and not of mere brute or inanimate things, I see that appeal is possible, first and instantaneously, from them to the Maker of them, and, secondly, from them to themselves.  But, if I put my head deliberately into the fire, there is no appeal to fire or to the Maker of fire, and I have only myself to blame.  If I could convince myself that I have any right to be satisfied with men as they are, and to treat them accordingly, and not according, in some respects, to my requisitions and expectations of what they and I ought to be, then, like a good Mussulman and fatalist, I should endeavor to be satisfied with things as they are, and say it is the will of God.  And, above all, there is this difference between resisting this and a purely brute or natural force, that I can resist this with some effect; but I cannot expect, like Orpheus, to change the nature of the rocks and trees and beasts.

I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation.  I do not wish to split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as better than my neighbors.  I seek rather, I may say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land.  I am but too ready to conform to them.  Indeed, I have reason to suspect myself on this head; and each year, as the tax-gatherer comes round, I find myself disposed to review the acts and position of the general and State governments, and the spirit of the people, to discover a pretext for conformity.  We must affect our country as our parents, and if at any time we alienate our love or industry from doing it honor, we must respect effects and teach the soul matter of conscience and religion, and not desire of rule or benefit.

I believe that the State will soon be able to take all my work of this sort out of my hands, and, then I shall be no better a patriot than my fellow-country-men.  Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all its faults, is very good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even this State and this American government are, in many respects, very admirable and rare things, to be thankful for, such as a great many have described them; but seen from a point of view a little higher, they are what I have described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking of at all?  However, the government does not concern me much, and I shall bestow the fewest possible thoughts on it.  It is not many moments that I live under a government, even in this world.  If a man is thought-free, fancy-free, imagination-free, that which is not never for a long time appearing to be to him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally interrupt him.

I know that most men think differently from myself; but those whose lives are by profession devoted to the study of these or kindred subjects, content me as little as any.  Statesmen and legislators, standing so completely within the institution, never distinctly and nakedly behold it.  They speak of moving society, but have no resting-place without it.  They may be men of a certain experience and discrimination, and have no doubt invented ingenious and even useful systems, for which we sincerely thank them; but all their wit and usefulness lie within certain not very wide limits.  They are wont to forget that the world is not governed by policy and expediency.  Webster never goes behind government, and so cannot speak with authority about it.  His words are wisdom to those legislators who contemplate no essential reform in the existing government; but for thinkers, and those who legislate for all time, he never once glances at the subject.  I know of those whose serene and wise speculations on this theme would soon reveal the limits of his mind’s range and hospitality.  Yet, compared with the cheap professions of most reformers, and the still cheaper wisdom and eloquence of politicians in general, his are almost the only sensible and valuable words, and we thank Heaven for him.  Comparatively, he is always strong, original, and, above all, practical.  Still his quality is not wisdom, but prudence.  The lawyer’s truth is not truth, but consistency, or a consistent expediency.  Truth is always in harmony with herself, and is not concerned chiefly to reveal the justice that may consist with wrong-doing.  He Well deserves to be called, as he has been called, the Defender of the Constitution.  There are really no blows to be given by him but defensive ones.  He is not a leader, but a follower.  His leaders are the men of ‘87.  “I have never made an effort,” he says, I “and never propose to make an’ effort; I have never countenanced an effort, and never mean to countenance an effort, to disturb the arrangement as originally made, by which the, various States came into the Union.” Still thinking of the sanction which the Constitution gives to slavery, he says, “Because it was a part of the original compact—let it stand.”

Notwithstanding his special acuteness and ability, he is unable, to take a fact out of its merely political relations, and behold it as it lies absolutely to be disposed of by the intellect—what, for instance, it behoves a man to do here in America today with regard to slavery, but ventures, or is driven, to make some such desperate answer as the following, while I professing to speak absolutely, and as a private man—from which what new and singular code of social duties might be inferred?—”The manner,” says he, “in which the governments of those States where slavery exists are to regulate it, is for their own consideration, under their responsibility to their constituents, to the general laws of propriety, humanity, and justice, and to God.  Associations formed elsewhere springing from a feeling of humanity, or any other cause, have nothing whatever to do with it.  They have never received any encouragement from me, and they never will.”

They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, standard, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humility; 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 its fountainhead.  No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America.  They are rare in the history of the world.  There are orators, politicians, and eloquent men, by the thousand; but the speaker has not yet opened his mouth to speak, who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day.  We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire.  Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of free-trade and of freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation.  They have no genius or talent for comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufacturers and agriculture.  If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations: For eighteen hundred years, though perchance I have no right to say it, the New Testament has been written; yet where is the legislator who has wisdom and practical talent enough to avail himself of the light which it sheds on the science of legislation.

The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to—for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well—is still an impure one: 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 progress from an absolute to Ii limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual.  Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire.  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 and organizing the rights of man?  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.  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 also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.


 

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Last Updated28 August 2003.