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Thoreau Essay - Civil Disobedience

Civil Disobedience

an essay by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

computer textfile produced by Rick Harrison

	I heartily accept the motto, ``That government is best which
governs least;'' and I should like to see it acted upon more rapidly and
systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also
believe, -- ``That 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. Government is at best but an expedient; but most 
governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, 
inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a 
standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to 
prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government.
The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The 
government itself, which is only the mode which the people have 
chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and
perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present
Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the
standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would
not have consented to this measure.

	This American government, -- what is it but a tradition, though
a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity,
but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and
force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will. It
is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves. But it is not the less
necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery
or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they 
have.  Governments thus show how successfully men can be imposed on, 
even impose on themselves, for their own advantage. It is excellent, we 
must all allow.  Yet this government of itself never furthered any enterprise,
but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. _It_ does not keep the 
country free. _It_ does not settle the West. _It_ does not educate. The 
character inherent in the American people has done all that has been 
accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government
had not sometimes got in its way. For government is an expedient by which
men would fain succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been
said, when it is most expedient, the governed are most let alone by it.
Trade and commerce, if they were not made of india-rubber, would never 
manage to bounce over the obstacles which legislators are continually 
putting in their way; and, if one were to judge these men wholly by the 
effects of their actions and not partly by their intentions, they would 
deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievous persons 
who put obstructions on the railroads.

	But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call
themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but
_at_once_ a better government. Let every man make known what kind of
government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward
obtaining it.

	After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the
hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period
continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right,
nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are
physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in
all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it.
Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide
right and wrong, but conscience? -- in which majorities decide only those
questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen
ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the
legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should
be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a
respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which
I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is
truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation
of conscientious men is a corporation _with_ a conscience. 

	Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect 
for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A 
common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a
file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and 
all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against 
their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it 
very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They 
have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; 
they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small 
movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in 
power? Visit the Navy-Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an
American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black
arts, -- a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive
and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral
accompaniments, though it may be, --
	``Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
	    As his corpse to the rampart we hurried;
	  Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
	    O'er the grave where our hero we buried.''

	The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as
machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, the militia,
jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free
exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put
themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can
perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command
no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same
sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly
esteemed good citizens. Others -- as most legislators, politicians, lawyers,
ministers, and office-holders -- serve the state chiefly with their heads;
and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to
serve the devil, without _intending_ it, as God. A very few -- as heroes,
patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and _men_ -- serve the
state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the
most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. A wise man will
only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be ``clay,'' and ``stop a
hole to keep the wind away,'' but leave that office to his dust at least:--
	``I am too high-born to be propertied
	  To be a secondary at control
	  Or useful serving-man and instrument
	  To any sovereign state throughout the world.''

	He who gives himself entirely to his fellow-men appears to them
useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pro-
nounced a benefactor and philanthropist.

	How does it become a man to behave toward this American government
to-day? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.
I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as _my_
government which is the _slave's_ government also.

	All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to
refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or
its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is
not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of
'75. If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it
taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable
that I should not mae an ado about it, for I can do without them. All
machines have their friction; and possibly this does good enough to
counterbalance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir
about it. But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression
and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.
In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has
undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is
unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military
law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolu-
tionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country 
so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.

	Paley, a common authority with many on moral questions, in his
chapter on the ``Duty of Submission to Civil Government,'' resolves all
civil obligation into expediency; and he proceeds to say that ``so long as
the interest of the whole society requires it, that is, so long as the
established government cannot be resisted or changed without public
inconveniency, it is the will of God... that the established government be
obeyed, -- and no longer. This principle being admitted, the justice of
every particular case of resistance is reduced to a computation of the
quantity of the danger and grievance on the one side, and of the probability
and expense of redressing it on the other.'' Of this, he says, every man
shall judge for himself. But Paley appears never to have contemplated those
cases to which the rule of expediency does not apply, in which a people,
as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may. If I have
unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him
though I drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient.
But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. This
people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it
cost them their existence as a people.

	In their practice, nations agree with Paley; but does any one think
that Massachusetts does exactly what is right at the present crisis?
	``A drab of state, a cloth-o'-silver slut,
	  To have her train borne up, and her soul trail in the dirt.''
Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a
hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred thousand merchants
and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than
they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and
to Mexico, _cost_what_it_may_. I quarrel not with far-off foes, but with
those who, near at home, cooperate with, and do the bidding of, those far
away, and without whom the latter would be harmless. We are accustomed to
say that the mass of men are unprepared; but improvement is slow, because
the few are not materially wiser or better than the many. It is not so
important that many should be as good as you, as that there be some
absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump. There
are thousands who are _in_opinion_ opposed to slavery and to the war, who
yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves
children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their
pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even
postpone the question of freedom to the question of free trade, and
quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico,
after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both. What is the
price-current of an honest man and patriot to-day? They hesitate, and they
regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and
with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil,
that they may no longer have to regret. At most, they give only a cheap 
vote and a feeble countenance and God-speed to the right, as it goes by
them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one
virtuous man. But it is easier to deal with the real possessor of a thing
than with the temporary guardian of it.

	All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, 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 ex-
pediency. 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. There is but little virtue in the
action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the
abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery,
or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote.
_They_ will then be the only slaves. Only _his_ vote can hasten the
abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.

	I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for
the selection of a candidate for the Presidency, made up chiefly of editors,
and men who are politicians by profession; but I think, what is it to any
independent, intelligent, and respectable man what decision they may come
to? Shall we not have the advantage of his wisdom and honesty, nevertheless?
Can we not count upon some independent votes? Are there not many individuals
in the country who do not attend conventions? But no: I find that the
respectable man, so-called, has immediately drifted from his position, and
despairs of his country, when his country has more reason to despair of
him. He forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only
_available_ one, thus proving that he is himself _available_ for any
purposes of the demagogue. His vote is of no more worth than that of any
unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have been bought. O for
a man who is a _man_, and, as my neighbor says, has a bone in his back
which you cannot pass your hand through! Our statistics are at fault: the
population has been returned too large. How many _men_ are there to a
square thousand miles in this country? Hardly one. Does not America offer
any inducement for men to settle here? The American has dwindled into an
Odd Fellow, -- one who may be known by the development of his organ of
gregariousness, and a manifest lack of intellect and cheerful self-reliance;
whose first and chief concern, on coming into the world, is to see that the
almshouses are in good repair; and, before yet he has lawfully donned the
virile garb, to collect a fund for the support of the widows and orphans
that may be; who, in short, ventures to live only by the aid of the
Mutual Insurance company, which has promised to bury him decently.

	It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself
to the eradication of any, even the most enormous, wrong; he may still
properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least,
to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to
give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and
contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them
sitting upon another man's shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may
pursue his contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated.
I have heard some of my townsmen say, ``I should like to have them order me
out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico;
-- see if I would go;'' and yet these very men have each, directly by
their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished
a substitute. The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust
war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes
the war; is applauded by those whose own act and authority he disregards
and sets at naught; as if the state were penitent to that degree that it
hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that degree that it left
off sinning for a moment. Thus, under the name of Order and Civil Govern-
ment, we are all made at last to pay homage to and support our own meanness.
After the first blush of sin comes its indifference; and from immoral it
becomes, as it were, _un_moral, and not quite unnecessary to that life
which we have made.

	The broadest and most prevalent error requires the most disinter-
ested virtue to sustain it. The slight reproach to which the virtue of
patriotism is commonly liable, the noble are most likely to incur. Those
who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government,
yield to it their allegiance and support are undoubtedly its most con-
scientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to
reform. Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the Union, to disregard
the requisitions of the President. Why do they not dissolve it themselves,
-- the union between themselves and the State, -- and refuse to pay their
quota into its treasury? Do they not stand in the same relation to the State
that the State does to the Union? And have not the same reasons prevented
the State from resisting the Union which have prevented them from resisting
the State?

	How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely, and
enjoy _it_? Is there any enjoyment in it, if his opinion is that he is
aggrieved? If you are cheated out of a single dollar by your neighbor,
you do not rest satisfied knowing that you are cheated, or with saying that
you are cheated, or even with petitioning him to pay you your due; but you
take effectual steps at once to obtain the full amount, and see that you
are never cheated again. Action from principle, the perception and the
performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially
revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not
only divides States and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the
_individual_, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.

	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? Why does it always crucify Christ, and
excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin

	One would think, that a deliberate and practical denial of its
authority was the only offence never contemplated by government; else, why
has it not assigned its definite, its suitable and proportionate, penalty?
If a man who has no property refuses but once to earn nine shillings for
the State, he is put in prison for a period unlimited by any law that I
know, and determined only by the discretion of those who placed him there;
but if he should steal ninety times nine shillings from the State, he is
soon permitted to go at large again.

	If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine
of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth, --
certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a
pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you
may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it
is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to
another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to
stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not
lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.
	As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for
remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time,
and a man's life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came
into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to
live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not everything to do, but some-
thing; and because he cannot do _everything_, it is not necessary that he
should do _something_ wrong. It is not my business to be petitioning the
Governor or the Legislature any more than it is theirs to petition me; and
if they should not hear my petition, what should I do then? But in this
case the State has provided no way: its very Constitution is the evil.
This may seem to be harsh and stubborn and unconciliatory; but is to treat
with the utmost kindness and consideration the only spirit that can appre-
ciate or deserves it. So is all change for the better, like birth and death,
which convulse the body.

	I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves Abolition-
ists should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and
property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they
constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail
through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side,
without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his
neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.

	I meet this American government, or its representative, the State
government, directly, and face to face, once a year -- no more -- in the
person of its tax-gatherer; this is the only mode in which a man situated
as I am necessarily meets it; and it then says distinctly, Recognize me;
and the simplest, the most effectual, and, in the present posture of
affairs, the indispensablest mode of treating with it on this head, of
expressing your little satisfaction with and love for it, is to deny it
then. My civil neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the very man I have to deal
with, -- for it is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I
quarrel, -- and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government.
How shall he ever know well what he is and does as an officer of the
government, or as a man, until he is obliged to consider whether he shall
treat me, his neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a neighbor and well-
disposed man, or as a maniac and disturber of the peace, and see if he can
get over this obstruction to his neighborliness without a ruder and more
impetuous thought or speech corresponding with his action. I know this well,
that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name, -- if
ten _honest_ men only, -- ay, if _one_ HONEST man, in this State of
Massachusetts, _ceasing_to_hold_slaves_, were actually to withdraw from
this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would
be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the
beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever. But we
love better to talk about it: that we say is our mission. Reform keeps
many scores of newspapers in its service, but not one man. If my esteemed
neighbor, the State's ambassador, who will devote his days to the settle-
ment of the question of human rights in the Council Chamber, instead of
being threatened with the prisons of Carolina, were to sit down the
prisoner of Massachusetts, that State which is so anxious to foist the sin
of slavery upon her sister, -- though at present she can discover only an
act of inhospitality to be the ground of a quarrel with her, -- the
Legislature would not wholly waive the subject the following winter.

	Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for
a just man is also prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which
Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in
her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as
they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there that
the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come
to plead the wrongs of his race should find them; on that separate, but more
free and honorable, ground where the State places those who are not _with_
her, but _against_ her, -- the only house in a slave State in which a free
man can abide with honor. If any think that their influence would be lost
there, and their voices no longer afflict the ear of the State, that they
would not be as an enemy within its walls, they do not know by how much
truth is stronger than error, nor how much more eloquently and effectively
he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person.
Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.
A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a
minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If
the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and
slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were
not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody
measure, as it would be to pay them and enable the State to commit violence
and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable
revolution, if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer, or any other
public officer, asks me, as one has done, ``But what shall I do?'' my answer
is, ``If you really wish to do anything, resign your office.'' When the
subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office,
then the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood should flow. Is
there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this
wound a man's real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an
everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.

	I have contemplated the imprisonment of the offender, rather than
the seizure of his goods, -- though both will serve the same purpose, --
because they who assert the purest right, and consequently are most danger-
ous to a corrupt State, commonly have not spent much time in accumulating
property. To such the State renders comparatively small service, and a
slight tax is wont to appear exorbitant, particularly if they are obliged to
earn it by special labor with their hands. If there were one who lived
wholly without the use of money, the State itself would hesitate to demand
it of him. But the rich man -- not to make any invidious comparison -- is
always sold to the institution which makes him rich. Absolutely speaking,
the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his
objects, and obtains them for him; and it was certainly no great virtue to
obtain it. It puts to rest many questions which he would otherwise be taxed
to answer; while the only new question it puts is the hard but superfluous
one, how to spend it. Thus his moral ground is taken from under his feet.
The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as what are called
the ``means'' are increased. The best thing a man can do for his culture
when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out  those schemes which he enter-
tained when he was poor. Christ answered the Herodians according to their
condition. ``Show me the tribute-money,'' said he; -- and one took a penny
out of his pocket; -- if you use money which has the image of Caesar on it,
and which he has made current and valuable, that is, _if_you_are_men_of_
_the_State_, and gladly enjoy the advantages of Caesar's government, then
pay him back some of his own when he demands it. ``Render therefore to
Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to God those things which are God's'';
-- leaving them no wiser than before as to which was which; for they did
not wish to know.

	When I converse with the freest of my neighbors, I perceive that,
whatever they may say about the magnitude and seriousness of the question,
and their regard for the public tranquility, the long and the short of the
matter is, that they cannot spare the protection of the existing government,
and they dread the consequences to their property and families of dis-
obedience to it. For my own part, I should not like to think that I ever
rely on the protection of the State. But, if I deny the authority of the
State when it presents its tax-bill, it will soon take and waste all my
property, and so harass me and my children without end. This is hard. This
makes it impossible for a man to live honestly, and at the same time
comfortably, in outward respects. It will not be worth the while to
accumulate property; that would be sure to go again. You must hire or squat
somewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon. You must live
within yourself, and depend upon yourself always tucked up and ready for
a start, and not have many affairs. A man may grow rich in Turkey even,
if he will be in all respects a good subject of the Turkish government.
Confucius said: ``If a state is governed by the principles of reason,
poverty and misery are subjects of shame; if a state is not governed by
the principles of reason, riches and honors are subjects of shame.'' No:
until I want the protection of Massachusetts to be extended to me in some
distant Southern port, where my liberty is endangered, or until I am bent
solely on building up an estate at home by peaceful enterprise, I can afford
to refuse allegiance to Massachusetts, and her right to my property and
life. It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience
to the State than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less
in that case.

	Some years ago, the State met me in behalf of the Church, and
commanded me to pay a certain sum toward the support of a clergyman whose
preaching my father attended, but never I myself. ``Pay,'' it said, ``or
be locked up in the jail.'' I declined to pay. But, unfortunately, another
man saw fit to pay it. I did not see why the schoolmaster should be taxed
to support the priest, and not the priest the schoolmaster; for I was not
the State's schoolmaster, but I supported myself by voluntary subscription.
I did not see why the lyceum should not present its tax-bill, and have the
State to back its demand, as well as the Church. However, at the request of
the selectmen, I condescended to make such statement as this in writing: --
``Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be
regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined.''
This I gave to the town clerk; and he has it. The State, having thus learned
that I did not wish to be regarded as a member of that church, has never
made a like demand on me since; though it said that it must adhere to its
original presumption that time. If I had known how to name them, I should
then have signed off in detail from all the societies which I never signed
on to; but I did not know where to find a complete list.

	I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once
on this account, for one night; and, as 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 that institution which treated me as
if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. 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
get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the
walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all
my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but
behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every com-
pliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to
stand on the other side of that stone wall. 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, and _they_ were really all that
was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my
body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they
have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-witted,
that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did
not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for
it, and pitied it.

	Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man's sense,
intellectual or moral, but only his body, his 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. Let us see who is
the strongest. What force has a multitude? They can only force me who obey
a higher law than I. They force me to become like themselves. I do not hear
of _men_ being _forced_ to live this way or that by masses of men. What
sort of life were that to live? When I meet a government which say to me,
``Your money or your life,'' why should I be in haste to give it my money?
It may be in a great strait, and not know what to do: I cannot help that.
It must help itself; do as I do. It is not worth the while to snivel about
it. I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of
society. I am not the son of the engineer. I perceive that, when an acorn
and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make
way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and
flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys
the other. If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and
so a man.

	The night in prison was novel and interesting enough. The prisoners
in their shirt-sleeves were enjoying a chat and the evening air in the
doorway, when I entered. But the jailer said, ``Come, boys, it is time to
lock up;'' and so they dispersed, and I heard the sound of their steps
returning into the hollow apartments. My room-mate was introduced to me by
the jailer as ``a first-rate fellow and a clever man.'' When the door was
locked, he showed me where to hang my hat, and how he managed matters there.
The rooms were whitewashed once a month; and this one, at least, was the
whitest, most simply furnished, and probably the neatest apartment in the
town. He naturally wanted to know where I came from and what brought me
there; and, when I had told him, I asked him in my turn how he came there,
presuming him to be an honest man, of course; and, as the world goes, I
believe he was. ``Why,'' said he, ``they accuse me of burning a barn; but
I never did it.'' As near as I could discover, he had probably gone to bed
in a barn when drunk, and smoked his pipe there; and so a barn was burnt.
He had the reputation of being a clever man, had been there some three
months waiting for his trial to come on, and would have to wait as much 
longer; but he was quite domesticated and contented, since he got his board
for nothing, and thought that he was well treated.

	He occupied one window, and I the other; and I saw that if one
stayed there long, his principal business would be to look out the window.
I had soon read all the tracts that were left there, and examined where
former prisoners had broken out, and where a grate had been sawed off, and
heard the history of the various occupants of that room; for I found that
even here there was a history and a gossip which never circulated beyond
the walls of the jail. Probably this is the only house in town where
verses are composed, which are afterward printed in a circular form, but
not published. I was shown quite a long list of verses which were composed
by some young men who had been detected in an attempt to escape, who
avenged themselves by singing them.

	I pumped my fellow-prisoner as dry as I could, for fear I should
never see him again; but at length he showed me which was my bed, and
left me to blow out the lamp.

	It was like traveling into a far country, such as I had never
expected to behold, to lie there for one night. It seemed to me that I
never had heard the town clock strike before, nor the evening sounds of
the village; for we slept with the windows open, which were inside the
grating. It was to see my native village in the light of the Middle Ages,
and our Concord was turned into a Rhine stream, and visions of knights and
castles passed before me. They were the voices of old burghers that I heard
in the streets. I was an involuntary spectator and auditor of whatever was
done and said in the kitchen of the adjacent village inn; -- a wholly new
and rare experience to me. It was a closer view of my native town. I was
fairly inside of it. I never had seen its institutions before. This is one 
of its peculiar institutions; for it is a shire town. I began to comprehend
what its inhabitants were about.

	In the morning, our breakfasts were put through the hole in the
door, in small oblong-square tin pans, made to fit, and holding a pint of
chocolate, with brown bread, and an iron spoon. When they called for the
vessels again, I was green enough to return what bread I had left; but my
comrade seized it, and said that I should lay that up for lunch or dinner.
Soon after he was let out to work at haying in a neighboring field, whither
he went every day, and would not be back till noon; so he bade me good-day,
saying that he doubted if he should see me again.

	When I came out of prison, -- for some one interfered, and paid
that tax, -- 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 tottering
and gray-headed man; and yet a change had to my eyes come over the scene,
-- the town, and State, and country, -- greater than any that mere time
could effect. I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived. I saw
to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good
neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only;
that they did not greatly propose to do right; that they were a distinct
race from me by their prejudices and superstitions, as the Chinamen and
Malays are; that in their sacrifices to humanity they ran no risks, not
even to their property; that after all they were not so noble but they
treated the thief as he had treated them, and hoped, by a certain outward
observance and a few prayers, and by walking a particular straight though 
useless path from time to time, to save their souls. This may be to judge
my neighbors harshly; for I believe that many of them are not aware that
they have such an institution as the jail in their village.

	It was formerly the custom in our village, when a poor debtor came
out of jail, for his acquaintances to salute him, looking through their
fingers, which were crossed to represent the grating of a jail window,
``How do ye do?'' My neighbors did not thus salute me, but first looked at
me, and then at one another, as if I had returned from a long journey. I
was put into jail as I was going to the shoemaker's to get a shoe which was
mended. When I was let out the next morning, I proceeded to finish my
errand, and, having put on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party, who
were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour, --
for the horse was soon tackled, -- was in the midst of a huckleberry field,
on one of our highest hills, two miles off, and then the State was nowhere
to be seen.

	This is the whole history of ``My Prisons.''

	I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as
desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject; and as
for supporting schools, I am doing my part to educate my fellow-countrymen
now. It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it.
I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand
aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar,
if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with, -- the dollar
is innocent, -- but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance.
In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I
will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual
in such cases.

	If others pay the tax which is demanded of me, from a sympathy with
the State, they do but what they have already done in their own case, or
rather they abet injustice to a greater extent than the State requires. If
they pay the tax from a mistaken interest in the individual taxed, to save
his property, or prevent his going to jail, it is because they have not
considered wisely how far they let their private feelings interfere with
the public good.

	This, then, is my position at present. But one cannot be too much
on his guard in such a case, lest his action be biased by obstinacy or an
undue regard for the opinions of men. Let him see that he does only what
belongs to himself and to the hour.

	I think sometimes, Why, this people mean well, they are only
ignorant; they would do better if they knew how: why give your neighbors
this pain to treat you as they are not inclined to? But I think again, This
is no reason why I should do as they do, or permit others to suffer much
greater pain of a different kind. Again, I sometimes say to myself, When
many millions of men, without heat, without ill will, without personal
feeling of any kind, demand of you a few shillings only, without the
possibility, such is their constitution, of retracting or altering their
present demand, and without the possibility, on your side, of appeal to
any other millions, why expose yourself to this overwhelming brute force?
You do not resist cold and hunger, the winds and the waves, thus ob-
stinately; you quietly submit to a thousand similar necessities. You do not
put your head into the fire. But just in proportion as I regard this as not
wholly a brute force, but partly a human force, and consider that I have
relations to those millions as to so many millions of men, and not of mere
brute or inanimate things, I see that appeal is possible, first and in-
stantaneously, from them to the Maker of them, and secondly, from them to
themselves. But if I put my head deliberately into the fire, there is no
appeal to fire or to the Maker of fire, and I have only myself to blame. If
I could convince myself that I have any right to be satisfied with men as
they are, and to treat them accordingly, and not according, in some re-
spects, to my requisitions and expectations of what they and I ought to be,
then, like a good Mussulman and fatalist, I should endeavor to be satisfied
with things as they are, and say it is the will of God. And, above all,
there is this difference between resisting this and a purely brute or
natural force, that I can resist this with some effect; but I cannot expect,
like Orpheus, to change the nature of the rocks and trees and beasts.

	I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish to
split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as better than my
neighbors. I seek rather, I may say, even an excuse for conforming to the
laws of the land. I am but too ready to conform to them. Indeed, I have
reason to suspect myself on this head; and each year, as the tax-gatherer
comes round, I find myself disposed to review the acts and position of the
general and State governments, and the spirit of the people, to discover a
pretext for conformity.
	``We must affect our country as our parents,
	  And if at any time we alienate
	  Our love or industry from doing it honor,
	  We must respect effects and teach the soul
	  Matter of conscience and religion,
	  And not desire of rule or benefit.''
I believe that the State will soon be able to take all my work of this sort
out of my hands, and then I shall be no better a patriot than my fellow-
countrymen. Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all its
faults, is very good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even
this State and this American government are, in many respects, very ad-
mirable, and rare things, to be thankful for, such as a great many have
described them; but seen from a point of view a little higher, they are
what I have described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who
shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking of
at all?

	However, the government does not concern me much, and I shall
bestow the fewest possible thoughts on it. It is not many moments that I
live under a government, even in this world. If a man is thought-free,
fancy-free, imagination-free, that which _is_not_ never for a long time
appearing _to_be_ to him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally
interrupt him.

	I know that most men think differently from myself; but those whose
lives are by profession devoted to the study of these or kindred subjects
content me as little as any. Statesmen and legislators, standing so com-
pletely within the institution, never distinctly and nakedly behold it.
They speak of moving society, but have no resting-place without it. They
may be men of a certain experience or discrimination, and have no doubt
invented ingenious and even useful systems, for which we sincerely thank
them; but all their wit and usefulness lie within certain not very wide
limits. They are wont to forget that the world is not governed by policy and
expediency. Webster never goes behind government, and so cannot speak with 
authority about it. His words are wisdom to those legislators who contem-
plate no essential reform in the existing government; but for thinkers, and 
those who legislate for all time, he never once glances at the subject. I 
know of those whose serene and wise speculations on this theme would soon 
reveal the limits of his mind's range and hospitality. Yet, compared with 
the cheap professions of most reformers, and the still cheap wisdom and 
eloquence of politicians in general, his are almost the only sensible and 
valuable words, and we thank Heaven for him. Comparatively, he is always 
strong, original, and, above all, practical. Still, his quality is not 
wisdom, but prudence. The lawyer's truth is not Truth, but consistency or a 
consistent expediency. Truth is always in harmony with herself, and is not 
concerned chiefly to reveal the justice that may consist with wrong-doing.
He well deserves to be called, as he has been called, the Defender of the 
Constitution. There are really no blows to be given by him but defensive 
ones. He is not a leader, but a follower. His leaders are the men of '87.
``I have never made an effort,'' he says, ``and never propose to make an 
effort; I have never countenanced an effort, and never mean to countenance 
an effort, to disturb the arrangement as originally made, by which the 
various States came into the Union.'' Still thinking of the sanction which 
the Constitution gives to slavery, he says, ``Because it was part of the 
original compact, -- let it stand.'' Notwithstanding his special acuteness 
and ability, he is unable to take a fact out of its merely political 
relations, and behold it as it lies absolutely to be disposed of by the 
intellect, -- what, for instance, it behooves a man to do here in America 
to-day with regard to slavery, -- but ventures, or is driven, to make some 
such desperate answer as the following, while professing to speak abso-
lutely, and as a private man, -- from which what new and singular code of 
social duties might be inferred? ``The manner,'' says he, ``in which the 
governments of those States where slavery exists are to regulate it is for 
their own consideration, under their responsibility to their constituents, 
to the general laws of propriety, humanity, and justice, and to God. 
Associations formed elsewhere, springing from a feeling of humanity, or any
other cause, have nothing whatever to do with it. They have never received 
any encouragement from me, and they never will.''

	They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its 
stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitu-
tion, and drink at it there with reverence and humility; but they who 
behold it where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up 
their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimmage toward its fountain-

	No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America. They 
are rare in the history of the world. There are orators, politicians, and 
eloquent men, by the thousand; but the speaker has not yet opened his mouth 
to speak who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day. We
love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, 
or any heroism it may inspire. Our legislators have not yet learned the 
comparative value of free trade and of freedom, of union, and of rectitude, 
to a nation. They have no genius or talent for comparatively humble 
questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufactures and agri-
culture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress 
for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual
complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the 
nations. For eighteen hundred years, though perchance I have no right to 
say it, the New Testament has been written; yet where is the legislator who
has wisdom and practical talent enough to avail himself of the light which 
it sheds on the science of legislation?

	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 nor 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 monarchy 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.

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