See also: [Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)]
Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau (b.1817.07.12, Concord, MA; d.1862.05.06, Concord)
"Most men live lives of quiet desparation."
On Walden Pond
On Civil Disobedience
I heartily accept the motto "that government is best,
when it governs least"; and I should like to see it acted
up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it
finally amounts to this (which I also 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
The objections which have been brought against standing
armies, and they are mighty 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, is only the
mode which the people have chosen to execute their will,
is eaually liable to be abused and perverted before the
people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican
war, the work of compararatively 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 rfecent one), endeavoring to transmit itself
un-impaired 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.
But, it is not the less necessary for this; for the people
must have some complicated machinery of other, and
hear its din, to satisfy that the idea of government which
Governments show thus how successfully men can be
imposed on, even impose on themselves, for their own
advantage. It is excellent, we 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 peoople
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 callsed and punnished with those mischevious persons
who put obstructions on 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 towards obtaining it.
After all, the practical rewson why,j 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 becuause they are most
likely to be right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority,
but because they are physically the strongest. But, a government
in which the majority ruole in all cases can not be based on
justice, even as far as men understan it.
Can there not be a governemrent in which majorities do not
virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? -- in which
majorities decide only those questions to which the rule is
of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment,
or in the least degree, resign his cosncience, then?
I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is
not desirable to cultivae a respect for the law, so much as for
the right. The only obligbation which I have a right to assume
is do do at any time what I think right. It is truly enought said
that a corporation has no sconscience; but a corporation of
conscientious men is a corporatiion *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, powerder monkeys, and all, marching in
admirable order over hile and dale to the wars, against their
wills, ay, against common sense and consciences, which makes
it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpatation of
They have no doubt that 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
serviceof 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, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried,
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot,
O'er the grave where our hero we buried."
*posse comitatatus*, etc.
In most cases, there is no free exercise whatever of the
judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a
level with rwood and earth and stones; and wooden men can
perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.
Such commmand no more respect than men of straw or a lump
of dirt. THey have the same sort of worth only as horses or
dogs. Yet such as these 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 neceessarilyu resist it for the most part; and they are
commonly treated as enemies by it.
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 through-out the world".
He that gives himself to his fellow men, appears to them
to be useless selfish; but, he who gives himself partially
to them if pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.
How deos it become a man to behave toward this American
government today? I answer, that he can not without disgrace
be associated with it. I can not for an instant recognize that
political organization as *my* government which is the *slave's*
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 un-endurable. 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
probably 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 poluplation
of anation which has undertaken to b e the refuge of liberty
are slaves, and a whold country is unjustly overrun and
conquered by a foreigh army, and subjected to military law,
I thin that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and
revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgen is the
fact that the country so over-run is not our own, but ours
is the invading army.
Paley, a common authority with many on moral questions....