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Pt. 2, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

by Henry David thoreau Sunday, Dec. 01, 2002 at 5:45 AM

Offered in the revolutionary spirit of Sor Juana Ine`s de la Cruz,Emma Goldman,Mother Jones, Mother Teresa,Lucy Gonzalez, Harriet Tubman, & Dorothy Day .

Part 2, ON THE DUTY OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE

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 benefactor and philanthropist.

How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? 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 rights to refuse allegiance to and resist the government, when it’s tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.

But most 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 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 great 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, lets not have such a machine any longer. In other wards, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty of 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 the 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 issue 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 their 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 masses 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 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, that they may no longer have it to 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 he right to 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 checkers 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 per chance as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that the 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 the 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 little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote will hasten the abolition of slavery. Who asserts his own freedom by his vote.

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