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Thoreau on street protests and ballot boxes

Henry David Thoreau was an American libertarian philosopher who was a proponent of limited government and Individualism. Not only does Thoreau deny that the state has any moral authority, but also accuses it of thwarting both the liberty and moral development of individuals.

In the 19th century, the democratically elected government of the United States upheld that the practice of slavery was constitutionally legal. Indeed, slavery was an acceptable view held by the majority of U.S. citizens. On the issue, Lincoln is quoted to have said “We have a means provided for the expression of our belief in regard to Slavery – it is through the ballot box – the peaceful method provided by the Constitution”. Thoreau, passionately supported the abolition of slavery but found it impossible to persuade a sufficient number of fellow citizens that he was right. As a result he set out to write a radical critique of democracy in view of the indifference of the majority to slavery.

In his view if a law violates one’s own personal view of right and wrong, it must be disobeyed. As such Thoreau holds the position that the individual’s liberty trumps any claims of state authority in each and every case. He regarded nonviolent methods of resistance as an integral check on the democratic system and a legitimate method for correcting the injustice that may flow as a result from the ballot box.

Ironically, because of his views, Thoreau was later accused of being both an anarchist by some and conversely a leftist by others for inspiring Civil Rights movements across the world. His theory that subjected the authority of law to private judgement animated the civil rights struggles led by Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King Jr. in the U.S.

In the words of American author Ken Kifer: “Thoreau’s careful observations and devastating conclusions have rippled into time, becoming stronger as the weaknesses Thoreau noted have become more pronounced … Today, Thoreau’s words are quoted with feeling by liberals, socialists, anarchists, libertarians, and conservatives alike.”

Many would argue that a system which allows individuals to choose which laws are unjust and advocates resistance to the state outside the ballot box is a recipe for chaos. However, as countries across the Middle East transition from authoritarianism Thoreau’s writings provide important insights to resist mediocre models of democracy, even those that are supported by the ballot box and to continue the struggle for freedom.

Thoreau tells us that individuals acting morally “in the interest of the people” are not incompatible with a strict interpretation of Individualism valued by libertarians. Rather they are obliged to resist an unjust state and shape their own destiny as free individuals. His personal fight as an abolitionist is exemplary of his value for human freedom.

His quotes below are relevant to political transitions in the Arab Spring and the street protests in Turkey today.

“Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? 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 that, 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 for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?”
– Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays

“Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays

“The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls — the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays

“All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or back gammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.”
– Henry David Thoreau, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resigns his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays

“If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law”
– Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays

“Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

About T. Fouad, MD

Blogging on Egypt, Middle East Politics. Economics. Oncology. Egyptian Liberal, Doctor. كتابة عن مصر والشرق الأوسط, سياسة واقتصاد, طبيب مصري ليبرالي. تابعوني على تويتر @FouadMD


3 thoughts on “Thoreau on street protests and ballot boxes

  1. Great job. Funny that you started with slavery. I also thought of the American civil war, as an example of toppling democratically elected governsors of the CSA over an issue of morality.

    Posted by 2imen | August 11, 2013, 7:44 am
  2. Gosh, I the contribution to the discussion here. While I can’t say that I arrive at the same conclusions, I genuinely appreciate the spirit of your observations. I subscribe to a somewhat different view of Thoreau and his teachings. He was, admittedly, a thoughtful and literate man with deep convictions about many things, to very much include the interplay of man and nature. In taking the time to memorialize his reflections with through his remarkable gift in prose, we remain in his debt. He was not, nor did he claim to be, a social scientist or historian. He certainly was a keen observer of humanity and the world in which man lives.

    I am decidedly not so enamored of “democracy” that I believe it represents a ‘golden fleece’ of modernity wherein to embrace it confers virtue to the holder that somehow eludes those without the gift. While one man/one vote constitutes a touchstone of sorts for governments claiming a legitimacy based on the principles of self-governance,
    it can take any number of forms to achieve the blessings of liberty.

    Democracy the American Way is arguably less appealing to many in the Near East (or Africa or Asia) than many observers in the west might care to admit. Let’s face it, the “republican form of government” guaranteed to the states and the people under Article IV, Section 4 of the US Constitution is too indirectly representative of the public’s will
    (in any given season) than some aspire. That can certainly be said of Thoreau and that of his fellow-travelers in the villages of Northern New England who saw in that peculiar institution of slavery an arrangement so at odds
    with the principles of the Republic’s foundational declaration that a call for civil-disobedience was not only reasonable, but it became for many a sine qua non of sorts to the ultimate success of the American experiment
    in self-government.

    I must confess that I find those in the west a bit paranoid about the merits of their own form and function of government that they would run to the gunwales with an intent eye on “nudging” a brand of democracy from their own play-book. I’m not sure that’s how the process works. In fact, I think the history of the Near East and most
    other places for that matter teach something much different.

    Again thanks for the thoughtful contributions in the past (I’m just beginning to read through them). I believe the content here begs further reflection. To that end, I am forwarding a piece or two found here to a few members of
    the US Congress with whom we are well acquainted (please don’t hold that against me:).

    Warmest regards and His blessings to you, your associates and family.


    Posted by Benjamin | September 20, 2013, 5:55 pm

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