In my ongoing project of excerpting those sections of Thoreau’s journals in which he discusses politics, economics, civil disobedience and the like, I have just reached the point at which he gave the speech that he published as Slavery in Massachusetts.
He used his journal to write rough drafts of much of the rhetoric he would use for that speech and essay, starting with his reaction to the reenslavement of Thomas Sims in (see Thoreau’s undated journal entries in , and his entry for ), and then with the similar case of Anthony Burns in (see Thoreau’s journal entries for , , , , , and )
While reading these entries, I was reminded of poor, deluded, Constitutionalist tax protester Ed Brown, who is waving a Waco wick at that big matchbook in Washington and getting ready to go out in a blaze of gunfire because, though the judge disagreed, Brown knows there’s no law on the books that requires him to pay taxes. “Show me the law and I’ll pay the taxes”:
The judges and lawyers, all men of expediency, consider not whether the Fugitive Slave Law is right, but whether it is what they call constitutional. They try the merits of the case by a very low and incompetent standard. Pray, is virtue constitutional, or vice? Is equity constitutional, or iniquity? It is as impertinent, in important moral and vital questions like this, to ask whether a law is constitutional or not, as to ask whether it is profitable or not. They persist in being the servants of man, and the worst of men, rather than the servants of God. Sir, the question is not whether you or your grandfather, seventy years ago, entered into an agreement to serve the devil, and that service is not accordingly now due; but whether you will not now, for once and last, serve God, — in spite of your own past recreancy or that of your ancestors, — and obey that eternal and only just Constitution which he, and not any Jefferson or Adams, has written in your being. Is the Constitution a thing to live by? or die by? No, as long as we are alive we forget it, and when we die we have done with it. At most it is only to swear by. While they are hurrying off Christ to the cross, the ruler decides that he cannot constitutionally interfere to save him.
(I used to just laugh at the weird legal theories of the Constitutionalist tax protesters, but now that I’ve heard the sort of creative Constitution reading practiced by none other than the United States Attorney General, I think the Ed Browns of America are probably as qualified as the next guy to interpret the Highest Law in the Land.)