|Henry David Thoreau|
This idea is also a core component of the civil religion, and refers to the higher authority that is referred to in the Declaration, as "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," in other words, a form of law based on natural rights higher than the laws of political states. The basis of civil disobedience can be found in the Declaration itself which explicitly authorizes disobedience to the extent in which government departs from protecting the rights of its citizens.
Thoreau, much like Thomas Aquinas, sees the natural law and human law as antagonistic, and separate, as he says: "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" (p. 222).
Thoreau was very conscious in which respect for laws or traditions and mores can easily turn into a mechanical and unthinking submission to whatever the authorities may be:
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, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement 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 (p. 223).
Government is only as good or bad as the people who run it. It is not evil in itself nor is it good in itself, or as he says, "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" (p. 222). In other words a government closer to the ideas of equality and justice that we are entitled to according to the Declaration.
He is very clear on the source of his disgust for the current government, "I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also" (p. 223) (referring to the slave owners not the actual slaves)
In The Federalist we discussed how the ideal of government was supposed to function like a machine and thus create an impersonal system of control that is not under the control of any one person. As long as the machine functions properly and maintains justice in society but what happens if the machine is creating injustice:
If the unjustice 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 unjustice 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 you life be a counterfriction 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 (p. 226).
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
I bring all this up because I want to bring attention not just to the content of the readings in question, but form as well, in other words how they write. In my opinion, they write with more passion and clarity than you see in today's so-called political commentators.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) were all active members of the abolition and women's rights movements, which originally were united, and who used the idea of civil disobedience that Thoreau spoke of, as a means to agitate the political system, to initiate radical reforms, and ultimately to win full citizenship.
|Elizabeth Cady Stanton|
|Susan B. Anthony|
Douglass in his fourth of July speech, points to a glaring gap in the creed of America, which according to Chesterton is embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Douglass here indicates an essential contradiction in all universal ideologies or beliefs. Every belief that claims to include all of humanity (and can be said to be universal) always in reality excludes somebody, and that these exclusions are concealed and made invisible:
But such is not the sate of the case. I sat it with a sad sense of disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeather by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
The Democratic Party at the same time which was so powerful in the South and New York has become the party of slavery. However, in Douglass' view the Free Soil movement does not go far enough because it only wants to restrict the further expansion of slavery, not to abolish it where it already is. Although scientific reason was opposed to slavery it did create the "cautious" attitude that you do not do things too radically––this is a good example of that mentality. Douglass is equally opposed to the Garrison Abolitionists, named after William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), a New England journalist who became one of the most well known abolitionists. Garrison favored total abolition, but he was apolitical, in other words he thought the best way to fight slavery was not to deal with it or people who benefit from it. Douglass saw this as little better than closing your eyes to a problem, and like the Republicans, favored political involvement, but like Garrison, wanted total abolition.
Besides their ideological strength, they were skilled organizers and were able to create a network of political institutions composed of voluntary associations, small political parties, and specialized newspapers. All were involved early on with the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) which was supported by newspapers like The Liberator or the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Frederick Douglass published his own abolitionist paper The North Star, which later merged with the newspaper of the abolitionist political party, the Liberty Party to form Frederick Douglass' Paper. Anthony published her own women's rights paper The Revolution which was the official paper of the National Women's Suffrage Association (NWSA) formed by Stanton and Anthony in 1869. The NWSA was formed after the breakup of the earlier American Equal Rights Association between 1866-1869, which split over the issue of granting voting rights (suffrage) to women and freed slaves. The text of the 15th amendment to the Constitution (1870) shows clearly that the right to vote cannot be taken away because of a person's race or color, but it does not specify gender. Women would not win the right to vote in the country until 1920 (after Stanton and Anthony had died) with the passage of the 19th amendment.
Today, the network of organizations, media, and activists is known as civil society, but the development of civil society was supported by the beneficial economic advantages of the U.S. including relative economic equality, as well as a highly literate population that was better educated on a whole than Europeans. We can see here also that civil liberties which, of course, include freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press actually serve to strengthen the republic and revive it when suffering from periods of stagnation when one group wields power for too long, in part by allowing criticism of the government and the way in which society is being led. A vibrant and robust civil society provides the circulation of different groups and interests which contribute to a stable political order, one that can also adapt to changes.
Anthony was arrested in 1872 after attempting to vote in New York. The same year women's rights activists Victoria Woodhull ran a presidential campaign under the the Equal Rights Party, with Frederick Douglass as Vice-President (Douglass never responded to the nomination), though they received no electoral votes and a very tiny amount of the popular vote. The excerpt here is from the closing statements of the trial United States v. Anthony. Anthony is skillfully able to turn the trial itself into a trial of the American system by pointing out the obvious hypocrisies and contradictions in a political system based on the idea of citizenship and equality but that excludes almost half the population from being a real citizen, which she notes emphatically is impossible without real political rights including of course the right to vote:
All my prosecutors, from the 8th Ward corner grocery politician, who entered the complaint, to the United States Marshal, Commissioner, District Attorney, District Judge, your honor on the bench, not one is my peer, but each and all are my political sovereigns; and had your honor submitted my case to the jury, as was clearly your duty, even when I should have had just cause of protest, for not one of those men was my peer; but native or foreign, white or black, rich or poor, educated or ignorant, awake or asleep, sober or drunk, each and every man of them was my political superior; hence, in no sense, my peer.The 14th amendment to the Constitution explicitly states that all people born or naturalized within the United States are citizens of the United States and are entitled to all the protections of the law and all the rights and privileges that come with citizenship. Anthony argues quite clearly that her arrest and trial clearly contradict her rights as defined by this amendment in the Constitution.
As important as the formal rights in the Constitution are, the preservation of these rights, depends on certain political institutions and an open society that provide the space for this. However, culture is equally important, and it is the culture of freedom and tolerance in the U.S. that make actions like this resonate with the public. In other words, seeing a woman get arrested for trying to vote would make most people think this is an abuse of authority. But, people would only think that way in the first place, if they already had strong cultural values or "mores," (mœurs), of freedom. Even if mores can sometimes prevent change as they become dogmatic, because of the struggles of people like this and its origins in the Declaration of Independence, civil disobedience itself is an established mores in American political culture, in other words somewhat paradoxically, a tradition of opposing authority.
Assignment: Choose a passage from Thoreau, Stanton or Douglass. Write out the passage, then explain what the author is saying and how it relates to the themes of the lecture, and then explain why you chose this quote.