Thoreau and Civil Disobedience

POLITICAL THEORY THOREAU AND CVIL DISCOBEDIENCE In March 1845, the United States acquired a new president – James K. Polk – a forceful, aggressive political outsider intent on strengthening his country and asserting its pre-eminence in front of other world powers, especially Mexico and Great Britain. Within a year of his inauguration, he had declared full-scale war on Mexico because of squabbles over the Texan border, and was soon rattling his saber at Britain over the ownership of Oregon. To complete the picture, Polk was a vigorous defender of slavery, who dismissed the arguments of abolitionists as naive and sentimental. Polk was a popular president, admired by many for his gung-ho manner, but a sizeable minority of the citizenry disliked him intensely. One especially committed opponent was a writer from Massachusetts called Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau is now a canonical American literary figure, studied in every high school for his lyrical masterpiece, Walden. But there is another, more political side to Thoreau, now usually air-brushed out of the story, which came to the fore in relation to the President. Thoreau quickly realised he was opposed to everything Polk stood for: he hated what became the Mexican-American war, instinctively siding with the losing Mexican side, he was wary of Polk’s squabbles with Britain and was appalled by the administration’s policy of hunting down and returning runaway slaves to their masters in the South. Thoreau’s anger against his President found its impassioned expression in an essay he published in 1849, now known as Civil Disobedience. At the heart of the essay is the question of what an honest citizen should do about a president he or she wholeheartedly opposes. The prevailing view was that because Polk had won a majority, those who were against him should now fall silent. It should – it was often said – be the duty of a good citizen to fold away their objections and just respect the will of the majority. But this was precisely the point Thoreau wished to probe and upturn. He suggested that true patriots were not those who blindly followed their administration. They were those who followed their own consciences and in particular, the principles of reason. Thoreau wished to redistribute prestige away from blinkered obedience towards independent thought. What marked out a noble citizen of the republic, a real American, was not – in Thoreau’s view – that they respectfully shut up, but that they thought for themselves every day of an administration’s life. On the basis of just this kind of independent thinking, Thoreau signalled a radical opposition to Polk’s term. He denounced the Mexican-American war, the repatriation of slaves and the outlook of the government more generally. And so as to underline his opposition, Thoreau held back payment of his taxes. In July 1846, he walked into Concord, Massachusetts to get his shoes repaired and was arrested and thrown into the town’s jail. Thoreau saw nothing undignified about spending some time behind bars. As he wrote: ‘Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is a prison.’ ‘All machines have their friction,’ Thoreau admitted, but when injustice is too great, you should ‘let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.’ Thoreau didn’t advocate the non-payment of taxes as a rule, and in fact, a well-meaning aunt soon paid his bill. The non-payment was just one example of the many non-violent ways that a democratically elected government could and must be resisted when its actions veer into aggression and unreason. An election may settles who the president might be, but it doesn’t determine that everything that president does is right or that one should simply do nothing until the next election. Above all, Thoreau hated political passivity. Sarcastically he wrote: ‘There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and 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.’ This would not be Thoreau’s his way: ‘How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.’ Thoreau argued that the citizen must never just ‘resign his conscience to the legislation’ and put himself ‘at the service of some unscrupulous man in power.’ Thoreau mocked that ‘most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders… are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.” Thoreau would not be such a servant. This most American of writers knew exactly whom it was right for him to serve: his own mind and conscience.

Maurice Vega

100 Responses

  1. "…resign his conscience and put himself under the service of an unscrupulous man in power"….I bow down for this line!

  2. Agreed! A wonderful video. Key Words: NON VIOLENT. Also, let's just admit, not every individual thought has merit, even if it has the right to be heard. q:

  3. at 0:56 and at the end of the video, the portrait and bust are not of Henry David Thoreau, but those of his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson

  4. First off, YOU call it Civil Disobedience, HE titled it Resistance To Civil Government. As such, if you wanna understand Thoreau deeper, you must research the Yale and Stanford experiments on obedience to authority. Secondly, the whole thing was not a response, nor reaction, to Polk, but to William Paley's influence via his widely popular book [published in the US, 1783] on the moral philosophy of politics. And where Thoreau refused taxes to the "slave's Gov't", today he would advocate the same against the Spies', the Torturers', and the Drone Operators' Gov't, based on the exact same analysis. Which, I bet says alot about YOU as a [alledged] human.

  5. For those drawing the line between the video and Trump, well done. Trump has already done bad things as president, and the people should be speaking out against it. It needs to be constructive. Many republicans during Obama's presidency spoke out in doubt that he was born in America, and questioned his faith. These were not constructive. They should have demanded Guantanamo be closed down, and that military action in the middle East stopped. Never stop holding politicians to a standard.

  6. This is what is happening in Romania at the moment. A party that has won elections with a convincing 45% and holds majority in the Parliament via a coalition, tries to abuse the "power of the vote" to impose laws that decriminalize corruption in some form. But for 5 straight days some 300.000 protesters (unheard of since 1989) unyieldingly (and peacefully, so far) are opposing the change.

    Today, there are signs that the government is backing off, but it might only be a tactic to defuse anger of the protesters. Tomorrow new protests are scheduled regardless.

    Succinct presentation here:

  7. As a libertarian, I'm all about civil disobedience but I'm curious whether you would have posted this if things were still the way they were a year or two ago.

  8. When you make the silhouette of the president look like Trump, is that not propaganda instead of presenting the facts and letting people decide for themselves?

  9. I guess he didn't destroy public or private property and silence those who disagree with him like the leftist have been doing recently.

  10. hardly the icon of moral superiority, he was all too willing let someone else pay his tax bill. did he live in his momma's basement too?

  11. The US was built on democracy, for and by the people. We the people have the power, not the officials. Without any violence, we should respect Thoreau and do as we think, and fight for basic rights. If one doesn't feel safe with someone in authority, they are doing their job wrong.

  12. "most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers and officeholders are as likely to serve the devil – without intending it – as God."

    …truer words may not have been spoken

  13. What a great man ! Gandhi was inspired by this guy. He is Gandhi's Gandhi. Lucky to have studied his works in School.

  14. Humbly requesting more videos like this one. The SoL's opinion comes through, but there's enough space for us viewers to form our own opinions because you provide the facts and writings in which your viewpoint is grounded. We can engage w/that, regardless of how we respond to your opinion. But w/o independent material, the videos (on relationships in particular) more like polemics than seminars – the question is not "What do you think?" but "Do you agree or not?". I prefer to leave a SoL video thinking, not agreeing.

    Just my .$.02, hope that was clear – we're not sleeping terribly well herein the U.S. :/.

  15. Walden is my favorite book. I especially like chapter one–Economy. I've read it many times and live my life somewhat according to its spirit of freedom. I could talk about it all day–all the great quotes–all the absolute truth. This book is why reading is so important in life–you'd never hear the things in Walden on TV or movies. I never have. I just read Lloyd Holiday's Amazon book, The Cost of a Thing, and it made me think of Walden. So here I am looking to understand him a little more. The Cost of a Thing is a story of a man who tries to break away from the troubles of today's world of slavery to the globalist corporations and debt.

  16. What does your conscience tell you about Emperor God Almighty President Trump repealing Obamacare and leaving millions without insurance? The lives of these people are at stake.

  17. This idea seems good in the context of Polk, but Thoreau's thesis was that that you should nonviolently refuse supporting ANYONE you happen to disagree with, this would make society crumble if Officers somehow had a say in disobeying the orders of the generals, or if employees quit everytime they didn't want to do something, Thoreau says you should do that if you are "right," and everybody believes that they are right.

  18. those who practice civil disobedience are "tea party whackjobs" under Democrats but noble justice warriors under Republicans according to the prevailing paradigm. Where were all the anti-war protestors that came out the woodwork during the Bush years when Obama bombed 7 Muslim countries or starved Yemen? They went into hiding. I don't trust these people at all I actually believed during the Bush years there was a genuine movement for a more just order, now I realise they were all just partisans with no principles whatsoever. It's sad but these social justice warriors created Trump by allowing Obama to expand the powers of the executive branch for 8 years without raising a whelp. Now they look on in horror as it's handed over to the enemy. Well they get what they deserve. I don't 🙁 I never supported any of these puppets.

  19. I took ap history and ap english in high school. If anything, Civil Disobedience may have been a footnote in a textbook. That's about it.

  20. Civil Disobedience is the core element of Civil Rights against governmental crimes, violences & injustice,….. etc, !!! In   nowadays' hyper-surveilence countries, This is more and more important than any other times. We, civilians need more and more courages in this totalitarian surveilence satelites- grid world by 'Sacred & Consceincious Civil Disobedience' !

  21. Liberals are funny. They cherry pick the idea's of the great minds of the last 2500 years, and always find a way to incorporate them into their authoritarian collectivist utopia. Thoreau was a champion of Individualism, the exact opposite of collectivism. When is the last time a so called "liberal" was for not paying taxes? Keep burning cities, attacking people, destroying private property, maybe if you quote Gandhi enough people will ignore the Che t-shirts

  22. this is a very inportent person and he has a very good point. i think we knead to remember him more with trump and koreas problems and all the problems that are makeing use forget every thing he said.

  23. I understand why Socrates was suspicious of popular democracy and espoused educated democracy. Otherwise we get stuck with demagoguery! There is so much wisdom handed down to us, but we seem oblivious to it because the system is gained for ordinary people to be continually distracted and essentially are brainwashed. Hence, we are doomed to keep repeating our mistakes. So name of the game is not to try to change the world but to change our mind about the world. As Joseph Campbell says "life is horrific." Transcendentalists
    such as Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau understood intuitively that there is only Oneness underlying the suffering.

  24. We must allow Colin Kaepernick his right for civil disobedience whether we agree or not, otherwise you'll be next to lose your hard won freedoms. The politics of terror, mass surveillance under the name of security and name calling dissenters as unpatriotic ie: Dixie Chicks, Kaepernick is unconstitutional. Where we must draw the line on civil disobedience is when any side left or right resorts to violence. This can not be tolerated as it is a basic human right for no tolerance of human upon human violence of any kind. Violence and anger can never be justified! I think there is a lot of confusion about this matter from well intentioned youth (well intentioned movements) but don't understand the consequences such as SJW and Black Lives Matter activists. It might work short term to gain attention to their cause but in the long run, violence is never the answer, however frustrating. It will become a self defeating exercise. So if an individual or group are to achieve their goal, one has to keep their emotions in check such as rage and anger. As soon as you're angry, you've lost. Anger is only a mechanism to control and manipulate other people's behavior. It is never justified. And certainly acting upon it is never warranted. Then hypocrisy reigns. It's like the "kettle calling pot black."

  25. Probably why American politics are fucked up today. Every individual believes to hold a special little right against the common Good, and that's why political correctness rules over your universities and courts of laws: because the Individual is all-powerful and the State is void.

    Country full of special snowflakes.

  26. it's pronounced THOR-o, as opposed to thor-OW. Emphasis on first, rather than second syllable. Just a small pedantic point,
    i'll leave you good people alone now.

  27. LOL! My lip read skills are not that great, but it's damn funny that at the piece where Clinton is on one TV and Nixon is on another, Clinton is saying "I did not. Have. Sex. With. That Woman".

  28. Ok so I live in Nicaragua and we are at the edge of a civil war, we have more than 100 deaths since this started on April, the protesters are trying to keep it peaceful but police repression against unarmed people is taking so many lives. Now the scientific community is proposing to follow a civil disobedience protocol so that way we can get the dictator to quit. I really appreciate this content because I can use it in order to explain people what is this all about and hopefully we dont have to take it any further

  29. ANY comments here that are either for or against Trump or any other politician in power, unless learned first hand, are very likely derived from media bias, rumors, and other's opinions. Wake up people, to truly have a meaningful comment, first remove yourself from bias, next, be fully willing to admit that what you know may be wrong, and last, be open to change and learning truth, no matter which "party" you buy into. If we are unwilling to do these things, then our words become as water, passively taking shape of whichever container it is in, able to be slightly heated to the point of evaporation and hot air.

  30. Out of a mountainous amount of systemic crimes, habituated aberrations and everyday perversions that have worked their way into statecraft and social machinery like barnacles on a ships keel, perhaps the greatest travesty of all, may well be the large-scale orchestrated mis-framing and mis-representing of social reality itself.

    Byway of staged events played out on the public arena (or even the small stages of designated private lives), meant to serve as no more than entertaining (whether comedic or horrifying) diversions and distractions. Designed to set false agendas and steer the masses into one series of false viewpoints after another. Ultimately designed to coax the highest yields from land and people (blood, sweat, tears, money, oil, gas, you name it)

    An example of such a view (employing the crisis breeds opportunity paradigm), is that civil institutions best exemplified by a nation's law courts, functions as no more than high-charging prostitutes, answering to one paying customer after another.

    Based on how much one commercial, political or social benefactor or patron, can advantage the legal fraternity, compared to another. So that the only question comes down to which foreign chamber of commerce, or trade and industrial conglomeration (revealing the right kind of military industrial muscle to back them up) can promise what kind of pickings, and at what costs, firstly to the profession, then the populations as a whole.

    An idea or rumor that would indubitably be considered an agit propaganda beyond a shadow of a doubt. Meant to erode confidence of civil society, weaken constituion and government, smear and degrade targeted nations and institutions. Although the more worrying question is, is that the extent of such social insurgency and market destabilization campaigns? Where it is only rumor mongering and slander that we have to worry about? Or is there really basis to such engineered subversions and miscarriages of justice?

    Some say such activity is the domain of criminal entities, who infiltrate foreign nations from the bottom up, Via the criminal under-classes by serving as paying customers to local lawyers when they get arrested for illegal activity in a country. So that legal chambers are essentially a financial inlet that is used by crime syndicates to pump foreign currency into a marketplace. Buying contacts and influence inside the country in this manner.

    Aside from the strictly profiteering-based, purely economic motivations, there is also the geo-strategic, as well as the political and social aspects of such insurgency activity. For instance, some clues point to how Republic power bases, target counterpart social systems, like Monarchies and countries with Royalty. Using the criminal elements of their own network to carryout such campaigns on targeted countries.With what essentially amounts to underground MOUs between transnational organized crime networks. using government bodies like law courts for these nefarious ends

    For instance, the fore mentioned slur on the legal fraternity, may well come from a well-funded International campaign targeting British Commonwealth nations and former European colonies. Part of Cold war tussles for allies and market share. Where the larger theory or rumor is that British established chambers of commerce and legal chambers, all the way down to their subterranean sections – i.e. their prisons system – were, or still are hives of sodomy and buggery.

    Relics and throwbacks from colonial eras, nationalist will surely insist. Although that claim would surely belong to arenas of propaganda and political polemics, while social scientists may say something else entirely about the phenomenon of homosexuality or homosexuality in institutional settings.

  31. Thank you The School of Life for making this video, now I can understand Civil Disobedience for my English class now.

  32. How does YouTube know that I'm going to write American Literature paper in my Sem tomorrow and Civil Disobedience is in my syllabus?.. Why it has been suggested to me ?🤔

  33. If onyl more people like this had existed back in 1914, or 1933. It might have spared us Austrians and the rest of Europe much grieve.

  34. As a Brazilian, this kind of thought is in need here, we are just living exactly what USA lived in 1845… Blind people following a stupid and a religious fundamentalist homophobic president, and saying that "those whose lost" should shut up and respect every decision that lunatic makes…

  35. One of my favorite people to teach. He's in our curriculum in TX and hopefully he's not taken out as we revise the TEKS.

  36. The fact that people usually compares Thoreau with the left shows how blind they are.
    Thoreay is against power, he was against what you call left or right these days, he wanted to be free, something that no one these days want to, left or right.

  37. The rest of the quote at 4:23 is "I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also."

  38. " Government is best when it governs least." Government is best when it governs not at all." Leave it to President Trump and the Republican party? For we will have no government; or a nation for it to govern in.

  39. I've never seen anything better than this channel. How amazingly organized ! How austere and pithy is each sentence !
    Shorn off extolling or exaggeration, it truly deserves many a million more subscriber .

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