America has been riddled with racial strife, protest and a U.S. Congress stuck in perpetual gridlock. The nation is at a crossroads but century after century it’s more of the same. Is the country really ready for any true reform?
Henry David Thoreau, an American essayist, poet and philosopher who lived from 1817 to 1862, is a cultural-historical icon. Thoreau produced writings and lectures on protest, environmentalism and government — topics still being debated.
Thoreau went to jail for tax evasion. He refused to pay taxes for six years, protesting slavery and the Mexican-American war. His refusal cost him a night in jail.
“I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of the institution which treated me as if I were flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up,” Thoreau wrote in his essay “Civil Disobedience.”
“I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way I saw that if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could be as free as I was,” he added.
Thoreau lived in Concord, Mass. He believed his town’s people didn’t understand his fight against slavery and the war.
“They were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body,” he wrote. “The State never intentionally confronts a man’s senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion.” Thoreau used his time in jail for meditation as he was a transcendentalist, one who believes they achieve spiritual enlightenment through personal intuition rather than religious doctrine and studying his environment.
“I saw that if one stayed there long, his principal business would be to look out the window. I had read all the tracts that were left there, and examined where former prisoners broke out,” said Thoreau. “(I) heard the history of the various occupants of that room; for I found that even there was a story and a gossip which never circulated beyond the walls of the jail. Probably this is the only house in the town where verses are composed which are afterward printed in a circular form, but not published,” he added.
Thoreau was released after someone paid his taxes, most likely a family member, according to Wikipedia. But he still refused to support the State in slavery or the war. Even with his short stay in jail, he recognized a change in himself.
“I did not perceive that great changes had taken place on the common, such as he observed who went in a youth and emerged a gray-headed man; and yet a change had to my eyes come over the scene — the town and the State and country,” wrote Thoreau. “I saw yet more distinctly that State in which I lived … that after all they were not so noble but they treated the thief as he had treated them …This may be to judge my neighbors harshly; for I believe that many are not aware they have such an institution as the jail in their village,” he added.
Thoreau expressed when the American government fails to address the reforms, fails to settle questions of human rights and the Legislature waives the subject matter off, the true place for a just a man is prison.
“Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them and obey them until we succeed, or shall we transgress them at once?” Thoreau asked. “Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil.
“But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce (George) Washington and (Benjamin) Franklin rebels?”
Thoreau stressed it was always the conscience of the common people that moved America forward and not those blindly following the system.
“Law never made men a whit more just; even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice,” said Thoreau. “The mass of men serve the State, not as men … but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army … the militia, jailers, constables, etc. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these are commonly esteemed good citizens.”
Politicians, lawyers and officeholders were also included in his analysis.
“(They) serve the State chiefly with their heads; and as they rarely make any moral distinction, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending to, as God,” he commented.
Thoreau’s ideas have influenced conservatives and anarchist movements alike, but he subscribed to neither position.
“I ask for, not at once no government, but once a better government,” he said. “That a 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 believed the true process of democracy is to respect the individual.
“There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power,” he wrote. “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 … who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men.
“A State … (that) would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which I have also imagined, but not yet anywhere seen,” he concluded.
Thoreau’s body of work has influenced many such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. He died at age 44, from tuberculosis. The U.S. Postal service honored him with a stamp for his 200th birth anniversary in 2017.