Friday, July 4, 2014

Thoreau and the authority of government

I was born in Philadelphia in 1943 and lived there for 19 years watching it fall into economic and social decline after the Second World War boom. Businesses and white people fled Philly as black people escaping Southern racism migrated North only to find just as hateful Northern racism. Poverty and crime increased in Philadelphia during the 1950s and I learned how to survive in the Strawberry Mansion section of the city, just one of its many tough neighborhoods.

I also learned about revolutionaries like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. When I rode the subway, I would emerge from the station into the downtown hustle and bustle and look up in awe at the statue of another revolutionary hero, Benjamin Franklin, atop City Hall. I often visited Franklin’s printing press, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and other historic sites.

On the way to school, I walked past the Thomas Paine Institute. Back then, it was just a store-front shop with books and pamphlets written by American revolutionaries on display in the window. Each day, a featured book or pamphlet would be opened to a different page for the passerby to read. Through that window, I read Paine’s “Common Sense”, “The Age of Reason” and “The Rights of Man” and was introduced to Henry David Thoreau.

Today, young people read about Thoreau’s quiet life on Walden Pond, but fewer people read his essay on Civil Disobedience. Even fewer know Thoreau felt “government is best which governs not at all” and that “The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailors, constables, posse comitatus.” Few have read that “In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on the level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.” Today our wooden men are robots and drones that serve the state.

Thoreau asked if we should obey an unjust law until we can change it or break the unjust law at once. He wrote that people fear to resist unjust laws because they fear government reaction and force like we saw in 1970 at Kent State University as government troops gunned down students peacefully protesting an unjust war.

Thoreau ended his essay on civil disobedience with a vision that is my measure of good government. 

“The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to, - for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know not can do so well, - is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarch to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. 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; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

Posted Independence Day 2014

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