“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?” – Henry David Thoreau
As I recently deliberated Henry David Thoreau’s influential 1849 essay, “Resistance to Civil Government” (Civil Disobedience), I was struck by how relevant some of Thoreau’s themes and ideas were to the current political climate during this election season. Written in protest to an American government which at the time supported slavery and a forced annexation of Mexican territory (Mexican-American War), the essay exists as one of the first calls for a radical shift in the American political establishment. However, though much has changed since the time of the transcendentalists, many of the shortcomings Thoreau found and emphasized in 1849 still persist today. In 2012, citizens of the US face important decisions regarding these issues, a choice–as the incumbent President Obama admitted during his convention speech “between two different paths for America…between two fundamentally different visions for the future”.
Disagreements over the size, role and integrity of the government fuel many of the most hotly debated issues in this campaign. Many Republicans, including candidate Mitt Romney, feel that President Obama’s policies are simply too costly and ambitious to effectively solve our nation’s economic problems. Pointing to the trillion dollar deficit and hovering unemployment rate as testament to this inefficiency, Henry David Thoreau probably would have agreed. Paraphrasing a Jeffersonian idea, Thoreau opens “Resistance to Civil Government” with a declaration: “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”. Though mainly examining the government’s role in relation to moral rather than economic issues, Thoreau’s support of limited government intervention likely would have carried over to the most important issues of the time. Inspired by Ralph Emerson and believing the transcendentalist doctrines of self-reliance and non-conformity, Thoreau held that his principal purpose on earth was experience life, nothing more. “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.” Though he supported abolition and the rights of people unlike himself (as displayed in his opposition to the Mexican-American War), Thoreau probably would not support the vast burden social “safety nets” lay on the taxpayer and would support self-reliance as an American ideal. Furthermore, in an amusing quip, Thoreau downplays eloquence in politics: “We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire”. Seemingly foreseeing the ridiculous amount of attention and influence the media gives public speaking, Thoreau likely would have seen through–or ignored–the inspiring rhetoric displayed by President Obama on the 2008 campaign trail, and thus may oppose him in 2012.
Simultaneously though, Henry David Thoreau surely would have some objections to Mitt Romney’s candidacy. An ardent minimalist, Thoreau spent four years living by himself in the woods surrounding Walden Pond. While living there, a local tax collector approached Thoreau about paying his overdue taxes, which he refused to pay due to his objections to slavery and the war in Mexico. As he relates in “Civil Disobedience”, he spent the night in jail as a result. Freed when his tax was anonymously paid the next day, the event affected him enough that he compiled his grievances into an essay. Realizing that not paying his fair share of taxes was a perfect way to protest the government, Thoreau likely would be shocked that Mitt Romney is not in jail for paying such a low effective tax rate; and would be aghast that he did so in an honest manner by exploiting loopholes. Then again, the nature of Romney’s profession and the vast wealth he has acquired too would shock Henry who saw no place for money in politics. “The rich man…is always sold to the institution that 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; and it was certainly no great virtue obtain it”. It would be hard to argue that Bain Capital, the embodiment of Mitt Romney’s economic ideas, is a virtuous company. Similarly, the unparalleled influence of corporate and private wealth on congress and in this election can barely be acknowledged as constitutional, let alone virtuous. Despite his yearning for small government, Thoreau would likely be more disgusted by the clear corporate influence behind the Republican party than costly Democratic economics.
Although Henry David Thoreau did not receive much attention for his efforts during his lifetime, after his death, “Resistance to Civil Government” inspired some of the most important leaders of the 20th century. Martin Luther King Jr. first encountered the idea of peaceful protest in the essay while Mohatma Gandhi wrote to Indian Review, explaing Thoreau’s impact: “‘Resistance to Civil Government’ is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable”. Regardless of who Thoreau would have supported in the 2012 election, his musings on the obvious governmental faults and injustices of the middle of the nineteenth century should be heard by both sides. Above all though, one thing that both parties can agree on is that this election is about the economy, and a key part of an economy is the size and scope of the government that regulates it–along with the integrity of its leader. But ultimately, Thoreau probably would not understand many of the complex issues behind the partisan divide in politics today. However, eventually, Thoreau did believe that society would be ready to come together and govern itself completely: “…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”. Thoreau exists as a truly American thinker with deep-rooted beliefs he held throughout his life. If more politicians possessed the conviction of Thoreau, maybe something would get done once in a while.
“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.”
-Henry David Thoreau