For this week’s Peace of History:
We celebrate the birth of activist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Born July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau’s influence on American culture has persisted well beyond his time. His observations contributed significantly to the field of natural history, and many of his observations anticipated future discoveries in ecology. The transcendentalist philosophy which he followed believed in the inherent goodness of individuals, a deep suspicion of the corrupting influence of society and institutions, and the value of self-reliance and personal freedoms -- it is not hard to find reflections of those beliefs in various forms across contemporary American culture today. His account of his Walden years still continues to inspire experiments in off-grid homesteading and alternative lifestyles. But for the pacifist movement, it is his tax resistance and the development of his concept “civil disobedience” that holds a special relevance.
On July 4, 1845, Thoreau began his famous experiment at Walden Pond on property owned by the unofficial leader of the transcendental movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the transcendentalist tradition, Thoreau’s goal was to live simply and self-sufficiently in nature in order to develop a more objective perspective of society. He used this time to observe, think, and write about the relationships between individuals, between individuals and society, and between people and nature. A staunch lifelong abolitionist, in 1840, Thoreau had started refusing to pay taxes in protest of slavery. About one year into his stay at Walden Pond, Thoreau ran into the local tax collector, who demanded the unpaid poll taxes of the last six years. Citing slavery and the recently begun Mexican-American War, which many abolitionists considered a Southern invasion into sovereign lands to expand slavery, Thoreau refused to pay and spent a night in jail. Against his wishes, a family member paid his back taxes and he was released the next day.
That encounter with the State affected him greatly; two years after the incident, Thoreau delivered lectures in Concord, MA that would become the basis of his famous essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” also known as “Civil Disobedience.” In it, he wrote: “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight… If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.” He frames the individual’s moral relationship with the State in binary terms: either you support the State through paying taxes, thus literally financially supporting the violence and brutality of the State; or you withhold your taxes from the State and sleep well knowing that no one has been hurt or killed with your tax dollars. It is also worth noting that despite the transcendentalist tendency to prioritize the importance of the individual, Thoreau nevertheless clearly states that collective action, even amongst a minority, is the only method for nonviolent revolution. Even more, he seems to say that a collective refusal of the State is the definition of a peaceful revolution. Much of the rest of the essay concerns the individual’s spiritual and physical struggle with the State, but here, Thoreau is explicit about the necessity for individuals to take action collectively in order to establish a truly just government.
Henry David Thoreau was not strictly speaking a pacifist. Indeed, after John Brown’s violent and ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry and his subsequent execution, Thoreau is credited for being the first person to publicly support John Brown’s actions, even as other abolitionists tried to distance themselves from Brown. But his concepts of collective nonviolent action as a viable means of revolution have reverberated and inspired pacifists across the world: to Russia, where Leo Tolstoy developed the ideas even further using anarchist philosophy and Christian theology; to India, where Gandhi successfully led the independence movement from the British Empire by means in-part inspired by “Civil Disobedience”; back to the United States, where “Civil Disobedience” inspired the modern war tax resistance movement promoted by the Peacemakers and CNVA; to the South, where the Civil Rights Movement famously and spectacularly employed the strategy to end segregation and voting disenfranchisement. Now, individuals are coming together to pull down statues, to form police-free neighborhoods, and to form mutual aid societies. Civil disobedience has developed beyond what Thoreau probably could have imagined. Sprung from a simple act of tax refusal and a single night in jail, for all that this little idea of civil disobedience has accomplished -- for all the people that this idea has liberated, spiritually and physically -- we hope that Thoreau would be proud.
“Henry David Thoreau: A War Tax Resistance Inspiration” https://nwtrcc.org/2014/07/10/henry-david-thoreau-a-war-tax-resistance-inspiration/
“Thoreau and ‘Civil Disobedience’” https://www.crf-usa.org/black-history-month/thoreau-and-civil-disobedience
Whitman, Karen. “Re-evaluating John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry” http://www.wvculture.org/history/journal_wvh/wvh34-1.html
Thoreau, Henry David. “Resistance to Civil Government.” Ed. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Aesthetic Papers. https://archive.org/details/aestheticpapers00peabrich/page/n209/mode/2up
Thoreau, H. D., letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, February 23, 1848. http://thoreau.library.ucsb.edu/project_resources_additions/c1.344-350.pdf