An Early Thoreau Essay Lionizes the Military Man

One of Thoreau’s earliest surviving finished works is The Service, which I’ve just added to the collection here at The Picket Line.

The essay uses war and military discipline as metaphors that, as Thoreau would have it, can instruct us in how to order and conduct our lives.

It’s in part a contrarian swipe at the many pacifist writers and lecturers whose teachings on “nonresistance” were then very much in vogue, in part thanks to Christian anarchist and pacifist Adin Ballou who spoke on the subject at the Concord Lyceum on occasion and who founded the New England Non-Resistance Society (of which William Lloyd Garrison was also a leader, and a Lyceum speaker as well).

Thoreau debated the subject “Is it ever proper to offer forcible resistance?” in a formal Lyceum debate (arguing the affirmative) in , and surviving records of the Lyceum note that the subject came up many times in debates, discussions, and lectures.

Thoreau’s own views were very much influenced by these non-resistants, and are often confused with them even today. When Bronson Alcott resisted his taxes to protest war and slavery, over the same issues, Alcott’s action was explained within the context of “non-resistant” philosophy. When Thoreau explained his own tax resistance, he took pains to distinguish his theory from theirs, titling his essay Resistance to Civil Government”

In The Service, Thoreau tosses barbs at the non-resistance preachers, warning his readers that pacifism can be a temptation to passivity:

Better that we have some of that testy spirit of knight errantry, and if we are so blind as to think the world is not rich enough nowadays to afford a real foe to combat, with our trusty swords and double-handed maces, hew and mangle some unreal phantom of the brain. In the pale and shivering fogs of the morning, gathering them up betimes, and withdrawing sluggishly to their daylight haunts, I see Falsehood sneaking from the full blaze of truth, and with good relish could do execution on their rearward ranks, with the first brand that came to hand. We too are such puny creatures as to be put to flight by the sun, and suffer our ardor to grow cool in proportion as his increases; our own short-lived chivalry sounds a retreat with the fumes and vapors of the night; and we turn to meet mankind, with its meek face preaching peace, and such non-resistance as the chaff that rides before the whirlwind.

Of such sort, then, be our crusade, — which, while it inclines chiefly to the hearty good will and activity of war, rather than the insincerity and sloth of peace, will set an example to both of calmness and energy; — as unconcerned for victory as careless of defeat, — not seeking to lengthen our term of service, nor to cut it short by a reprieve, — but earnestly applying ourselves to the campaign before us.

Several of Thoreau’s early journal entries express a romantic admiration for soldiers. For instance, on , when he writes of a nearby encampment in which the “bugle and drum and fife… seems like the morning hymn of creation” and “[e]ach man awakes himself with lofty emotions, and would do some heroic deed.” He concludes:

The whole course of our lives should be analogous to one day of the soldier’s. His Genius seems to whisper in his ear what demeanor is befitting, and in his bravery and his march he yields a blind and partial obedience.

On , too, his journal tweaks the Christian pacifists, in a poem that reads in part: [I]n these days no hero was abroad / But puny men, afraid of war’s alarms, / Stood forth to fight the battles of their Lord, / Who scarce could stand beneath a hero’s arms.

There is a mix of metaphor (“our lives should be analogous to… the soldier’s”) and genuine admiration for the soldier in these early journal entries. The first of these fades away, and the latter he quickly repudiates. By the time he writes Resistance to Civil Government, the admiration is long gone:

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… 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…

…In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment 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.

Watching Thoreau develop his attitudes toward war, soldiery, and pacifism has been one of the more interesting things that my project of excerpting his journals has uncovered for me. I’m up to now, and Thoreau’s skepticism about war and armies has been increasing.

In , he observes a battle between two ant nations and writes that “certainly there is no other fight recorded in Concord in that will bear a moment’s comparison with this. I have no doubt they had as just a cause, one or even both parties, as our forefathers, and that the results will be as important and memorable. And there was far more patriotism and heroism.”

In the secular American religion of patriotism, this is high blasphemy. Concord is where “the shot heard ’round the world” was fired in .

But Thoreau has become very skeptical of such patriotic stories as these. On , he suggests: “Read the Englishman’s history of the French and Indian wars, and then read the Frenchman’s, and see how each awards the meed of glory to the other’s monsters of cruelty or perfidy.” Then, he takes up his own challenge, and on contrasts the stories of a single skirmish from those wars by historians of each side.

By , Thoreau is sometimes speaking of war with a pacifist idealism that I suspect his earlier self would have ridiculed: “Will it not be thought disreputable at length, as duelling between individuals now is?

I am curious as to how his opinions will change as the Civil War approaches. Many Northern abolitionists who had pacifist (or even secessionist) leanings before the war came to strongly support the Union during the struggle.

And speaking of war and the military…

The military budget that President Bush released… is much bigger than the official summaries let on. It’s not $481.4 billion, as the Defense Department is claiming. No, a squint through the fine print of the White House and Pentagon budget documents reveals that the true request for new military-spending authority comes to $739 billion.

Measured in real terms (that is, adjusted for inflation), that’s about one-third higher than the previous record for U.S. military spending, set in , when more than 30,000 American soldiers were dying in the Korean War and the Pentagon was embarking on its massive Cold War rearmament drive.