Henry David Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience in 1849. The United States had just aggressively provoked a war with Mexico and, after invading Mexico and defeating the Mexican army, had seized a large swath of Mexican territory which it annexed to make up the American Southwest. Many American states of that day also sanctioned the ownership of slaves and, as such, the moral standing of the federal government was badly tainted. In the decade that followed, the United States Supreme Court would rule, in effect, in the Dred Scott case, that a slave, even after escape to a free state, remained property of his owner and could be returned to slavery.
Thoreau, with many others including Emerson, Melville, Hawthorne, and Henry James, led a period of intellectual enlightenment that spread from Boston throughout New England. As an intellectual, he found it impossible to reconcile his conscience with blind obedience to this tainted sovereign. As Thoreau puts it:
“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.”
Thoreau’s tract on civil disobedience asserts that we are morally obliged to follow our conscience rather than submit to a government that has immorally gone astray. His argument is for non-violent resistance – he refuses to pay taxes to the offending government.
Civil Disobedience thereafter became a rallying point for numerous non-violent movements of resistance and was directly cited by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, JFK, and many others. The writing provided an underlying intellectual core to the movement against apartheid in South Africa, the resistance to McCarthyism in the 1950s, and the American Anti-War movement of the 1960s. Its relevance should be apparent today.
As a I write, a megalomaniac is ruling by tweet and executive order from the White House. His disregard of self-evident truths and his willingness to target the press, the vulnerable, and the weak with callous disregard of our Constitution creates a dilemma for all of us. How are we to respond? How are we to react to proposed federal restrictions targeted at Muslims – using, in fact, a religious test explicitly forbidden under our First Amendment? How do we react to his insistence on the truth of falsehoods and to his determination to regulate based on those falsehoods? How do we react to someone whose right to office is tainted by an election in which a foreign agent, Russia, meddled on his behalf and in which he embraced and promulgated self-evident lies?
Henry David Thoreau provides us a guide.