Howard Zinn on Henry David Thoreau and When to Resist an Immoral State
“The law will never make men free; it is men who make the law free.”
Thoreau’s essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” was drawn from journal entries of 1851 and 1854, and appeared in part in Garrison’s The Liberator. That essay has been overshadowed by his more famous one on civil disobedience, but it deserves close attention. He was provoked by an incident in 1854, when President Franklin Pierce dispatched federal troops, joined by state militia and local police, to capture Anthony Burns, a slave escaped from Virginia. Black and white abolitionists used a battering ram against the courthouse doors but they were repulsed. Burns was marched to the waterfront, through streets lined with his supporters, to the sound of church bells tolling, and sent back to slavery.
In his essay, Thoreau touches on the complicity of the government and the courts, the silence of citizens in the face of that collusion (“I am surprised to see men going about their business as if nothing had happened”), and the cowardice of the press. Thoreau does not expect the government to act in the interests of justice and believes that in the long run this will be widely recognized: “A government which deliberately enacts injustice, and persists in it, will at length ever become the laughingstock of the world.” One cannot help recalling that the United States drew the opposition of people all over the world when it made war with Vietnam in the 1960s, and that ten million people in fifty countries around the world protested on a single day when the United States was on the verge of invading Iraq in 2003,
Thoreau did not have much hope for the government (“useless, or worse than useless”) nor for the soldier who serves the slave master (“a fool made conspicuous by a painted coat”). But he expected more from citizens and so was bitter about their silence when a fugitive slave, Thomas Sims, was forcibly returned to slavery in 1851. He noted that the people of Concord—on the anniversary of the shot heard round the world in 1775, and just a week after the rendition of Sims—rang the liberty bells and fired the cannons. But “when the sound of the bells died away, their liberty died away also.” That could be a commentary on any celebration in the midst of war.
Thoreau has no respect for the law when the law allows war and protects slaveholders, nor does he have respect for the justices of the Supreme Court, as they, obedient to the Constitution, affirm the legality of holding three million people as slaves. “The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free.” Such judges do not ask what the murderers’ tools are for; they only inspect them to see whether they are “in working order.” Such judges do not ask “whether the Fugitive Slave Law is right, but whether it is what they call constitutional.” In “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau writes: “What is wanted is men, not of policy, but of probity—who recognize a higher law than the Constitution, or the decision of the majority.” Thoreau’s attitude toward law and toward the Constitution points very directly to the legal controversies of our own time, when certain Supreme Court justices and legal scholars insist their job is to decide what the Founding Fathers meant by the words they wrote in 1787. Thoreau asks why, in deciding moral questions, we must ask whether “your grandfather, seventy years ago” entered into an agreement “to serve the devil” and therefore you must abide by that agreement, regardless of its human consequences.
Thoreau could have been speaking about Justice Abe Fortas, who joined the Supreme Court majority in the spring of 1968 to uphold the conviction of a young man who had publicly burned his draft card to protest the war in Vietnam (a petty act of arson, one might say, compared with William Lloyd Garrison’s setting fire to the Constitution in 1835). The court was not concerned with whether the war was right (or even whether it was constitutional) but considered only whether O’Brien had violated the Conscription Act.
That same year, in an essay on civil disobedience, Fortas wrote: “Thoreau was an inspiring figure and a great writer; but his essay should not be read as a handbook on political science.” His notion of “political science” clearly did not include moral philosophy but made the former a register of whatever regulations the politicians of the time might order.
In “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau is scathing about the press. The newspaper, he said, “is a Bible which we read every morning and every afternoon, standing and sitting, riding and walking.” Editors, he said, by their acceptance of the Fugitive Slave Act, “live and rule only by their own servility.” Speaking of a certain Boston newspaper and its response when Thomas Sims was carried off to slavery, he wrote: “I have heard the gurgling of the sewer through every column.” What would Thoreau say if he were alive today? In our time, too, the press (much of it controlled by huge financial conglomerates) is largely subservient to government, especially in time of war, when a fervid nationalism distorts reportage and criticism of government policy is often seen as unpatriotic. According to Daniel Hallin’s careful study, The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam, television coverage throughout the Vietnam War was “lopsidedly favorable to American policy in Vietnam,” even more so than what he called the “remarkably docile print media.”
During the Iraq War, the major television channels rushed to declare their support for US aggression. The Fox News Channel regularly showed the Stars and Stripes in the upper left hand corner of the screen, and the words “War on terror” blended into “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” According to a study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, even though at the moment that Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq 27 percent of the public remained opposed to the war, of those people chosen by the major television networks to be interviewed, less than three percent were antiwar.
What Thoreau saw as a coldness from the government and the press toward the black slave, an abysmal failure of compassion for the “other,” persisted for a hundred years, even after the end of slavery, in the continued subordination of black people in this country. To white Americans, black people were a shadowy presence, unknown as full human beings.
Thoreau saw the national and local governments of his time collaborating with slavery. Until the 1960s, we saw the national government acquiescing in racial segregation in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Only when black people in the South pushed themselves into view and brought public attention by acts of civil disobedience, did government finally respond.
The invisibility of the “other” carries over into war, where the “enemy” is other than human and need not be considered when the casualties start mounting up. Nowhere was this revealed more starkly than when atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The incineration and radiation of several hundred thousand Japanese could be accepted by Americans because they were not seen as human beings, not made visible as were the victims of Japan in the Bataan Death March or, some time after the fact, the victims of Hitler in the death camps.
Similarly, the Vietnamese who died or were maimed or burned by napalm in the ferocious bombing of their country (more bombs were dropped there than in all of World War II) were not visible to Americans for many years. Their deaths were recorded as statistics, but they did not appear as human beings until the first photos of the My Lai Massacre appeared a year after it was first reported in 1968.
Such callousness would have troubled Thoreau deeply. “I would remind my countrymen, that they are to be men first, and Americans only at a late and convenient hour.” Civil disobedience is inherently antinationalist because it is based on a refusal to accept the legitimacy of government as an absolute; it considers the powers of government subordinate to human rights. The implication is that these rights belong to all human beings, not just those of one’s own country. Black slaves were not quite of the United States. Indeed, they had been denied citizenship by the decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case of 1857. Yet Thoreau declared their rights to be above the law of the nation, even above the highest law of the nation—the Constitution.
Thoreau’s essay propounded such a universal principle of human rights that it continues to be an inspiration for dissident thinkers and activists around the world. Tolstoy took note of “the savage Spanish American war” and wrote of a “second war” waged against the government, its powerful weapon being “the obedience of every man to his own reason and conscience.” Tolstoy wrote:
This, indeed, is so simple, so indubitable, and binding upon every man. “You wish to make me a participator in murder; you demand of me money for the preparation of weapons; and want me to take part in the organized assembly of murderers” says the reasonable man—he who had neither sold nor obscured his conscience. “But I profess that law—the same that is also professed by you—which long ago forbade not murder only, but all hostility, also, and therefore I cannot obey you.”
Gandhi knew of both Thoreau and Tolstoy. Thoreau, he wrote, “has left a masterly treatise on the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” The influence can be seen in the campaigns Gandhi organized to protest British rule in India. In 1919 the British passed the Rowlatt Act (remarkably similar to the USA PATRIOT Act passed by Congress in 2001) that provided for preventive detention, the arrest and confinement of persons who were “suspected of subversive activities.” Persons considered “dangerous” could be detained indefinitely. Gandhi and his followers took a pledge: “We solemnly affirm that. . . we shall refuse civilly to obey these laws.” In 1930, Gandhi and others participated in a civil disobedience movement against the government monopoly on salt and the oppressive salt tax. They marched from Ahmadabad to the beach at Dandi and prepared salt from the sea, thus violating the salt laws. Gandhi was arrested, but the civil disobedience continued for a year, in the course of which salt depots were occupied, and protesters were met with brutal police attacks.
In the United States, social movements throughout the 20th century and into the 21st repeatedly put moral principles ahead of the law. Thoreau had written, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? … It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”
In this spirit, labor organizers in the Industrial Workers of the World went to jail again and again in defiance of local laws. On the eve of World War I, women picketed in the nation’s capital in violation of local ordinances and were arrested for demanding the right to vote. In 1936 and 1937, workers in auto and rubber plants staged sit down strikes to get recognition for their unions.
In the 1950s and 1960s, black people in the South carried out hundreds of acts of civil disobedience, refusing to obey the laws mandating racial segregation, defying the laws of trespass, disobeying orders of police. Thoreau had written: “I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion.” Black people in the South had concluded that the US government would not defend their constitutional rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and they would take action themselves.
A white city librarian in Montgomery, Alabama, wrote a letter to the Montgomery Advertiser, saying admiringly that the black people boycotting the city buses that winter of 1955 “had taken a lesson from Gandhi, and from our own Thoreau, who influenced Gandhi.” The young seminary student John Lewis, who was beaten senseless in the attempted protest march in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery, had studied Gandhi and Thoreau.
No one energized the idea of civil disobedience in the United States more than Martin Luther King Jr. He was a student of philosophy and religion and was very aware of Thoreau and Gandhi; no doubt their powerful ideas reinforced his own thinking. But it was the reality of racial segregation that led him and the thousands of others in the Southern movement—the sit-inners, the Freedom Riders, the marchers, and picketers—to defy the law again and again.
In King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” he distinguishes between “just and unjust laws” in the way that Thoreau had distinguished between taxes he was willing to pay because they went for constructive public purposes and taxes he would not pay because they supported a government at war. King had been arrested for violating a court injunction against demonstrations. “An unjust law,” he said, “is out of harmony with the moral law.”
The practice of civil disobedience was carried over from the protests against racial segregation to the movement against the war in Vietnam. Indeed, among the first to resist the draft (and to receive especially heavy prison sentences) were young black men in the South. In mid 1965, as the war in Vietnam began escalating rapidly, blacks in McComb, Mississippi, who had just learned that a classmate had been killed in Vietnam, distributed a leaflet: “No Mississippi Negroes should be fighting in Vietnam for the White man’s freedom, until all the Negro People are free in Mississippi. Negro boys should not honor the draft here in Mississippi. Mothers should encourage their sons not to go.” Among the most dramatic instances of civil disobedience against the war was that of heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, who refused to serve in what he called a “white man’s war.” As punishment, boxing authorities took away his title as champion.
At no time in American history was there such a succession of acts of civil disobedience as during the war in Vietnam. Young men burned their draft cards or turned them in to the government. They refused to be inducted into the armed forces, 34,000 of them by the end of 1969. Hundreds of thousands, without going public in their refusal, did not register for the draft.
Americans were deeply offended by these actions and argued that citizens should express themselves by going through legal channels like voting. But Thoreau had no faith that government officials would act morally: “most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and officeholders, serve the State chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.” He was disdainful of voting and other orthodox remedies. “They take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone.”
That spirit animated the priests, nuns, and laypeople who throughout the war in Vietnam broke into draft boards, seized draft records, and destroyed them to dramatize their protest against the war. During the trial of the Milwaukee 14, a priest named Bob Cunnane told the court that he had tried to go through legal channels to help stop the war, that he had visited his senator and was told that people in Congress were helpless. For this reason he decided on an action more forceful, even if it meant breaking the law and going to prison.
Disobedience spread to the armed forces. Early in the war, one West Point graduate refused to board an aircraft that would take him to a remote Vietnamese village. Three army privates refused to embark for Vietnam, denouncing the war as “immoral, illegal, and unjust”; they were court martialed and imprisoned. An army doctor refused to teach Green Berets, a Special Forces elite, saying they were “murderers of women and children.”
Tens of thousands deserted from the military, going to Canada or to Western Europe. B52 pilots refused to go on missions during the fierce bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong in December 1972. Earlier that year, 50 out of 142 GIs in one company refused to go out on patrol.
After the war in Vietnam ended in 1975, a determined group of pacifists continued to protest the militarization of our country, the buildup of nuclear weapons, by acts of civil disobedience. Beginning in 1980 with a group called the Plowshares Eight (taking their name from the biblical injunction to beat swords into plowshares), they invaded nuclear facilities, committing small symbolic acts of sabotage. In the next twenty-three years at least seventy-five similar actions were carried out, almost always resulting in jail sentences.
Although it was supported by most Americans, the First Gulf War in 1990-91 led to mass demonstrations of protest in American cities, as well as to refusals of military service by young men and women. A physician named Lynda Reiser, explaining why she would defy the order sending her to Iraq, wrote: “I object to participation in war in any form. I believe in the preservation of life at all costs. . . I cannot participate in war, either as a combatant or as a noncombatant, because my doing so would represent my agreement with war.”
This is exactly what Thoreau advocated in the face of evils like slavery and war: that people should withdraw their support from the government. It is not enough to hold an opinion, he said. One must act. “When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.”
Thoreau’s next sentences are disquieting and make it clear he was not an absolute pacifist. “But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded?” He seems to have accepted that an evil as gross as slavery—the captivity of three million people—could not be overcome without some degree of violence.
John Brown’s life epitomized the belief that violence would be necessary to abolish slavery. With a small band of likeminded men, he went to Kansas, which had become a battleground between proslavery and antislavery forces. There were killings on both sides, and at one point Brown and his men carried out a nighttime raid on a proslavery settlement and killed five people in cold blood.
Thoreau delivered to the citizens of Concord his lecture “A Plea for Captain John Brown” twelve days after Brown, with his sons and a small group of white and black abolitionists, tried to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Their aim was to incite a general slave revolt, but the plan miscarried, they were captured, and Brown lay wounded, awaiting trial.
Thoreau’s passionate talk is not a defense of John Brown but, as he titled it, a plea, an expression of sympathy and admiration. It is very unlikely that Thoreau would have participated in the kind of action Brown had engaged in, yet he defended Brown’s “right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave.” Brown’s firearms, he said, “were employed in a righteous cause.”
Emerson, with a similar passion, said of John Brown that “he will make the gallows glorious like the cross.” Emerson and Thoreau were both outraged at the rush by both the state of Virginia and the national government to execute Brown, and the “coldblooded way,” as Thoreau put it, that newspaper editors and others, even abolitionists, talked of the man as “dangerous” and “insane.” Shortly after John Brown was hanged for killing people, believing he was advancing the cause of freedom for slaves, the US government engaged in a war, presumably to abolish slavery, and 600,000 died on the battlefields. Would any one dare to refer to the US government as “dangerous” and “insane”?
Running through Thoreau’s essay about John Brown is a powerful theme that speaks to our own time: the hypocrisy of government officials who, with an air of righteousness, buttressed by the law, put to death killers of one, two, or ten persons, but who themselves plan and carry out wars in which millions die.
“War is peace” was the slogan of the Big Brother state described in George Orwell’s novel 1984. We carry out wars in the name of peace. In the United States we keep two million people in prison in the name of order. Thoreau’s words speak directly to our time: “We preserve the so called ‘peace’ of our community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy and hand cuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows!”
We are speaking not of totalitarian governments but of governments that call themselves democracies as does ours. We pride ourselves on having representative government. But, as Thoreau says, still speaking of John Brown, “what a monster of a government is that where the noblest faculties of the mind, and the whole heart, are not represented.”
Thoreau’s great insight is that there is a moral emptiness in government unless it is filled by the actions of citizens on behalf of justice. That corresponds exactly to the democratic philosophy of the Declaration of Independence, in which governments have no inherent right to exist or to rule, but deserve to do so only when they fulfill the charge given them by the people: to protect everyone’s equal right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
In our time, that philosophy is realized in the actions of those who, in defiance of government, in defiance of laws they consider supportive of war and injustice, carry out acts of civil disobedience. That might mean damaging weapons of war or refusing to pay taxes to support a huge military budget or refusing to join a military campaign seen as destructive of human life. In the end, behind the hard actions of civil disobedience (soft in relation to the actions of government), there is a desire for a life in which all that will be unnecessary. Thoreau’s essay “Life without Principle,” published posthumously in 1963 in the Atlantic Monthly, expresses ideas developed through a number of lectures he gave between 1854 and 1860. Thoreau’s final working title for the piece was “The Higher Law,” which today provides fresh insight into our very modern lives.
In “Life without Principle,” Thoreau joins his criticism of government and society with his love of the natural world. How shall we live? he asks. “This world is a place of business.” Money rules our lives but does not enrich them. “The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward.”
Are Thoreau’s ideas utopian, and therefore useless, in a world of technological marvels, global commerce, and powerful nations? Or is it perhaps that Thoreau is asking that technology be tamed to serve our existential needs for peace and beauty, that commerce serve not greed, but human life, that nations be communities and not war machines? He is not against the “things” of modern life but wants to change the situation that Emerson described: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”
In the midst of the struggle for justice, however, Thoreau is convinced that right will prevail. Agitated as he is about the evil of slavery—“Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle?”—he is brought back to himself when he scents a white waterlily and realizes that a season he “had waited for had arrived.” The lily “suggests what kind of laws have prevailed longest and widest, and still prevail, and that the time may come when man’s deeds will smell as sweet.”
Special thanks to Rick Balkin and Myla Zinn for permission to share this essay, which was originally published as an introduction to The Higher Law: Thoreau on Civil Disobedience and Reform, edited by Wendell Glick (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1973, 2004) and reprinted in Howard Zinn’s, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress (San Francisco: City Lights Books 2007). Copyright ©2007 by Howard Zinn