Tuesday, November 5, 2013

11/5 Civil Disobedience (Part 1)

"American Progress," John Gast, circa 1872

The midterms will be graded by the end of the week.

As the American republic grows over the first few decades, already one can see a mythic idea of American history taking shape. With abundant natural resources, open immigration and a steadily growing population, and relative isolation from the political conflicts in Europe, it is easy to believe that Providence (the idea of God as a power guiding human destiny) is guiding the actions of the nation. This mythical image is strengthened by the deaths of Jefferson and John Adams who both amazingly died on July 4th, 1826 exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence is first read publicly.

In part, the power of these myths explains why Tocqueville when visiting the U.S. in the early 1830s emphasizes the influence of "mores" (mœurs in French from mos in Latin the root word of morals) on the Republic. Writing after the French Revolution, Tocqueville is concerned with understanding the reasons why the American republic has been stable and durable when other democratic governments have perished, a central concern of political science in the present. As he says in Democracy in America: "The Laws contribute more to the maintenance of the democratic republic in the United States than do the physical circumstances of the country, and Mores do more than the laws" (Tocqueville p. 305). In other words, he places highest emphasis on the cultural values, the mores of Americans, but also a hierarchy for understanding levels of influence on the republic Mores-Laws-Geography, these then become explanations he uses to explain the causes of the stability of the regime. 

There is too much to cover to fill in all the gaps that occur during this time: wars, crises of slavery, economic depressions, and more all happened in this period of time. By the late 1840s, about half of the continental U.S. has been taken over by the government. This is not the same thing as states, they were "territories" controlled by the government that eventually became states:

One of the major issues of the day was over the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Mexico itself only became independent from Spain in 1821.
Map of Nueva España (New Spain) 1521-1821

 Again there is a lot to cover with this conflict as well, but it began perhaps with the independent Republic of Texas declaring its independence from Mexico in 1836. In 1845 it was "annexed", taken over, by the U.S. and made a state of the U.S. In 1846, Democratic President James K. Polk (1795-1849) asked for a declaration of war from Congress after receiving reports that "American blood had been shed on our soil."

Polk was a Democrat who believed in the idea of "Manifest Destiny," or the belief popular in many newspapers at the time, that the destiny of the U.S. was to expand from coast to coast and become a great and powerful nation. The idea of Providence guiding the actions of the nation and more importantly authorizing these actions as legitimate can also be found in the Declaration of Independence, "a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence," and is one of the cornerstones of the idea of "civil religion." Originally the idea was used to justify the Declaration itself, or the formal act of separation of the colonies from Great Britain. In other words providence will protect them and they will succeed because what they are doing is right. In the context of the mid 19th century, providence is now used to justify expanding the power of the state over new territory, in most cases removing the native inhabitants.

In the late 1820s, Jefferson's Republican Party split into factions around Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), a war hero, who became the first "Democratic" President in 1829 and when the party is officially renamed the Democratic Party, the ancestor of today's Democratic Party. The other faction was around Henry Clay (1777-1852), who founded the Whig party in 1833. Jackson had more support among the working class and farmers; while Clay appealed more to elites and the business interests. Scholars of American politics usually refer to this as the second party system, referring to a relatively stable balance of power between two competing parties (distinct from the first party system, defined by the federalists and jeffersonian republicans), which eventually gave way to the third party system defined by the Republicans and Democrats (according to most scholars there were at least five distinct party systems over time in this country).

Polk portrayed himself as another Andrew Jackson who also favored nationalism and expansion. They were opposed by the Whig party. The Whigs were actually the reorganized business interests in the country who had now adopted more of a "common man" rhetoric that they sought to appeal to voters with. The Whigs were sort of a transitional party between the Federalists and the modern Republican Party (GOP). They did however win two presidential elections in 1840 (they elected William Henry Harrison, who died one month into his term, the first president to die in office) and in 1848 they elected Zachary Taylor (1849-1850), who also died in office, and was a leading general in the Mexican war. Both of these candidates were generals in the army and they were both meant to appeal to the common public (and they did). 

Since both presidents died in office, technically there were four Whig Presidents altogether, and the first two instances of a vice-president succeeding a president, John Tyler for Harrison and Millard Fillmore for Taylor. The vice-president will continue to serve out the remainder of the four year term of the president and is still eligible to be re-elected, although often the less popular former vice-president loses when the next election comes. In the case of Harrison, who died one month into his presidency, Tyler served almost the entire four year term (1841-1845) but had no support from his own party by the time his term ended.  Ironically, the Whigs were opposed to the war when it began, but then nominated the most famous general of the war, Taylor, to be their candidate in the 1848 election. 
U.S. Presidential Election, 1848
Note the differences in electoral votes in states like Virginia and New York
since the election of 1800

1848 was also 12 years before the Civil War began. Those of the founders who were opposed to slavery (like Jefferson even though he owned slaves) believed that slavery would die out by itself in the early 19th century. The American Revolution had a big impact on this. Many people forget that for 160 years, from about 1620 to about 1780 slavery was tolerated in the North, although it never grew to the level it did in the South. Undoubtedly, it was the language of natural rights and equality that inspired the rapid abolition of slavery in the North after the revolution begins. Slavery had mostly been abolished in the North by the early 1800s, however the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, made cotton production more profitable and actually increased slavery in the South. The international slave trade had been abolished but it still carried on illegally, domestic slave owners also began experimenting with "eugenics" and made attempts to start "breeding" slaves. Racial theories to explain slavery now begin to develop which up until then never circulated that much. Prior to this the existence of slavery was not even questioned, it was only when a theory of equality was so clearly stated, that explanations based on racial inequalities start to develop, ironically, based in the same scientific language that is used to undermine traditional sources of inequality.

In 1820, a crisis was triggered by the question of Missouri's admission to the Union. Missouri had been settled by slave owners and adopted a slave constitution and wanted to be admitted as a slave state. This was in violation of laws in effect since 1787 which prohibited slavery's extension north of a certain border (the Ohio River). In the early 1780s, debates in the first Congress of the Confederation had debated whether or not to admit territories South of the Ohio River as slave states as well. Many scholars believe that had legislators including Jefferson not compromised on this issue that slavery could have been rooted out then and never would have extended to states like Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi. "The Missouri Compromise," was decided in Congress after intense fighting, and real threats of violence coming from both sides, to admit Missouri as a slave state, but also to admit Maine as a free state. This "compromise" was supposed to keep the "free" states and "slave" states balanced at 12 each. Many other compromises were decided on leading up until the Civil War.

Protest against the war in Mexico was on the grounds that it was believed to be a plot by Southern plantation owners to extend slavery into the South. Texas did become a slave state and a member of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Henry David Thoreau
This was the background in which Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), is writing, when he writes his famous essay "Civil Disobedience." The idea of civil disobedience is peculiar to democratic societies. It means breaking the law and thus challenging the authorities, but usually in a non-violent fashion. In Thoreau's case he refused to pay his taxes in 1846 because he believed the money was being used for an immoral purpose, and he was put in jail. He was bailed out the next day by his friend and famous poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). Supposedly, there was an exchange between the two, where Emerson questioned Thoreau on why he was in jail. Thoreau allegedly responded "why are you not in jail?" In other words, the idea behind civil disobedience is that  morality requires you to disobey unjust laws. To passively accept a corrupt society, Thoreau would argue, makes you almost as morally guilty as the people who actually oppress others and do violence to people. It is even worse in a democracy because here the citizens actually have some ability to alter the course of laws and government.

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 was from Massachusetts, so it should not be a surprise if he seems to possess some of that moral severity that we saw in the Puritans who as previously discussed were heavily involved in the abolition movement. It was also easy for him to accept the idea of a "natural law" higher than human law to which he could appeal to, to justify himself. This is part of Puritan theology, however the difference is, where the original Puritans believed natural law or God's law could be used to guide human law, and thus become like the natural law. Thoreau sees the natural law and human law as much more antagonistic and separate from each other, 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). 
Next class we will look more at other figures associated with civil disobedience, Fredrick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. 

Assignment (Due 11/12): Choose one passage from Thoreau write out the passage and interpret them and explain why you chose them.

Go to the link for African-American Odyssey and under the section Abolition choose two topics from part 1 and part 2, research these topics, and summarize them and explain how they relate to the readings by Thoreau.

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