Larry Rosenwald on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”

I’ve mentioned before how I was inspired to embark on my experiment in tax resistance by reading Henry David Thoreau’s essay Resistance to Civil Government (more popularly known as Civil Disobedience).

Today I came across an study written a few years ago about Thoreau’s essay — The Theory, Practice, and Influence of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience by Lawrence Rosenwald. It is a very good look at the historical and biographical context of Thoreau’s essay, and of how Thoreau’s understanding of resistance compares to other theories that were current at that time, and with the understandings of people like Gandhi who were inspired by Thoreau later on.

Rosenwald is himself a war tax resister. He withholds the portion of his federal income taxes that he believes goes to support war, and then the government seizes a similar amount from him after some intervening bureaucracy. Like me, Rosenwald was eventually won over to tax resistance by Thoreau’s persuasiveness. He tells the story this way:

I often teach [Thoreau’s works] in my classes. I used not to teach Civil Disobedience, but only Walden; I admired Civil Disobedience very much, but couldn’t bring myself to teach it. It is an essay intended as an argument; I knew that if I taught it I would present it as an argument, as an argument I found reasonable and compelling, and then, I thought, some alert and nervy student would ask, “if you think it’s such a good argument then why are you paying your taxes?” And then I’d either mutter something about how times have changed, or say I was a coward, and I knew I wouldn’t like myself in either case.

Now he does teach Civil Disobedience — and if his study is any indication, it must be one hell of a class. I’ve read Thoreau’s essay many times, but I’ve always felt like I’ve been viewing it through a keyhole because of my chronological distance from Thoreau and his time. Now I feel like I have a much better understanding of who Thoreau was addressing his essay to and what arguments he was responding to and amplifying.

Rosenwald writes elsewhere about how things have changed since Thoreau’s time and how the tax resister today has a different set of concerns, and confronts a different sort of tax collecting apparatus. Thoreau wrote:

I meet this American government… directly, and face to face, once a year — no more — in the person of its tax-gatherer… 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.…

But the state now confronts the tax resister more with laws and faceless bureaucracies and electronic seizures of bank accounts — this meeting of peers on equal ground is a thing of the past. Rosenwald finds little satisfaction in confronting the dumb behemoth that has replaced Thoreau’s tax-gatherer:

[T]he IRS has instituted an Automatic Collection Service, and we have been collected on three times, once by a levy on my salary and twice by levies on our bank accounts; each time the levy took not only the original refused tax but also penalties and interest. Even now the IRS occasionally fumbles; before levying my salary it attempted to levy a bank account I had closed out fifteen years previously, and between the first bank levy and the second it refunded the levied money with interest. But this clumsy, capricious power frets me more than a more efficient and so more predictable bureaucracy might have done…

Rosenwald also notes that Thoreau chose tax resistance reluctantly and in an attempt to avoid getting involved with politics. He eventually concluded that where taxes were concerned, a political choice could not be avoided (in Rosenwald’s words, “in paying taxes abstinence just isn’t a choice, because you either pay them and collaborate with the state or refuse to pay them and defy the state, but in any case you do politics”).

Today’s Thoreau-ish tax resister is confronted by many more of these entanglements than Thoreau was. Thoreau could imagine that “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.” Today you meet the tax-gatherer and other coercive agents of the state on a daily basis. Getting from the unexamined life to a place where you can plant your feet and “[l]et your life be a counter friction to stop the machine” is arguably much more difficult today.


You might also be interested in another article of Rosenwald’s: Orwell, Pacifism, Pacifists. It’s about George Orwell’s evolving and nuanced criticisms of pacifism, and it’s a good read.


The IRS is puffing up its institutional chest and engaging in the annual ritual of declaring that it’s going to get tough on tax cheaters . Over the last few years, there’s been a 50% increase in the number of people surveyed by the IRS Oversight Board who say that cheating on your taxes isn’t wrong.

The IRS hopes that by sounding tough, it’ll discourage tax cheats. People who play it straight on their tax forms are increasingly reporting that it’s not the value of honesty that motivates them, but the fear of audits. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, however:

Criminal enforcement of the nation’s tax laws by the IRS has plummeted to an all time low… Tax prosecutions brought as a result of IRS investigations currently are running at about half of what they were only … This sharp decline has continued at the same time that the nation has been swept by a flood of reports about corporate crime studded with such names as Enron, Arthur Anderson, WorldCom, Adelphi Communications and Health South.

IRS-prompted tax prosecutions, non-tax-related prosecutions also investiagted by the IRS, administrative penalties assessed by the IRS out of court, and civil suits filed by the IRS — all of these are down dramatically over . , the IRS commissioner reported “a huge gap between the number of taxpayers whom the IRS knows are not filing, not reporting or not paying what they owe and our capacity to require them to comply.”

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