Civil Disobedience (essay by Henry David Thoreau)

Discussion in 'Freedom and Liberty' started by melbo, Jun 20, 2006.

  1. melbo

    melbo Hunter Gatherer Administrator Founding Member

    Civil Disobedience

    an essay by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

    I heartily accept the motto, ``That government is best which
    governs least;'' and I should like to see it acted upon more rapidly and
    systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also
    believe, -- ``That government is best which governs not at all;'' and
    when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which
    they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments
    are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections
    which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and
    weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a
    standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing
    government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people
    have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and
    perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present
    Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing
    government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have
    consented to this measure.

    This American government, -- what is it but a tradition, though
    a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity,
    but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and
    force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will. It
    is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves. But it is not the less
    necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery or
    other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have.
    Governments thus show how successfully men can be imposed on, even impose
    on themselves, for their own advantage. It is excellent, we must all allow.
    Yet this government of itself never furthered any enterprise, but by the
    alacrity with which it got out of its way. _It_ does not keep the country
    free. _It_ does not settle the West. _It_ does not educate. The character
    inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished;
    and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes
    got in its way. For government is an expedient by which men would fain
    succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been said, when it is most
    expedient, the governed are most let alone by it. Trade and commerce, if
    they were not made of india-rubber, would never manage to bounce over the
    obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way; and, if
    one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of their actions and not
    partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classed and punished
    with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railroads.

    But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call
    themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but
    _at_once_ a better government. Let every man make known what kind of
    government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward
    obtaining it.

    After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the
    hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period
    continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right,
    nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are
    physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in
    all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it.
    Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide
    right and wrong, but conscience? -- in which majorities decide only those
    questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? 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? I think that we should be
    men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a
    respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which
    I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is
    truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation
    of conscientious men is a corporation _with_ a conscience.

    Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect
    for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A
    common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a
    file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and
    all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against
    their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it
    very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They
    have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned;
    they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small
    movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in
    power? Visit the Navy-Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an
    American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black
    arts, -- a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive
    and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral
    accompaniments, though it may be, --
    ``Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
    As his corpse to the rampart we hurried;
    Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
    O'er the grave where our hero we buried.''

    The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as
    machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, the militia,
    jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free
    exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put
    themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can
    perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command
    no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same
    sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly
    esteemed good citizens. Others -- as most legislators, politicians, lawyers,
    ministers, and office-holders -- 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. A very few -- as heroes,
    patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and _men_ -- serve the
    state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the
    most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. A wise man will
    only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be ``clay,'' and ``stop a
    hole to keep the wind away,'' but leave that office to his dust at least:--
    ``I am too high-born to be propertied
    To be a secondary at control
    Or useful serving-man and instrument
    To any sovereign state throughout the world.''

    He who gives himself entirely to his fellow-men appears to them
    useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pro-
    nounced a benefactor and philanthropist.

    How does it become a man to behave toward this American government
    to-day? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.
    I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as _my_
    government which is the _slave's_ government also.

    All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to
    refuse allegiance to, 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. If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it
    taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable
    that I should not mae an ado about it, for I can do without them. All
    machines have their friction; and possibly this does good enough to
    counterbalance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir
    about it. But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression
    and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.
    In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has
    undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is
    unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military
    law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolu-
    tionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country
    so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.

    Paley, a common authority with many on moral questions, in his
    chapter on the ``Duty of Submission to Civil Government,'' resolves all
    civil obligation into expediency; and he proceeds to say that ``so long as
    the interest of the whole society requires it, that is, so long as the
    established government cannot be resisted or changed without public
    inconveniency, it is the will of God... that the established government be
    obeyed, -- and no longer. This principle being admitted, the justice of
    every particular case of resistance is reduced to a computation of the
    quantity of the danger and grievance on the one side, and of the probability
    and expense of redressing it on the other.'' Of this, he says, every man
    shall judge for himself. But Paley appears never to have contemplated those
    cases to which the rule of expediency does not apply, in which a people,
    as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may. If I have
    unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him
    though I drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient.
    But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. This
    people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it
    cost them their existence as a people.

    In their practice, nations agree with Paley; but does any one think
    that Massachusetts does exactly what is right at the present crisis?
    ``A drab of state, a cloth-o'-silver slut,
    To have her train borne up, and her soul trail in the dirt.''
    Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a
    hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred thousand merchants
    and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than
    they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and
    to Mexico, _cost_what_it_may_. I quarrel not with far-off foes, but with
    those who, near at home, cooperate with, and do the bidding of, those far
    away, and without whom the latter would be harmless. We are accustomed to
    say that the mass of men are unprepared; but improvement is slow, because
    the few are not materially wiser or better than the many. It is not so
    important that many should be as good as you, as that there be some
    absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump. 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; who even
    postpone the question of freedom to the question of free trade, and
    quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico,
    after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both. What is the
    price-current of an honest man and patriot to-day? They hesitate, and they
    regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and
    with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil,
    that they may no longer have to regret. At most, they give only a cheap
    vote and a feeble countenance and God-speed to the right, as it goes by
    them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one
    virtuous man. But it is easier to deal with the real possessor of a thing
    than with the temporary guardian of it.

    All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with
    a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral
    questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters
    is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not
    vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it
    to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of ex-
    pediency. Even voting for the right is _doing_ nothing for it. It is only
    expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man
    will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail
    through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the
    action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the
    abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery,
    or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote.
    _They_ will then be the only slaves. Only _his_ vote can hasten the
    abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.

    I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for
    the selection of a candidate for the Presidency, made up chiefly of editors,
    and men who are politicians by profession; but I think, what is it to any
    independent, intelligent, and respectable man what decision they may come
    to? Shall we not have the advantage of his wisdom and honesty, nevertheless?
    Can we not count upon some independent votes? Are there not many individuals
    in the country who do not attend conventions? But no: I find that the
    respectable man, so-called, has immediately drifted from his position, and
    despairs of his country, when his country has more reason to despair of
    him. He forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only
    _available_ one, thus proving that he is himself _available_ for any
    purposes of the demagogue. His vote is of no more worth than that of any
    unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have been bought. O for
    a man who is a _man_, and, as my neighbor says, has a bone in his back
    which you cannot pass your hand through! Our statistics are at fault: the
    population has been returned too large. How many _men_ are there to a
    square thousand miles in this country? Hardly one. Does not America offer
    any inducement for men to settle here? The American has dwindled into an
    Odd Fellow, -- one who may be known by the development of his organ of
    gregariousness, and a manifest lack of intellect and cheerful self-reliance;
    whose first and chief concern, on coming into the world, is to see that the
    almshouses are in good repair; and, before yet he has lawfully donned the
    virile garb, to collect a fund for the support of the widows and orphans
    that may be; who, in short, ventures to live only by the aid of the
    Mutual Insurance company, which has promised to bury him decently.

    It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself
    to the eradication of any, even the most enormous, wrong; he may still
    properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least,
    to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to
    give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and
    contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them
    sitting upon another man's shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may
    pursue his contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated.
    I have heard some of my townsmen say, ``I should like to have them order me
    out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico;
    -- see if I would go;'' and yet these very men have each, directly by
    their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished
    a substitute. The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust
    war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes
    the war; is applauded by those whose own act and authority he disregards
    and sets at naught; as if the state were penitent to that degree that it
    hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that degree that it left
    off sinning for a moment. Thus, under the name of Order and Civil Govern-
    ment, we are all made at last to pay homage to and support our own meanness.
    After the first blush of sin comes its indifference; and from immoral it
    becomes, as it were, _un_moral, and not quite unnecessary to that life
    which we have made.

    The broadest and most prevalent error requires the most disinter-
    ested virtue to sustain it. The slight reproach to which the virtue of
    patriotism is commonly liable, the noble are most likely to incur. Those
    who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government,
    yield to it their allegiance and support are undoubtedly its most con-
    scientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to
    reform. Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the Union, to disregard
    the requisitions of the President. Why do they not dissolve it themselves,
    -- the union between themselves and the State, -- and refuse to pay their
    quota into its treasury? Do they not stand in the same relation to the State
    that the State does to the Union? And have not the same reasons prevented
    the State from resisting the Union which have prevented them from resisting
    the State?

    How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely, and
    enjoy _it_? Is there any enjoyment in it, if his opinion is that he is
    aggrieved? If you are cheated out of a single dollar by your neighbor,
    you do not rest satisfied knowing that you are cheated, or with saying that
    you are cheated, or even with petitioning him to pay you your due; but you
    take effectual steps at once to obtain the full amount, and see that you
    are never cheated again. Action from principle, the perception and the
    performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially
    revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not
    only divides States and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the
    _individual_, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.

    Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we
    endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we
    transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this,
    think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to
    alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be
    worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that
    the remedy _is_ worse than the evil. _It_ makes it worse. Why is it not
    more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its
    wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it
    not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and
    _do_ better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and
    excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin

    One would think, that a deliberate and practical denial of its
    authority was the only offence never contemplated by government; else, why
    has it not assigned its definite, its suitable and proportionate, penalty?
    If a man who has no property refuses but once to earn nine shillings for
    the State, he is put in prison for a period unlimited by any law that I
    know, and determined only by the discretion of those who placed him there;
    but if he should steal ninety times nine shillings from the State, he is
    soon permitted to go at large again.

    If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine
    of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth, --
    certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a
    pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you
    may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it
    is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to
    another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to
    stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not
    lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.
    As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for
    remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time,
    and a man's life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came
    into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to
    live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not everything to do, but some-
    thing; and because he cannot do _everything_, it is not necessary that he
    should do _something_ wrong. It is not my business to be petitioning the
    Governor or the Legislature any more than it is theirs to petition me; and
    if they should not hear my petition, what should I do then? But in this
    case the State has provided no way: its very Constitution is the evil.
    This may seem to be harsh and stubborn and unconciliatory; but is to treat
    with the utmost kindness and consideration the only spirit that can appre-
    ciate or deserves it. So is all change for the better, like birth and death,
    which convulse the body.

    I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves Abolition-
    ists should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and
    property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they
    constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail
    through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side,
    without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his
    neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.

    I meet this American government, or its representative, the State
    government, directly, and face to face, once a year -- no more -- in the
    person of its tax-gatherer; this is the only mode in which a man situated
    as I am necessarily meets it; and it then says distinctly, Recognize me;
    and the simplest, the most effectual, and, in the present posture of
    affairs, the indispensablest mode of treating with it on this head, of
    expressing your little satisfaction with and love for it, is to deny it
    then. My civil neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the very man I have to deal
    with, -- for it is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I
    quarrel, -- and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government.
    How shall he ever know well what he is and does as an officer of the
    government, or as a man, until he is obliged to consider whether he shall
    treat me, his neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a neighbor and well-
    disposed man, or as a maniac and disturber of the peace, and see if he can
    get over this obstruction to his neighborliness without a ruder and more
    impetuous thought or speech corresponding with his action. I know this well,
    that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name, -- if
    ten _honest_ men only, -- ay, if _one_ HONEST man, in this State of
    Massachusetts, _ceasing_to_hold_slaves_, were actually to withdraw from
    this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would
    be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the
    beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever. But we
    love better to talk about it: that we say is our mission. Reform keeps
    many scores of newspapers in its service, but not one man. If my esteemed
    neighbor, the State's ambassador, who will devote his days to the settle-
    ment of the question of human rights in the Council Chamber, instead of
    being threatened with the prisons of Carolina, were to sit down the
    prisoner of Massachusetts, that State which is so anxious to foist the sin
    of slavery upon her sister, -- though at present she can discover only an
    act of inhospitality to be the ground of a quarrel with her, -- the
    Legislature would not wholly waive the subject the following winter.

    Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for
    a just man is also prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which
    Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in
    her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as
    they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there that
    the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come
    to plead the wrongs of his race should find them; on that separate, but more
    free and honorable, ground where the State places those who are not _with_
    her, but _against_ her, -- the only house in a slave State in which a free
    man can abide with honor. If any think that their influence would be lost
    there, and their voices no longer afflict the ear of the State, that they
    would not be as an enemy within its walls, they do not know by how much
    truth is stronger than error, nor how much more eloquently and effectively
    he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person.
    Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.
    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
    the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and
    slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. 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 innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable
    revolution, if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer, or any other
    public officer, asks me, as one has done, ``But what shall I do?'' my answer
    is, ``If you really wish to do anything, resign your office.'' When the
    subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office,
    then the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood should flow. Is
    there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this
    wound a man's real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an
    everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.

    I have contemplated the imprisonment of the offender, rather than
    the seizure of his goods, -- though both will serve the same purpose, --
    because they who assert the purest right, and consequently are most danger-
    ous to a corrupt State, commonly have not spent much time in accumulating
    property. To such the State renders comparatively small service, and a
    slight tax is wont to appear exorbitant, particularly if they are obliged to
    earn it by special labor with their hands. If there were one who lived
    wholly without the use of money, the State itself would hesitate to demand
    it of him. But the rich man -- not to make any invidious comparison -- is
    always sold to the institution which makes him rich. Absolutely speaking,
    the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his
    objects, and obtains them for him; and it was certainly no great virtue to
    obtain it. It puts to rest many questions which he would otherwise be taxed
    to answer; while the only new question it puts is the hard but superfluous
    one, how to spend it. Thus his moral ground is taken from under his feet.
    The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as what are called
    the ``means'' are increased. The best thing a man can do for his culture
    when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out those schemes which he enter-
    tained when he was poor. Christ answered the Herodians according to their
    condition. ``Show me the tribute-money,'' said he; -- and one took a penny
    out of his pocket; -- if you use money which has the image of Caesar on it,
    and which he has made current and valuable, that is, _if_you_are_men_of_
    _the_State_, and gladly enjoy the advantages of Caesar's government, then
    pay him back some of his own when he demands it. ``Render therefore to
    Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to God those things which are God's'';
    -- leaving them no wiser than before as to which was which; for they did
    not wish to know.

    When I converse with the freest of my neighbors, I perceive that,
    whatever they may say about the magnitude and seriousness of the question,
    and their regard for the public tranquility, the long and the short of the
    matter is, that they cannot spare the protection of the existing government,
    and they dread the consequences to their property and families of dis-
    obedience to it. For my own part, I should not like to think that I ever
    rely on the protection of the State. But, if I deny the authority of the
    State when it presents its tax-bill, it will soon take and waste all my
    property, and so harass me and my children without end. This is hard. This
    makes it impossible for a man to live honestly, and at the same time
    comfortably, in outward respects. It will not be worth the while to
    accumulate property; that would be sure to go again. You must hire or squat
    somewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon. You must live
    within yourself, and depend upon yourself always tucked up and ready for
    a start, and not have many affairs. A man may grow rich in Turkey even,
    if he will be in all respects a good subject of the Turkish government.
    Confucius said: ``If a state is governed by the principles of reason,
    poverty and misery are subjects of shame; if a state is not governed by
    the principles of reason, riches and honors are subjects of shame.'' No:
    until I want the protection of Massachusetts to be extended to me in some
    distant Southern port, where my liberty is endangered, or until I am bent
    solely on building up an estate at home by peaceful enterprise, I can afford
    to refuse allegiance to Massachusetts, and her right to my property and
    life. It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience
    to the State than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less
    in that case.

    Some years ago, the State met me in behalf of the Church, and
    commanded me to pay a certain sum toward the support of a clergyman whose
    preaching my father attended, but never I myself. ``Pay,'' it said, ``or
    be locked up in the jail.'' I declined to pay. But, unfortunately, another
    man saw fit to pay it. I did not see why the schoolmaster should be taxed
    to support the priest, and not the priest the schoolmaster; for I was not
    the State's schoolmaster, but I supported myself by voluntary subscription.
    I did not see why the lyceum should not present its tax-bill, and have the
    State to back its demand, as well as the Church. However, at the request of
    the selectmen, I condescended to make such statement as this in writing: --
    ``Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be
    regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined.''
    This I gave to the town clerk; and he has it. The State, having thus learned
    that I did not wish to be regarded as a member of that church, has never
    made a like demand on me since; though it said that it must adhere to its
    original presumption that time. If I had known how to name them, I should
    then have signed off in detail from all the societies which I never signed
    on to; but I did not know where to find a complete list.

    I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once
    on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of
    solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot
    thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help
    being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as
    if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that
    it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put
    me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way.
    I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there
    was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could
    get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the
    walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all
    my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but
    behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every com-
    pliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to
    stand on the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see
    how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed
    them out again without let or hindrance, and _they_ were really all that
    was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my
    body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they
    have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-witted,
    that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did
    not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for
    it, and pitied it.

    Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man's sense,
    intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with
    superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not
    born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is
    the strongest. What force has a multitude? They can only force me who obey
    a higher law than I. They force me to become like themselves. I do not hear
    of _men_ being _forced_ to live this way or that by masses of men. What
    sort of life were that to live? When I meet a government which say to me,
    ``Your money or your life,'' why should I be in haste to give it my money?
    It may be in a great strait, and not know what to do: I cannot help that.
    It must help itself; do as I do. It is not worth the while to snivel about
    it. I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of
    society. I am not the son of the engineer. I perceive that, when an acorn
    and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make
    way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and
    flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys
    the other. If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and
    so a man.

    The night in prison was novel and interesting enough. The prisoners
    in their shirt-sleeves were enjoying a chat and the evening air in the
    doorway, when I entered. But the jailer said, ``Come, boys, it is time to
    lock up;'' and so they dispersed, and I heard the sound of their steps
    returning into the hollow apartments. My room-mate was introduced to me by
    the jailer as ``a first-rate fellow and a clever man.'' When the door was
    locked, he showed me where to hang my hat, and how he managed matters there.
    The rooms were whitewashed once a month; and this one, at least, was the
    whitest, most simply furnished, and probably the neatest apartment in the
    town. He naturally wanted to know where I came from and what brought me
    there; and, when I had told him, I asked him in my turn how he came there,
    presuming him to be an honest man, of course; and, as the world goes, I
    believe he was. ``Why,'' said he, ``they accuse me of burning a barn; but
    I never did it.'' As near as I could discover, he had probably gone to bed
    in a barn when drunk, and smoked his pipe there; and so a barn was burnt.
    He had the reputation of being a clever man, had been there some three
    months waiting for his trial to come on, and would have to wait as much
    longer; but he was quite domesticated and contented, since he got his board
    for nothing, and thought that he was well treated.

    He occupied one window, and I the other; and I saw that if one
    stayed there long, his principal business would be to look out the window.
    I had soon read all the tracts that were left there, and examined where
    former prisoners had broken out, and where a grate had been sawed off, and
    heard the history of the various occupants of that room; for I found that
    even here there was a history and a gossip which never circulated beyond
    the walls of the jail. Probably this is the only house in town where
    verses are composed, which are afterward printed in a circular form, but
    not published. I was shown quite a long list of verses which were composed
    by some young men who had been detected in an attempt to escape, who
    avenged themselves by singing them.

    I pumped my fellow-prisoner as dry as I could, for fear I should
    never see him again; but at length he showed me which was my bed, and
    left me to blow out the lamp.

    It was like traveling into a far country, such as I had never
    expected to behold, to lie there for one night. It seemed to me that I
    never had heard the town clock strike before, nor the evening sounds of
    the village; for we slept with the windows open, which were inside the
    grating. It was to see my native village in the light of the Middle Ages,
    and our Concord was turned into a Rhine stream, and visions of knights and
    castles passed before me. They were the voices of old burghers that I heard
    in the streets. I was an involuntary spectator and auditor of whatever was
    done and said in the kitchen of the adjacent village inn; -- a wholly new
    and rare experience to me. It was a closer view of my native town. I was
    fairly inside of it. I never had seen its institutions before. This is one
    of its peculiar institutions; for it is a shire town. I began to comprehend
    what its inhabitants were about.

    In the morning, our breakfasts were put through the hole in the
    door, in small oblong-square tin pans, made to fit, and holding a pint of
    chocolate, with brown bread, and an iron spoon. When they called for the
    vessels again, I was green enough to return what bread I had left; but my
    comrade seized it, and said that I should lay that up for lunch or dinner.
    Soon after he was let out to work at haying in a neighboring field, whither
    he went every day, and would not be back till noon; so he bade me good-day,
    saying that he doubted if he should see me again.

    When I came out of prison, -- for some one interfered, and paid
    that tax, -- I did not perceive that great changes had taken place on the
    common, such as he observed who went in a youth and emerged a tottering
    and gray-headed man; and yet a change had to my eyes come over the scene,
    -- the town, and State, and country, -- greater than any that mere time
    could effect. I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived. I saw
    to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good
    neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only;
    that they did not greatly propose to do right; that they were a distinct
    race from me by their prejudices and superstitions, as the Chinamen and
    Malays are; that in their sacrifices to humanity they ran no risks, not
    even to their property; that after all they were not so noble but they
    treated the thief as he had treated them, and hoped, by a certain outward
    observance and a few prayers, and by walking a particular straight though
    useless path from time to time, to save their souls. This may be to judge
    my neighbors harshly; for I believe that many of them are not aware that
    they have such an institution as the jail in their village.

    It was formerly the custom in our village, when a poor debtor came
    out of jail, for his acquaintances to salute him, looking through their
    fingers, which were crossed to represent the grating of a jail window,
    ``How do ye do?'' My neighbors did not thus salute me, but first looked at
    me, and then at one another, as if I had returned from a long journey. I
    was put into jail as I was going to the shoemaker's to get a shoe which was
    mended. When I was let out the next morning, I proceeded to finish my
    errand, and, having put on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party, who
    were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour, --
    for the horse was soon tackled, -- was in the midst of a huckleberry field,
    on one of our highest hills, two miles off, and then the State was nowhere
    to be seen.

    This is the whole history of ``My Prisons.''

    I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as
    desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject; and as
    for supporting schools, I am doing my part to educate my fellow-countrymen
    now. It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it.
    I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand
    aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar,
    if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with, -- the dollar
    is innocent, -- but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance.
    In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I
    will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual
    in such cases.

    If others pay the tax which is demanded of me, from a sympathy with
    the State, they do but what they have already done in their own case, or
    rather they abet injustice to a greater extent than the State requires. If
    they pay the tax from a mistaken interest in the individual taxed, to save
    his property, or prevent his going to jail, it is because they have not
    considered wisely how far they let their private feelings interfere with
    the public good.

    This, then, is my position at present. But one cannot be too much
    on his guard in such a case, lest his action be biased by obstinacy or an
    undue regard for the opinions of men. Let him see that he does only what
    belongs to himself and to the hour.

    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 shillings 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 ob-
    stinately; you quietly submit to a thousand similar necessities. You do not
    put your head into the fire. But just in proportion as 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 in-
    stantaneously, 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 fire or to the Maker of 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 re-
    spects, to my requisitions and expectations of what they and I ought to be,
    then, like a good Mussulman and fatalist, I should endeavor to be satisfied
    with 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 the 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 round, I find myself disposed to review the acts and position of the
    general and State governments, and the spirit of the people, to discover a
    pretext for conformity.
    ``We must affect our country as our parents,
    And if at any time we alienate
    Our love or industry from doing it honor,
    We must respect effects and teach the soul
    Matter of conscience and religion,
    And not desire of rule or benefit.''
    I believe that the State will soon be able to take all my work of this sort
    out of my hands, and then I shall be no better a patriot than my fellow-
    countrymen. 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 ad-
    mirable, 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 at or thinking of
    at all?

    However, the government does not concern me much, and I shall
    bestow the fewest possible thoughts on it. It is 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_ never for a long time
    appearing _to_be_ to him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally
    interrupt him.

    I know that most men think differently from myself; but those whose
    lives are by profession devoted to the study of these or kindred subjects
    content me as little as any. Statesmen and legislators, standing so com-
    pletely 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 or 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 government, and so cannot speak with
    authority about it. His words are wisdom to those legislators who contem-
    plate 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 cheap 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 wrong-doing.
    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 propose 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 which
    the Constitution gives to slavery, he says, ``Because it was 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
    to-day with regard to slavery, -- but ventures, or is driven, to make some
    such desperate answer as the following, while professing to speak abso-
    lutely, 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 propriety, 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 Constitu-
    tion, and drink at it there with reverence and humility; but they who
    behold it where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up
    their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimmage toward its fountain-

    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 who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day. We
    love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which 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 agri-
    culture. 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 the
    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 wisdom and practical talent enough to avail himself of the light which
    it sheds on the science of legislation?

    The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to,
    -- 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. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard
    the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know
    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 imagining 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 also I have imagined,
    but not yet anywhere seen.

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