’s “Resistance to Civil Government” or, “Civil Disobedience” ()

I heart­ily accept the motto, — “That gov­ern­ment is best which gov­erns least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rap­idly and sys­tem­at­i­cally. Car­ried out, it fi­nally amounts to this, which also I 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. [¶1]

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; and, if ever they should use it in ear­nest as a real one against each other, it will surely split. 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 show thus how suc­cess­fully men can be im­posed upon, even im­pose on them­selves, for their own ad­van­tage. It is ex­cel­lent, we must all al­low; yet this gov­ern­ment never of it­self 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 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 mis­chie­vious per­sons who put ob­struc­tions on the rail­roads. [¶2]

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. [¶3]

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 the 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 corse to the ram­parts we hur­ried;
 Not a sol­dier dis­charged his fare­well shot
   O’er the grave where our hero we bur­ied.”
[¶4]

The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as ma­chines, with their bod­ies. They are the stand­ing army, and the mi­li­tia, jail­ers, con­sta­bles, posse com­i­ta­tus, &c. 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 by it as en­e­mies. 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.”
[¶5]

He who gives him­self en­tirely to his fel­low-men ap­pears to them use­less and self­ish; but he who gives him­self par­tially to them is pro­nounced a ben­e­fac­tor and phi­lan­thro­pist. [¶6]

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. [¶7]

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 . 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 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. 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 rev­o­lu­tion­ize. What makes this duty the more ur­gent is that fact, that the coun­try so over­run is not our own, but ours is the in­vad­ing army. [¶8]

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. [¶9]

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, co-op­er­ate 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 it 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. [¶10]

All vot­ing is a sort of gam­ing, like che­quers 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 ex­pe­di­ency. 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. [¶11]

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 rea­sons 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. Oh 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 the 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 alms-houses 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. [¶12]

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 nought; 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 gov­ern­ment, 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, un­moral, and not quite un­nec­es­sary to that life which we have made. [¶13]

The broad­est and most prev­a­lent error re­quires the most dis­in­ter­ested 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 con­sci­en­tious 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 not they 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? [¶14]

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 with 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 any thing which was. It not only di­vides states and churches, it di­vides fam­i­lies; aye, it di­vides the in­di­vid­ual, sep­a­rat­ing the di­a­bol­i­cal in him from the di­vine. [¶15]

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 rebels? [¶16]

One would think, that a de­lib­er­ate and prac­ti­cal de­nial of its au­thor­ity was the only of­fense 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. [¶17]

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. [¶18]

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 ev­ery thing to do, but some­thing; and be­cause he can­not do ev­ery thing, 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 it is to treat with the ut­most kind­ness and con­sid­er­ation the only spirit that can ap­pre­ci­ate or de­serves it. So is all change for the bet­ter, like birth and death which con­vulse the body. [¶19]

I do not hes­i­tate to say, that those who call them­selves ab­o­li­tion­ists 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. [¶20]

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, — aye, 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 for ever. 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 set­tle­ment 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. [¶21]

Un­der a gov­ern­ment which im­pris­ons any un­justly, the true place for a just man is also a 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. [¶22]

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 dan­ger­ous 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; 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 which 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 en­deav­our to carry out those schemes which he en­ter­tained 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 Cæ­sar 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 Cæ­sar’s gov­ern­ment, then pay him back some of his own when he de­mands it; “Ren­der there­fore to Cæ­sar that which is Cæ­sar’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. [¶23]

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 tran­quil­lity, the long and the short of the mat­ter is, that they can­not spare the pro­tec­tion of the ex­ist­ing gov­ern­ment, and they dread the con­se­quences of dis­o­be­di­ence to it to their prop­erty and fam­i­lies. 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 the 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. [¶24]

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 some 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. [¶25]

I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this ac­count, for ; 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 com­pli­ment there was a blun­der; for they thought that my chief de­sire was to stand 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. [¶26]

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 only can 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 says 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. [¶27]


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 door-way, 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 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. [¶28]

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 the 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. [¶29]

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. [¶30]

It was like trav­el­ling 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. [¶31]

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. [¶32]

When I came out of prison, — for some one in­ter­fered, and paid the 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 pur­pose 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 in 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. [¶33]

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 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. [¶34]

This is the whole his­tory of “My Pris­ons.” [¶35]


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 use and get what ad­van­tages of her I can, as is usual in such cases. [¶36]

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. [¶37]

This, then, is my po­si­tion at pres­ent. But one can­not be too much on his guard in such a case, lest his ac­tion be bias­sed 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. [¶38]

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 feel­ings 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 ob­sti­nately; 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 in­stan­ta­ne­ously, 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 re­spects, 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. [¶39]

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.” [¶40]

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 ad­mi­ra­ble 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? [¶41]

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. [¶42]

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 com­plet­ely 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 and 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 con­tem­plate 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 cheaper 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 him but de­fen­sive ones. He is not a leader, but a fol­lower. His lead­ers are the men of . “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 a 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 be­hoves a man to do here in Amer­i­can to-day with re­gard to slav­ery, but ven­tures, or is driven, to make some such des­per­ate an­swer as the fol­low­ing, while pro­fes­sing to speak ab­so­lutely, 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 gov­ern­ment 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.”1 [¶43]

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 Con­sti­tu­tion, and drink at it there with rev­er­ence and hu­mil­ity; but they who be­hold where it comes trick­ling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and con­tinue their pil­grim­age to­ward its foun­tain-head. [¶44]

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 ag­ri­cul­ture. 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. [¶45]

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. 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. [¶46]


  1. These ex­tracts have been in­serted since the lec­ture was read.

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