Thoreau the Revolutionary

Thoreau portrait1. In “Thoreau and the Tax-Collector,” I looked at Thoreau’s reasons, as stated in “Civil Disobedience,” for refusing to pay his poll-tax.  My concern was to emphasize Thoreau’s political purpose, his understanding of the act as a practical step toward  combating the evil of slavery.   As I noted, this side of his argument in “Civil Disobedience” has often been slighted, when readers focus too exclusively on the paramount importance he attaches to individual  conscience.  Hannah Arendt, for one, saw Thoreau as an essentially apolitical figure, concerned only by the desire keep his own conscience clean.  In her own essay “Civil Disobedience” (published in 1970), she claimed that Thoreau had “argued his case not on the ground of a citizen’s moral relation to the law, but on the ground of individual conscience and conscience’s moral obligation” (emphasis original).   Arendt saw Thoreau as a pure case of the conscientious objector, whose one concern is to hold himself apart from entanglement with evils that his conscience condemns.  The only practical consequence his conscience allowed him to care about was his personal integrity.

As I said in my earlier piece, I believe that this is an error. It is true that  Thoreau feels impelled by his conscience to dissociate himself from the state, out of moral abhorrence of slavery.   And it is true enough that he honors conscience above any other source of moral authority.  But this doesn’t mean that his only concern is to keep his own conscience unspotted — retreating to an ivory log-cabin,  as it were.     Thoreau sees his refusal to cooperate with the state as a way to take a stand against injustice, in the hope of rousing his neighbors to join him in this.  It’s not about avoiding guilt by association; it’s about withholding his help  from the perpetuation of wrong. It’s also not about money, except incidentally.  “It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it,” he says; “I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually.”  To withdraw from the State, yes; but for the purpose of  making difficulties for the state’s agents — the tax-agents, anyway — who rely on his cooperation.   Refusing to recognize the state’s authority means withholding that moral support upon which  the state’s agents depend.  And this, after all, is how revolutions begin.  “When the subject has refused his allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.”

It’s only from the state that Thoreau stands aloof, not his fellow citizens.  Near the start of the essay, he says explicitly that he means  “to speak practically, and as a citizen” (my emphasis). His refusal to pay the tax is an act whose effects he hopes will be felt, not so much in the coffers of the state treasury, as in the conscience of the man he calls his “civil neighbor, the tax-gatherer.”  That’s an odd way to speak of a tax-collector, and a lot to expect from one.  In Thoreau’s time (just as in the Rome of Tiberius), taxes were collected by private contractors, who stood to lose out of pocket themselves if the tax went unpaid. (The town of Concord awarded the contract to a bidder who would pay in advance the town’s aggregate annual assessment – minus a fee – in exchange for the warrant to collect the tax from the residents, or else jail them or seize their goods for non-payment.)  There’s some historical evidence to suggest, not surprisingly, that the holders of this office were typically seen as unscrupulous mercenaries. Then again, Thoreau wouldn’t be the first to count such a tax-collector as a prime candidate for conversion.  In any event, it’s not as if Thoreau hopes to achieve his revolution simply by influencing this one other person.  It just happens that this is the only officer of the state who asks anything of him directly.  The case is meant to be simply illustrative, of a more general strategy of confrontation through non-compliance.  Thoreau offers his own example in the hope that his other neighbors, whose dealings with the state may be more extensive, might go and do likewise.

Thoreau’s sense of his practical purpose corresponds to his sense that he lives in a time of acute moral crisis. He sees in his neighbors is a sort of  moral paralysis, as a result of their having accommodated themselves to the evil of slavery. (When he also condemns the Mexican War, it is not as a separate grievance, but a sign of this same paralysis – the proof of how far the U.S. is beholden to slave-holders’ interests.  The Mexican War’s plainly foreseeable result was to add more slave-holding states to the Union, further entrenching the Southern bloc.)    That slavery is an enormous evil, Thoreau finds too obvious to need any argument.  He presumes that his neighbors should accept this as an uncontroversial moral truth, in the abstract.   What’s controversial is whether there’s anything to be done about it, in the present political circumstances.   Thoreau knows all too well that virtually none of his neighbors think that there is.   Yet he also knows that they acknowledge, in principle, that a government might be resisted.   After all, the United States owes its own legitimacy to that very principle.

All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.  But almost all say that such is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of ’75. 

He is referring, of course, to the American Revolution —  giving its date as the one most hallowed by his neighbors.  The year 1775 was the date of the Concord militia’s first pitched battle with the British, preceding the Declaration of Independence by more than a year. If resistance was justified then, Thoreau asks, how can it not also be warranted now?

If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is more 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 enough good to counterbalance the evil.  But when that friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.

Thoreau is fully prepared to grant that some evils are to be borne with, as the price to be paid for political institutions. His are not the “politics of absolute ends,” if that’s taken to imply an unbending intolerance for human failings and flawed institutions.   But slavery is an evil apart.


2.   How is it that readers like Arendt have seen  Thoreau’s stance in “Civil Disobedience” as essentially apolitical, despite all of this?  There’s a tendency to discount his political seriousness, on account of some other things that he also says.    Arendt quotes a number of strongly-worded statements from this same essay of his that seem to express a willful indifference to public affairs, shrugging off any positive political duty.  “I am not responsible for the successful workings of the machinery of society,” he says. “I am not the son of the engineer.”  Again: “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to eradicate any, even the greatest of evils.”  Do statements like these betray an apolitical, even anti-political attitude?   Is his thinking, at best, shot through with ambivalence?

I don’t think so.  Thoreau is a careful writer, and also a careful thinker. These statements have their place in the ambit of his argument in this essay, consistent with his polemical — political — purpose.    At no point does he say such things to qualify, or in any way diminish, his acute sense of his active duty to combat injustice, as effectively as he knows how. The intended thrust of these statements is in fact to reinforce and clarify that pressing purpose, by dispelling the cloud of other, specious duties that would seem to conflict with its demands.

The point in contention is whether resisting the government — with the result, should it come to that, of dissolving the Constitution, and disbanding the United States — would bring with it evils of its own, to be weighed in the opposite scale of  the balance.  In the background is perhaps also the widespread belief (shared, sad to say, by Abraham Lincoln) that rapid emancipation would have undesirable social effects – the belief, that is, that American society would suffer from having to absorb large numbers of blacks.   Thoreau will hear nothing of any of that.   There are no countervailing social or political costs that he’s willing to set in the balance.  “This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.”

When he declines to take responsibility for “the successful workings of the machinery of society,” he is referring specifically to the smooth operation of government.  (Thus: “the people must have some complicated machinery or other,  and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have.”)   No one who cares to incite a revolution, on principles such as Thoreau’s, can afford to be taxed (as it were) with the costs of disrupting the standing government’s efficiency, reckoned in social utility.

To be a  revolutionary is to reject normal politics, and willingly to accept one’s exclusion from the usual channels of political change. By refusing to pay the poll-tax, Thoreau abandons  the right to vote in elections.  (A word of clarification may be helpful here.  Unlike in the postbellum South, the Massachusetts poll-tax hadn’t been imposed as a bar to voting. It was simply the state’s sole direct tax, of recent origin.   The penalty of disenfranchisement arose as an ad hoc  device to ensure general compliance with the tax, at a time when the state lacked effective means for consistent enforcement.)  Thoreau doesn’t refer directly to his self-disenfranchisement, but his feelings in the matter are clear enough.  He disparages voting as no more than “a sort of gaming, like chequers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong” he says. “The characters of the voters are not staked…. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it” (emphasis original).  This is hardly the attitude of a man content to drop out from public affairs, washing his hands of the consequences.  The complaint is precisely that those who content themselves with voting are essentially doing that, capitulating to the status quo.

There’s no need to extract from this a general rejection of representative government, or even of electoral politics.  Whatever  Henry Thoreau’s personal leanings in the matter may have been, the positions he takes  in “Civil Disobedience” are inseparable from  his hatred of slavery, and that hatred more than accounts for them.   His attitude toward electoral politics is understandable, given the existing parties’ evident incapacity to take a principled stand against slavery, or to field candidates who might. (This was 1849, remember – the Republican Party was yet to be founded.)  His impatience with voting flows naturally enough from his sense that he lives at a time of a grave moral crisis,  made all the worse for the electorate’s failure to see it as one.   He has concluded that the crisis is as grave as the one that precipitated the American colonists’ rejection of the government of Britain.  He is urging his neighbors to join him in a a campaign of resistance commensurate with their grandfathers’, with the same revolutionary intent.    For Thoreau to regret the loss of his vote in this situation would be like Franklin or Jefferson regretting the day they gave up the chance someday to be granted a seat in the Parliament of Westminster, the better to plead the colonists’ grievances against the Crown.

Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless when it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.

Related Post: Thoreau and the Tax-Collector (Sept. 4, 2015)