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Last part: On the Duty of civil Disobedience

by Henry David Thoreau Thursday, Jan. 02, 2003 at 10:30 AM

Though the question of slavery has changed, the question remains: who is enslaved in sweatshops around the world today, and which corporations reap the profit? though today it is not the USA getting away with the land grab in Mexico in 1848, but threatening to once again, along with England, to send Iraq back to the dark ages ignorantly ignoring the fact that they will be found in the dustbins of a holocaust museum in Bahgdad along with the artifacts and skeletal remains found in the desert from the last Persian Gulf war.

Last part On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

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 I 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 schillings 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 t thousand similar necessities. You do not put your head into the fire. But just in proportions 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 the fire of to the Maker of the 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 said and I ought to be, then, like a good Musulman and fatalist, I should endeavor to be satisfied with all 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 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 around I find myself disposed to review the acts and positions of the general and state governments, and the spirit of the people, to discover a pretext for conformity. I believe that the State will soon be able to take all my work of this sort out of may 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 or thinking of at all?
However, the government does not concern me much, and I shall bestow the fewest possible thoughts on it. If 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 ever for a long time appearing to be him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally interrupt him.
I know that most men think differently from myself; but; but those whose lives are by profession devoted to the study of these or kindred subjects, content me as little as any. A statesmen and legislatures, 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 the 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 the wrongdoing. 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, “ and never promise 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 that 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 behooves 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 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 property, 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, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humanity; 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 fountain -head.
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, which is capable of settling the much much-vexed questions of the day. We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth that 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 manufactures 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 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 the wisdom and practical talent enough to avail himself of the light that it sheds on the science of legislation?
The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to her, - 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 a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Is a democracy, such as we knowing 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 imaging 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 I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.

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