The Context of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”

The following excerpt comes from Taylor Stoehr’s Nay-saying in Concord: Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau (1979). I thought it very helpfully put Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” in context, explaining the arguments and objections Thoreau was anticipating or responding to in his essay:

The most famous political encounter of transcendentalism was Thoreau’s refusal of his tax bill in , with its consequent night in jail, and the immortal explanation of his behavior in “Civil Disobedience.” Here were Alcott’s exemplary act, Emerson’s vow of disobedience, and Thoreau’s own ironic afterword — all in a single organic episode.

Not everyone considered the act exemplary. Emerson had not yet warmed to his abolitionist fervor of , and his initial response to his friend’s protest against slavery and the Mexican War was less than enthusiastic. Shortly after Thoreau’s release Emerson wrote to his friend Elizabeth Hoar, who, since she was visiting in New Haven, could not yet know about their neighbor’s adventure. (There were those who thought that her father “Squire” Hoar had paid Thoreau’s tax to get him out of jail, just as two years earlier he had kept him out of trouble when he and young Edward Hoar had carelessly set fire to the Concord woods.) Emerson begins facetiously, treating his letter as an excuse “for counting up how many times I have been to Boston since you were in Concord, how many hayrigging parties we have made to the Whortleberry Pasture, and all other important adventures.” He continues in the same vein: “Mr. Channing has returned, after spending 16 days in Rome; Mr. Thoreau has spent a night in Concord jail on his refusal to pay his taxes; Mr. Lane is in Concord endeavoring to sell his farm of ‘Fruitlands’ Mr. E — but I spare you the rest of the weary history. It seems the very counting of threads in a beggar’s coat, to tell the chronicle of nothings into which nevertheless thought & meaning & hope contrive to intervene and it is out of this sad lint & rag fair that the web of lasting life is woven.”65

Frivolous as these sentences may appear, especially in the light of the more serious reflections he was entering in his journal, Emerson’s account here is nonetheless instructive, for it helps us chart the relative boiling points of transcendentalists confronted with the brute facts of war and slavery. Only three years earlier Thoreau himself had written a similarly jocular report to Emerson of Alcott’s archetypical encounter with the friendly minion of the state, tax collector Sam Staples. His paragraphs are worth comparing with Emerson’s:

I suppose they have told you how near Mr. Alcott went to the jail, but I can add a good anecdote to the rest. When Staples came to collect Mrs. Ward’s taxes, my sister Helen asked him what he thought Mr. Acott meant, — what his idea was, — and he answered, “I vum, I believe it was nothing but principle, for I never heard a man talk honester.”

There was a lecture on Peace by a Mr. Spear (ought he not be beaten into a ploughshare?), the same evening, and, as the gentlemen, Lane and Alcott, dined at our house while the matter was in suspense, — that is, while the constable was waiting for his receipt from the jailer, — we there settled it that we, that is, Lane and myself, perhaps should agitate the State while Winkelried lay in durance. But when, over the audience, I saw our hero’s head moving in the free air of the Universalist church, my fire all went out, and the State was safe as far as I was concerned. But Lane, it seems, had cogitated and even written on the matter, in the afternoon, and so, out of courtesy, taking his point of departure from the Spear-man’s lecture, he drove gracefully in medias res, and gave the affair a very good setting out; but, to spoil all, our martyr very characteristically, but, as artists would say, in bad taste, brought up the rear with a “My Prisons,” which made us forget Silvio Pellico himself.66

Some allowance, as always, must be made for Thoreau’s habitual tone. After all, he did intend to join Lane in his denunciations at the lecture that night — “perhaps” — and no doubt he sympathized with the position that his friends had taken. On the other hand, he had clearly not yet reached the point when he too would march off to jail. We find Alcott in , Thoreau in , Emerson in , each saying his “nay” to the state: “I will not obey it, by God.”

It has become the habit with commentators on these events to regard Alcott’s as the seminal act, somehow germinating and coming to flower in Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” — Emerson figuring merely as a bemused botanist. But the chronology itself is not so orderly as I have made it seem (Thoreau in fact stopped paying his taxes the same year as Alcott and Lane did), and even if it were, it need not imply influence. Indeed, such a view does all three — and especially Thoreau and Emerson — considerable injustice, since it tends to put their acts of conscience in the light of mere faddish postures, taken with an eye to opinions of the moment. Whatever feelings of mutual support may have circulated among them, transcendentalists were self-reliant if nothing else.

Some neighbor — it could have been either Thoreau or Alcott but it sounds more like Alcott — told Emerson in “that he had made up his mind to pay no more taxes for he had found that he owed nothing to the Government.”67 There is something rather blithe about this announcement. The play on words is Thoreauvian, but the sentiment has the studied nonchalance of Alcott’s individualism. Let it stand, for the moment, as one extreme of the attitude toward taxes. At the opposite end of the spectrum we may place Squire Hoar, “the very personification of the State” as Charles Lane once characterized him.68 Not only did the Squire pay, unasked, the taxes of Alcott and (conceivably) Thoreau — while his son Rockwood Hard paid Lane’s — but he once told Emerson, apropos of “some inequality of taxes in the town,” that “it was his practice to pay whatever was demanded; for, though he might think the taxation large and very unequally proportioned, yet he thought the money might as well go in this way as in any other.”69 This generous cynicism, a principled disregard for principle, is a good match for the cavalier anarchism of Emerson’s unidentified neighbor. The choice between them seems pretty obviously a matter of simple economic prudence, wealth insuring its goods, poverty tightening its belt. But there was more political and social philosophy lurking in these positions than might first appear in their casual guise as Emersonian hearsay.

In Thoreau’s tickled synopsis of Alcott’s taxation, he mentions that Charles Lane “had cogitated and even written on the matter,” before the issue was known. Lane himself had also decided to pay no taxes, and one assumes their decisions must have been concerted, an emblem perhaps of their proposed withdrawal from society and venture into a new community of the regenerate at Fruitlands. In any case, Lane had thought about the question long enough to provide material for more than a mere impromptu harangue after a pacifist lecture. He wrote it up in installments, as letters to Garrison’s abolitionist and nonresistant newspaper, The Liberator. The first letter contained the announcement and interpretation of the event itself. According to Lane, Alcott’s act was “founded on the moral instinct which forbids every moral being to be a party, either actively or permissively, to the destructive principles of power and might over peace and love.” Vaporous as this explanation may seem, it was probably understood by readers of The Liberator, who would have agreed that it was “tyrannous” for “the human will… to be subject to the brute force which the majority may set up.”70 Alcott’s refusal of his tax was an “act of non-resistance.”

“Non-resistance” was the name of the movement that had split the American pacifists in , between the radicals led by Garrison and Henry Clarke Wright, and the conservatives in the tradition of William Ladd. While the latter had emphasized the need for nations to join together in some world federation, the nonresistants believed in more immediate and direct action. Since no existing government seemed likely to reform itself as completely as the radicals required — that is, the abandonment of all use of force, including that of police and tax officers — the New England Non-resistance Society advised noncooperation with the state in all its functions. Many became no-government men as well as nonresistants and abolitionists, and they saw their positions on these issues as mutually entailed. When Lane called Alcott’s an “act of non-resistance,” he meant, in modern terms, that it was pacifist, nonviolent, and anarchist — as we would say, “libertarian.” Chief of these motives in the actual event was the anarchist, and the ensuing series of letter-articles that Lane wrote for The Liberator was called “Voluntary Political Government,” an argument against most of the means and many of the functions of the state, which were to be transformed by making everything optional. Roads would be paved by those who wanted to use them, education would be the primary responsibility of the family (as Lane’s hero Pestalozzi had said it ought to be anyway), each township would handle its own criminals and insane. Essentially, the locus of social responsibility would be shifted away from governmental bodies entirely to more natural and organic units like the neighborhood and the family. Lane and Alcott called their principle of organization at Fruitlands “the consociate family,” and it was to figure as a model for a world without the state and all its evils.

Although Alcott himself did not say why he refused his taxes in , he did write quite a bit in his journal about taxes and the state in , around the time of Thoreau’s brush with Sam Staples. It is interesting to see how much of Lane’s programmatic vision remained with Alcott after the failure of their community. Here for example, in , he sounds very much like Emerson’s neighbor of , who “owed nothing to the Government”: “The State is man’s pantry, at best, and filled at an immense cost — a spoliation of the human commonwealth. Let it go. Heroes will live on nuts, and freemen sun themselves under the clefts of the rocks, sooner than sell their liberty for the pottage of slavery. We few honest neighbors can help each other; and if the State desires any favours of us we will take the matter into consideration and, at a proper time, give them a respectful answer.”71 One might have expected Alcott to have taken a somewhat harder line, in reaction to the Mexican War and its resultant extension of slavery into Texas. These, of course, were among the reasons Thoreau gave for refusing his taxes the preceding year. Alcott too had considered withholding his in , but his motives were unchanged from those reported by Lane in :

Staples, the town collector, called to assure me that he should next week advertize my land to pay for the tax, unless it was paid before that time. Land for land, man for man. I would, were it possible, know nothing of this economy called “the State,” but it will force itself upon the freedom of the free-born and the wisest bearing is to over-bear it, let it have its own way, the private person never going out of his way to meet it. It shall put its hand into a person’s pocket if it will, but I shall not put mine there on its behalf.72

Much as this sounds like a decision to refuse to pay, in fact Alcott’s land was not in his name at all, but in trust for his wife, and he knew that his taxes would be paid for him, if not by Squire Hoar again, then by those relatives of Mrs. Alcott who also supported him in other ways. What is significant is not the refusal but the manner of it. This may be regarded as merely a further extension of nonresistance — ignoring the state if one cannot quite defy it. “Resist not evil” is taken to include the state as well as ordinary thieves and murderers.

When Alcott and Emerson discussed Thoreau’s tax refusal not long after, Alcott viewed his friend’s act as he would his own. “E[merson] thought it mean and skulking, and in bad taste. I defended it on the grounds of a dignified non-compliance with the injunction of civil powers.”73 For Alcott, the injustice lay chiefly in the state’s treatment of the individual taxpayer, less in the evils of slavery and war perpetrated on others.

Here again we may survey the range of civic obligations felt by the transcendentalists. In Alcott told a convention of the Non-resistance Society that citizens could “rightfully refuse” to pay for the Mexican War, but his aim was not the end of that war so much as “a laying of the foundations of a new commonwealth, based on a catholicism commensurate with the needs of mankind.”74 Thoreau seemed to have his eye on the invasion of Mexico and the plight of the oppressed. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.… 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.…”75 This was not a non-resistant position. Thoreau had never been a pacifist, and in that debate at the Concord Lyceum it had been Henry and his brother upholding the affirmative of “Is it ever proper to offer forcible resistance?” He took special pains in “Civil Disobedience” to distinguish his position from Alcott’s anarchism as well as his pacifism; “Unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.”76 Indeed, the first title of the essay, when it was published in Elizabeth Peabody’s short-lived journal Æsthetic Papers, was “Resistance to Civil Government” — verbally, at least, almost the opposite of the stance that Alcott had taken in when he resigned himself to letting the state rob him of his taxes.

In spite of these distinctions, Alcott very much approved of Thoreau’s act, and he apparently went twice in to hear the resulting lecture, then called “The Rights & Duties of the Individual in relation to Government.” The issue of resistance and nonresistance was not yet forced in the title, and Alcott seemed happy enough to see the Mexican War and slavery received a good deal of attention, so long as his own protest in was also mentioned: “His allusions to the Mexican War, to Mr. Hoar’s expulsion from Carolina, his own imprisonment in Concord Jail for refusal to pay his tax, Mr. Hoar’s payment of mine when taken to prison for a similar refusal, were all pertinent, well considered, and reasoned. I took great pleasure in this deed of Thoreau’s.”77

When Thoreau finally came to publish the lecture under the new title, he excised his allusions to Alcott’s precedence over him and, while retaining the reference to Samuel Hoar’s expulsion from South Carolina as a Northern agitator, he failed to mention the Squire’s payment of the taxes of Alcott, merely noting that in his own case “some one interfered.”78 It would have been awkward for Thoreau to ignore Alcott’s “similar refusal” in a speech delivered before a Concord audience. Presumably many of their neighbors would know what Thoreau states in his essay without comment, that he himself had not paid taxes for “six years,” that is, not since the time Alcott and Lane were arrested for not paying theirs. Whether Thoreau acted in concert with the Fruitlanders, or in response to their gesture, cannot be finally settled. The tone of his remarks on Alcott’s exploit suggests a later commitment, perhaps the following year. According to Lane, Alcott had not paid his for several years before his arrest — another bit of evidence that he was the “neighbor” who in told Emerson he would pay no more taxes. In any case it must have seemed more in keeping with Thoreau’s focus on the individual in “Civil Disobedience” to diminish those aspects of his position that might make it appear part of a movement.

Again, this is important because it helps distinguish the stands taken by the transcendentalists. Lane would figure as the extreme case here, with his emphasis on every feature of Alcott’s tax refusal that suggested concert and community. Even his manner of broadcasting his views, in letters to the organ of nonresistance, Garrison’s Liberator, shows a regard for tactics and propaganda that would not have occurred to Thoreau. Alcott falls somewhere between Thoreau and Lane, eager for the golden age of “voluntary government” that Lane celebrated and that Fruitlands symbolized, yet still chiefly intent on his own single combat with the state. As Emerson said, “The fault of Alcott’s community is that it has only room for one.”79 At bottom not one of them — Alcott, Lane, or Thoreau — could be called convivial, but surely the Timon of the three was Thoreau, whose interest in Mexico and slavery was, as he said, an anxiety to get off the “shoulders” of his fellowmen, so that he might go about his own business — to “wash his hands” of humanity’s dirt.80

From a few hints so far, something of Emerson’s stance on these questions may also be gathered. As usual there is a good bit of ambiguity to deal with. His attitude toward Alcott’s “community” is ironic but not especially hostile, whereas his response to Thoreau’s defiance of the state is full of annoyance — if we can take the words “mean and skulking” as literally his. Emerson’s journal tends to substantiate Alcott’s report.

At first Emerson appears to approve of Thoreau’s act, as a protest against the Mexican War:

Mr. Webster told them how much the war cost, that was his protest, but voted the war, & sends his son to it. They calculated rightly on Mr. Webster. My friend Mr. Thoreau has gone to jail rather than pay his tax. On him they could not calculate. The abolitionists denounce the war & give much time to it, but they pay the tax.81

Yet a few pages later Emerson’s second thoughts seem to find Thoreau almost as much in the wrong as Webster himself:

Don’t run amuck against the world. Have a good case to try the question on. It is the part of a fanatic to fight out a revolution on the shape of a hat or surplice, on paedo-baptism or altar-rails or fish on Friday. As long as the state means you well, do not refuse your pistareen. You have a tottering cause: ninety parts of the pistareen it will spend for what you think also good: ten parts for mischief. You can not fight heartily for a fraction. But wait until you have a good difference to join issue upon. Thus Socrates was told he should not teach. “Please God, but I will.” And he could die well for that. And Jesus had a cause. You will get one by & by. But now I have no sympathy.82

Emerson characteristically peers round every corner of motive and consequence. He must have known that Thoreau had stopped paying his tax about the time that Alcott had been arrested by Staples, several years earlier. Accordingly, the announced motives of the refusal, the Mexican War and the annexation of Texas, must have counted as rather after-the-fact in his eyes. Thoreau was spoiling for a fight, playing “the part of a fanatic to fight out a revolution on the shape of a hat or surplice.” He had a grudge against the state, and was looking for some cause to use as a cudgel against it. In this he seemed to differ from Alcott, who simply waited for the state to request his taxes, and then refused on the ingenuous grounds that he did not want its services. Thoreau lay in ambush for the state, expecting it to overstep its bounds. One implication seems to be that Thoreau recognized legitimate as well as illegitimate functions of government. Another is that he was not quite candid in suggesting that he only wanted to mind his own business and had no philosophic axe to grind.

Even granting the Mexican War as Thoreau’s occasion for refusing his taxes, Emerson complained further “that refusing payment of the state tax does not reach the evil so nearly as many other methods within your reach. The state tax does not pay the Mexican War. Your coat, your sugar, your Latin & French & German book, your watch does. Yet these you do not stick at buying.” This is mere byplay, however, since Emerson was convinced that Thoreau had other motives. “The abolitionists ought to resist & go to prison in multitudes on their known & described disagreements from the state. They know where the shoe pinches; have told it a thousand times; are hot headed partialists. I should heartily applaud them; it is in their system.… But not so for you generalizers. You are not citizens.… Reserve yourself for your own work.” At this point Alcott is dragged into the dock too:

A.B.A. thought he could find as good a ground for quarrel in the state tax as Socrates did in the Edict of the Judges. Then I say, Be Consistent, & never more put an apple or a kernel of corn into your mouth. Would you feed the devil? Say boldly “There is a sword sharp enough to cut sheer between flesh & spirit, & I will use it, & not any longer belong to this double faced equivocating mixed Jesuitical universe.”

The Abolitionists should resist because they are literalists; they know exactly what they object to, & there is a government possible which will content them. Remove a few specified grievances, & this present commonwealth will suit them. They are the new Puritans, & as easily satisfied. But you, nothing will content. No government short of a monarchy consisting of one king & one subject, will appease you. Your objection then to the state of Massachusetts is deceptive. Your true quarrel is with the state of Man.83

It is difficult to separate the antagonists here — and in the long run perhaps it is unnecessary. We can hear echoes of the epigram on Alcott’s “community of one,” written only a few months earlier, but the “you” addressed must at least include the “you” chastised elsewhere in these observations, that is, Thoreau. His choice of going to jail rather than paying his taxes is equated with Alcott’s dissatisfaction with the universe. “This prison,” Emerson concludes, “is one step to suicide.”

Whatever hard words Emerson had for Thoreau in , by the time his crime had been turned into a lecture Emerson was softening the criticism. Typical of his growing ambivalence is an anecdote from his trip to England not long after, recounted in English Traits. The occasion was “a very rainy day,” when Carlyle and Arthur Helps asked “whether there were any Americans? — any with an American idea, — any theory of the right future of that country?”

Thus challenged, I bethought myself neither of caucuses nor congress, neither of presidents nor of cabinet-ministers, nor of such as would make of America another Europe. I thought only of the simplest and purest minds; I said, “Certainly yes; — but those who hold it are fanatics of a dream which I should hardly care to relate to your English ears, to which it might be only ridiculous, — and yet it is the only true.” So I opened the dogma of no-government and non-resistance, and anticipated the objections and the fun, and procured a kind of hearing for it. I said, it is true that I have never seen in any country a man of sufficient valor to stand for this truth, and yet it is plain to me that no less valor than this can command my respect. I can easily see the bankruptcy of the vulgar musket-worship, — though great men be musket-worshippers; — and ’t is certain as god liveth, the gun that does not need another gun, the law of love and justice alone, can effect a clean revolution. I fancied that one or two of my anecdotes made some impression on Carlyle.84

It is hard to imagine a sterner test of Emerson’s best hopes for America than the question put to him, as a representative voice, by these formidable Englishmen. All this preface and apology for “the law of love and justice” suggests that he was more than a little intimidated by his company and their question, defensive about his country and its “purest minds,” who resist its laws and taxes. In his anticipation of “objections and fun” he is uncomfortable rather than gleeful, and the edging back and forth between seriousness and embarrassed cynicism provides a guide to his own problems of belief in the doctrines of his friends. Yet his answer, whatever its tonalities, nonetheless names nonresistance and no-government as the American contributions to the history of the race. That surely is a significant footnote to his journal of .

In Emerson’s journal, the interest in nonresistance went back a long way. In he was wishing that “the Christian principle, the ultra principle of nonresistance and returning good for ill might be tried fairly.” Nor was he apologetic in , when he published his essay on “Politics”:

The tendencies of the times favor the idea of self-government, and leave the individual, for all code, to the rewards and penalties of his own constitution; which work with more energy than we believe whilst we depend on artificial restraints. The movement in this direction has been very marked in modern history.… The power of love, as a basis of a State, has never been tried. We must not imagine that all things are lapsing into confusion if every tender protestant be not compelled to bear his part in certain social conventions; nor doubt that roads can be built, letters carried, and the fruit of labor secured, when the government of force is at an end.85

Why this expectant vision should have given way to the annoyed reasonings of and the embarrassed defenses of , it is difficult to say. In he could not “call to mind a single human being who has steadily denied the authority of the laws, on the simple ground of his own moral nature.”86 Apparently neither Thoreau’s nor Alcott’s individualist stand gave him the example of “valor” and “truth” he awaited, for the same messianic expectation is reaffirmed in English Traits — rather compulsively and fainter by half, but still the hope America gives rise to, scarcely a dozen years before the Civil War.

Then, to complicate matters still more, in Emerson agreed to the printing of his own major defense of the doctrine of nonresistance in its pacifist bearings, a lecture entitled “War” that he had delivered under the auspices of the American Peace Society in . That was the year that the New England Non-resistance Society split off from the Peace Society. Garrison, who was engineering the schism, made a point of praising Emerson’s speech to Alcott, as well he might. The argument came out mildly but chiefly for the nonresistant position, and paid only the most polite lip service to the Congress-of-Nations projects of the conservative elements in the Peace Society. That Emerson agreed to the printing of the essay in , given the European context of war and revolution, is much; that it appeared in Elizabeth Peabody’s Æsthetic Paper, along with Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government,” is a great deal more. Of course he must have known that Miss Peabody was printing Henry’s essay along with his, and that the two would be considered as mutually reinforcing. How could a sentence like the following not apply to Thoreau? “The man of principle, that is, the man who, without any flourish of trumpets, titles of lordship, or train of guards, without any notice of his action abroad, expecting none, takes in solitude the right step uniformly, on his private choice, and disdaining consequences, — does not yield, in my imagination, to any man.”87 Or again, remembering the accusation lodged in his journal that “No government short of a monarchy consisting of one king & one subject, will appease you,” how does this sound?

…a man should be himself responsible, with goods, health, and life, for his behavior;… should not ask of the State, protection; should ask nothing of the State; should be himself a kingdom and a state; fearing no man; quite willing to use the opportunities and advantages that good government throw[s] in his way, but nothing daunted, and not really the poorer if government, law and order went by the board; because in himself reside infinite resources; because he is sure of himself, and never needs to ask another what in any crisis it beho[o]ves him to do.88

Few if any readers would be able to compare these opinions with Emerson’s journal, but surely everyone would see the resemblance to a passage in “Resistance to Civil Government”:

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.89

Thoreau pretends, for rhetorical purposes, to find such conditions “hard,” but the evidence of Walden all goes to show that “squatting,” “raising but a small crop,” and “living within yourself” were his preferences. These are the virtues of self-reliance, and so it is appropriate that Emerson praise “the man of principle,” “disdaining consequences”; but Thoreau had actually chosen and enjoyed both the principles and their consequences. It is as if Thoreau supplied the acts, Emerson the theory and the appreciation.

Yet, as we have already seen, Emerson was continually foretelling the appearance of this king and kingdom, without recognizing (or really desiring?) their advent. He agreed that “the less government we have the better,” and argued that “the State exists” only to “educate the wise man” — “with the appearance of the wise man the State expires.… The wise man is the State.” But apparently the time was not yet, and Thoreau not the man.

We live in a very low state of the world, and pay unwilling tribute to governments founded on force. There is not, among the most religious and instructed men of the most religious and civil nations, a reliance on the moral sentiment and a sufficient belief in the unity of things, to persuade them that society can be maintained without artificial restraints, as well as the solar system; or that the private citizen might be reasonable and a good neighbor, without the hint of a jail or a confiscation. What is strange too, there never was in any man sufficient faith in the power of rectitude to inspire him with the broad design of renovating the State on the principle of right and love. All those who have pretended this design have been partial reformers, and have admitted in some manner the supremacy of the bad State.90

Emerson made the point often enough; one supposes Thoreau heard it. In any case, it is likely that Thoreau had access to many of Emerson’s criticisms, expectations, and denials before he sat down to turn his confrontation with the state into literature. Perhaps his decision to leave Alcott out of the published version reflects a desire, stimulated by Emerson’s commentaries, to separate himself from the nonresistant movement in general and Alcott’s special purist version of it in particular. He is not one of the no-government men, he explains at the outset, and then he tries to find a path between Alcott’s anarchism and Emerson’s pragmatism. “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.” That answered Alcott. Next, addressing Emerson, he goes on to say that it is his duty, “at least, to wash his hands of it.”91 But the abolitionists and nonresistants would have denied the first proposition, and Emerson had already questioned the possibility of approaching the second without compromise. Was Thoreau willing to give up his coat? his books? What accessory of existence could remain untainted in a nation one-sixth slave?

A few paragraphs later Thoreau has a more telling formulation, perhaps because it is less guarded: “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.”92 The virtue of this axiom is that it cuts both ways, answering both Alcott and Emerson. It is Thoreau’s business neither to make the revolution nor to exhaust himself in conventional dissent. He too holds Emerson’s opinion, that it is the particular duty of the abolitionists to withdraw their financial support as well as their moral assent from a government that fosters slavery and aggressive war: “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.”93 But by making this point, he seems to separate himself and his responsibilities from the antislavery movement. So why did he go to jail? How was this “living” his own life?

In his journal Emerson had compare the state to “a poor good beast who means the best: it means friendly. A poor cow who does well by you, — do not grudge it its hay. It cannot eat bread as you can, let it have without grudge a little grass for its four stomachs. It will not stint to yield you milk from its teat. You who are a man walking cleanly on two feet will not pick a quarrel with a poor cow.”94 This put the question another way — not in terms of ethical responsibility, how to “live with yourself,” but rather as a matter of tolerance and common sense, “live and let live.” Thoreau had an answer for such arguments.

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.95

This is one of the strongest passages in “Civil Disobedience,” because it grapples with the ambiguities of the subject — “this double faced equivocating mixed Jesuitical universe.” The transformation of Emerson’s “poor cow” into Thoreau’s “brute force” is crucial. It allows the analysis of the state as “millions of men” — not simply a helpless well-meaning beast and yet not Alcott’s thieving ruffian either. It also paves the way for that disclaimer, in the end, of any desire to “change the nature of the rocks and trees and beasts,” that is, the universe. Who now is the most reasonable and acquiescent in the nature of things, Emerson or Thoreau?

  1. Emerson’s Letters Ⅲ 339–40.
  2. Thoreau’s Correspondence, pp. 77–78.
  3. Emerson’s Letters Ⅱ 335.
  4. Letter from Charles Lane, “State Slavery — Imprisonment of A. Bronson Alcott — Dawn of Liberty,” Liberator 13, no. 4 (), 16.
  5. See Emerson’s Letters Ⅲ 230; Emerson’s Works 1903 edn. Ⅹ, 440.
  6. Lane, “State Slavery…,” p. 16.
  7. Alcott’s Journals, p. 189.
  8. Ibid., p. 179.
  9. Ibid., pp. 183–84.
  10. This passage, not printed in Odell Shepard’s edition of Alcott’s Journals, is quoted by the kind permission of Mrs. F.W. Pratt, and the Houghton Library of Harvard University, owners of the manuscript.
  11. “Resistance to Civil Government,” Æsthetic Papers. 1 (1849), 199–200.
  12. Ibid., p. 190.
  13. Alcott’s Journals, p. 201.
  14. “Resistance to Civil Government,” p. 205.
  15. Emerson’s Journals Ⅸ, 323.
  16. “Resistance to Civil Government,” p. 195.
  17. Emerson’s Journals Ⅸ, 445.
  18. Ibid., Ⅸ 446.
  19. Ibid., Ⅸ 446–47.
  20. English Traits, Emerson’s Works 1903 edn., Ⅴ 286–87.
  21. “Politics,” Emerson’s Works 1903 edn., Ⅲ 219–20.
  22. Ibid., p. 221.
  23. “War,” Æsthetic Papers, (1849), 48–49. For Garrison’s praise, see Emerson’s Works 1903 edn., Ⅺ, 578.
  24. Ibid., pp. 47–48.
  25. “Resistance to Civil Government,” pp. 201–202.
  26. “Politics,” Emerson’s Works 1903 edn., Ⅲ 215–26, 220–21.
  27. “Resistance to Civil Government,” p. 195.
  28. Ibid., p. 198.
  29. Ibid., p. 199.
  30. Emerson’s Journals Ⅸ, 267.
  31. “Resistance to Civil Government,” pp. 207–208.