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Pt. 3, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

by Henry David Thoreau Monday, Dec. 02, 2002 at 8:07 AM

Offered in the spirit of Muhammed Ali, Carlos Cortez, the Kent State students massacred, all those that got their heads busted or gased in 1968 in Chicago, or elsewhere, Mark Clarke, Fred Hampton Sr. & others in the movement killed by the authorites.

Part 3, ON THE DUTY OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE

I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for the selection of a candidate for the presidency, made up of chiefly editors, and men who are politicians by profession; but I think, what is 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 elected 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 hiring 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 men to settle here? The American has dwindled to 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 funds 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, -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 WHOSE OWN ACT AND AUTHORITY HE DISREGARDSAND SETS AT NAUGHT; as if the state were penitent to that degree that it hired one to scourge it, 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 nature of a government, yield it to 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 they not 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 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 anything which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families, aye, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical 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 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 to do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, ands 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 first 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 my self to the wrong that I condemn.

As for adopting the ways that the state has provided for remedying the evil, I do 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 everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong. It is not my business to be petitioning the governor or the legislature anymore 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 such way: its very constitution is the evil. This may seem to be harsh and stubborn and unconciliatory; but it is to treat 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 that convulse the body.



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On civil obedience jon chance Monday, Dec. 02, 2002 at 3:25 PM
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