Self-conscience vs. Self-interest: A Reflection on Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government
It was President Ronald Reagan who famously proclaimed that,
“Man is not free unless government is limited.”
While it is not at all clear to me that Mr. Reagan actually governed according to that principle, rhetorically, at least, he does tap into something deeply rooted in the American psyche: a government which is restrained. The Constitution, for example, explicitly grants powers and prerogatives in such a way that there is a kind of “intentional inefficiency” which results in a perpetual, and purposeful gridlock. In other words, the signers of the Constitution felt that the best possible government was one which would be so mired in inefficiency that it would only get the really important things done.
Even the Revolution itself was a product of an attempt by the British Crown to overstep its restraints under the English Constitution and Bill of Rights. This is, no doubt, why the Declaration of Independence includes the “Right of Revolution” language (though, admittedly, that kind of legalease can become troublesome, so it was conveniently left out of the Constitution). We could point to countless other examples. While we may differ on the degree to which the government should be limited, the larger point is clear enough: Americans have liked the idea that our government should have clear restraints and respect the limits laid down for it Constitutionally by the governed.
Thoreau ought to be understood in light of this historical and intellectual context. It is probably not fair to see Thoreau’s advocacy for revolution as being, well, as revolutionary as we might see this kind of rhetoric today. Yes, he was certainly calling for revolution, but he emerges from the period of Revolution. Thus he applies the notion in ways which are meant to be more than just political, which tends to be our exclusive focus. The colonies of New England, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were all the products of a religious revolution. Industrialization was changing the fundamental constructs of American society in revolutionary ways. In 1849, the year Thoreau first published his essay, the nation was caught up in the vortex of a number of highly charged, revolutionary social issues such as slavery, early feminism, and the Second Great Awakening.
Not only was the slavery debate drawing us closer to a civil war, the Mexican War was raging south of the border, the Opium Wars in the East. Women were beginning to organize publicly towards gaining the franchise, and Marx (just one year previously) published the Communist Manifesto. Slavery was merely the most visible of a litany of perceived injustices to which thoughtful Americans were pointing and saying “I don’t like that.” What lay at the heart of each of these great questions of the day was conscience, and this is the essence into which Thoreau taps. To see as he saw is to see it in context.
In some respects, it is a timeless question: what do you do when those in charge are doing things with which you do not agree? If the ruler’s power is unchecked and unrestrained, then your options are severely limited. But our system was supposed to be different - we’re supposed to have some say in this. Importantly, what happens when a disagreement with government policy or law ranks to the level of genuine conscionable objection, but that government does not permit you to abstain or withdraw on the basis of that conscience? It is at this grey area we find Thoreau.
After all, it was men of conscience who launched the Reformation, men of conscience who embarked to the New World to start a new way of life where there would be no fear of oppression against those who would exercise that conscience. Luther's famous declaration, to which Thoreau certainly hearkens, "...it is neither right nor safe to go against conscience." Perhaps this reveals that Thoreau isn’t so much calling for a new revolution as he is calling us to a return to those values which first brought people to these shores. In that sense, it is not so much a call to arms as a call for a reassertion of the right of conscience.
Roughly a century later, Ayn Rand would issue a similar call for revolution. Even many of her ends could be viewed as overlapping with Thoreau’s, such as in little government, the assertion of the individual, rational self-governance, etc. There are differences, of course. For instance, Thoreau will pay the highway tax because he wants to be a “good neighbor” (841). Rand rejects the notion of altruism (the moral obligation to live for the sake of others) outright. It might be interesting to conjecture whether Thoreau and Rand would find themselves on common ground if the highway in question was privately owned and the tax a toll. Regrettably, I fear that Thoreau would sit closer to Marx than to Rand. Anyway...
President Reagan also observed that, “Without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure.” I think that Thoreau would argue that it is, in fact, the freedom of conscience that permits us to worship that God openly and without fear -- and that it is thus foundational to the longevity of the democracy. Like Luther, here he stands, on conscience. As Americans, we can do no other, so help us God. Amen.