“Civil Disobedience” Themes Recur in Thoreau’s Journals

I’m past the half-way mark in my stroll through 7,000 pages of Thoreau’s journals, searching for those bits of political philosophy he’s salted in along with his poetic enthusiasm for Nature and his relentless observations about her.

These bits I’m collecting in one place — something that hasn’t been done before to my knowledge, in the hopes that it’ll help those of us with an enthusiasm for Thoreau’s political philosophy to trace its evolution and to find evidence of trains of thought Thoreau did not pursue in his more-finished writing.

In doing this, I’ve had to draw the line somewhere — including some entries that only tangentially touch on political issues, and leaving out others that are interesting and suggestive but that deal with mostly personal as opposed to interpersonal virtue.

Thoreau would have preferred not to think of political issues at all. He didn’t like politics, or government, or society, and was frequently disappointed even by his friends. But the last decades of legal slavery in America were an impossible time for an American to be honestly aloof and neutral.

Civil Disobedience is partially an attempt by Thoreau to withdraw from politics at the same time he is engaging in it — he has a utopian daydream of a State that he can be allowed to ignore:

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.

He knows the current State won’t allow this, but he hopes he can just go along to the extent it demands:

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.

But finally he realizes that there is no way to cooperate with the state without at the same time contributing to its injustice:

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.

This same cycle repeats again and again in the journals. Thoreau expresses his disdain for “Man and his affairs, — Church and State and school, trade and commerce and agriculture, — Politics…”

I would fain let man go by and behold a universe in which man is but as a grain of sand. I am sure that those of my thoughts which consist, or are contemporaneous, with social personal connections, however humane, are not the wisest and widest, most universal. What is the village, city, State, nation, aye the civilized world, that it should concern a man so much?

He is disgusted that in this “strange age of the world… empires, kingdoms, and republics come a-begging to our doors and utter their complaints at our elbows. I cannot take up a newspaper but I find that some wretched government or other, hard pushed and on its last legs, is interceding with me, the reader, to vote for it” and he declares defiantly and hopefully that while “the newspapers devote some of their columns specially to government and politics without charge… I never read those columns.”

But then he sees a fugitive slave tried and found guilty of escaping, in the courts of his “free” state, Massachusetts, with the courthouse defended against abolitionist rescuers by Massachusetts guardsmen, and a Massachusetts judge returning the slave in chains to his owner. Then he must take pains to distinguish his desire for aloofness from a complicit passivity:

Do what you will, O Government, with my mother and brother, my father and sister, I will obey your command to the letter. It will, indeed, grieve me if you hurt them, if you deliver them to overseers to be hunted by hounds, and to be whipped to death; but, nevertheless, I will peaceably pursue my chosen calling on this fair earth, until, perhaps, one day I shall have persuaded you to relent. Such is the attitude, such are the words of Massachusetts. Rather than thus consent to establish hell upon earth, — to be a party to this establishment, — I would touch a match to blow up earth and hell together.

He concludes:

I had never respected this government, but I had foolishly thought that I might manage to live here, attending to my private affairs, and forget it. For my part, my old and worthiest pursuits have lost I cannot say how much of their attraction, and I feel that my investment in life here is worth many percent less since Massachusetts last deliberately and forcibly restored an innocent man, Anthony Burns, to slavery. I dwelt before in the illusion that my life passed somewhere only between heaven and hell, but now I cannot persuade myself that I do not dwell wholly within hell. The sight of that political organization called Massachusetts is to me morally covered with scoriæ and volcanic cinders, such as Milton imagined. If there is any hell more unprincipled than our rulers and our people, I feel curious to visit it. Life itself being worthless, all things with it, that feed it, are worthless.…

I feel that, to some extent, the State has fatally interfered with my just and proper business. It has not merely interrupted me in my passage through Court Street on errands of trade, but it has, to some extent, interrupted me and every man on his onward and upward path, on which he had trusted soon to leave Court Street far behind. I have found that hollow which I had relied on for solid.

…It is time we had done referring to our ancestors. We have used up all our inherited freedom, like the young bird the albumen in the egg. It is not an era of repose. If we would save our lives, we must fight for them.