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Module 9: Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator

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Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), perhaps best known as the author of Walden, was a deep believer in the demands of conscience over the demands of the state. His refusal in July 1846 to pay a tax led him to write the essay Civil Disobedience, which was to exercise a great influence on subsequent generations of thinkers. This module explores political obligation generally, including the questions whether one should submit to unjust demands from political authorities and whether a citizen should acquiesce when the state makes him or her “the agent of injustice to another.” Thoreau draws on a long libertarian tradition that holds that, although our universal, or general, obligations are not the result of choice or action (for example, the obligation not to take the life, liberty, or justly held possessions of any other person), particular obligations, that is, specific obligations to specific persons, are based on some act of the obligee, for example, assenting to a contract that requires the payment of a sum of money for a service rendered. Obligations to pay taxes to the state or to submit to its authority normally fall into the second category of particular obligations. Thoreau insists that he did not consent to them, and that he therefore is not bound by them and instead follows the demands of his own conscience (notably his opposition to the enforcement of slavery and to the war with Mexico).

In effect, Thoreau insists on a right to withdraw from the state, a right also articulated by Herbert Spencer in his essay “The Right to Ignore the State” in the readings for this module. Thoreau sought to live as a wholly free person in a world that was not wholly free. David Boaz, in his chapter “The Obsolete State,” speculates that the growth of the market and the spread of new technologies may allow individuals greater opportunity in the future to “bypass the state.”

Of overriding importance to Thoreau was his refusal to sanction the evil institution of slavery, and thus his violation of the Fugitive Slave Laws and his participation in the Underground Railway to freedom for escaped slaves. While Thoreau opposed slavery, his principal response was to resist it passively, rather than to crusade for its abolition. In contrast, William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) was moved to devote all of his energy and resources to a tireless crusade for abolition. In response to those who criticized him for his enthusiasm, he retorted, “I have need to be all on fire, for there are mountains of ice around me to melt.” His “immediatism” was realistic but uncompromising: “We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be, we shall always contend.” (It bears mentioning, however, that while Garrison criticized John Brown for his attempt to liberate the slaves through a slave uprising, Thoreau defended Brown, writing, “No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any and all governments. In that sense, he was the most American of us all.”)

The readings by Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and William Ellery Channing argue that slavery violates the fundamental equal right of all individuals to be free. The readings from Immanuel Kant and from Bruno Leoni argue that the internal logic of law requires that law be equally applicable to all, a requirement that chattel slavery notoriously fails, and one that many lesser infringements on liberty may fail as well.

Readings to Accompany The Audio

From The Libertarian Reader: William Lloyd Garrison, “Man Cannot Hold Property in Man” (pp. 77–80); Frederick Douglas, “You Are a Man, and So Am I” (pp. 81–87); William Ellery Channing, “A Human Being Cannot Be Justly Owned” (pp. 88–91); Herbert Spencer, “The Right to Ignore the State” (pp. 149–53); Immanuel Kant, “Equality of Rights” (pp. 142–48); Lysander Spooner, “The Constitution of No Authority” (pp. 154–60).

From Libertarianism: A Primer: Chapter 11, “The Obsolete State” (pp. 256–75).

From Freedom and the Law: Chapter 3, “Freedom and the Rule of Law” (pp. 58–75).

Some Problems to Ponder & Discuss

• Some proponents of abolishing slavery favored compensating the slaveholders for loss of their slaves. Others argued that it was the slaves who deserved compensation for the loss of their liberty. Which position is more just? Which is more practical?

• Would secession by the Northern states from the Union have been justified as a means of eliminating the Fugitive Slave Laws?

• What should a conscientious citizen do when the demands of the state conflict with the moral voice of conscience?

• Can one actually “mind one’s own business” in a complex society? Can individuals withdraw from politics?

• How can a formal requirement of equality before the law or of certainty in the law generate substantive constraints on law?

• Henry David Thoreau survived his passive resistance to the American state, as Gandhi did his to British colonial rule, but would he have been so lucky under a National Socialist or Communist state? Does the character of the state determine the appropriate response to it?

Suggested Additional Reading

Henry David Thoreau, Political Writings, Nancy L. Rosenblum, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) contains, in addition to his essay on civil disobedience (titled “Resistance to Civil Government” in this edition), “Life without Principle,” “Slavery in Massachusett,” his essays on John Brown, and selections from Walden. Thoreau reminds us that the state can punish the body but the human spirit remains capable of freedom. As he said of his incarceration for his refusal to pay a tax: “I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar.… I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance. As they could not reach me, they resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come against a person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the state was half‐​witted, that it was as timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons.… I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.”

Aileen S. Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834–1850 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1989). This book examines the debates over how to eliminate slavery, with a central focus on the radical approach of William Lloyd Garrison. Kraditor discusses how such issues as moral suasion, civil disobedience, electoral activism, and slave rebellions were debated and action was taken.

For Further Study

Jennifer Trusted, Free Will and Responsibility (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984). For those interested in the deep connection drawn by rights theorists between personal choice and responsibility, which motivated the early rights theorists, the Abolitionists, and the individualist feminists of the nineteenth century, this book offers a careful examination of the philosophical issues involved. Libertarianism, understood as the theory that individuals can initiate actions and responsibility for action can be traced back to them, is neatly contrasted with determinism, understood as the view that our behavior is entirely determined by external factors, with a corresponding lack of personal moral responsibility for behavior. The book is written in an accessible style and does not require any extensive philosphical background.

Frank Chodorov, Fugitive Essays, Charles H. Hamilton, ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1980). In addition to containing a moving essay on Henry David Thoreau, this book is full of wisdom about how a free man might live in a world only partially free. Chodorov wrote a very provocative and insightful little essay, “Don’t Buy Bonds” (reprinted in his Out of Step: The Autobiography of an Individualist [New York: Devin‐​Adair, 1962], which is unfortunately no longer in print.

Lewis Perry, Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995). Perry focuses on the more radical abolitionists, many of whom rejected slavery on the same grounds that they rejected absolute government.

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