Trump vs Thoreau: A guide to Civil Disobedience

Adam De Salle
5 min readSep 5, 2020
Henry David Thoreau

It was George Santayana that wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And so it is necessary that we as a species capable of reflection learn from history. One such significant lesson can be seen in March of 1845, with the election of America’s 11th President, James K. Polk. You may not know very much about Polk, he isn’t as publicised as his fellow Presidents, but to outline the man he was a forceful, aggressive political outsider intent on ‘strengthening’ his country and asserting its pre-eminence in front of other world powers — especially Mexico and Britain. Within a year of his inauguration, Polk declared full-scale war on Mexico because of squabbles over the Texan border, and was threatening Britain over ownership over Oregon. He was a vigorous defender of slavery — dismissing the arguments of abolitionists as naïve and sentimental. Regardless, Polk was a popular President, admired by many for his gung ho manner, but a sizable minority of the citizenry disliked him intensely. He sounds quite similar to our 45th President.

One such member of the minority was the Massachusetts writer Henry David Thoreau. Now iconic in America for his lyrical masterpiece ‘Walden’, which is studied in many schools, Thoreau was opposed to everything Polk stood for: he hated the Mexican American War (siding with the losing Mexican side), was wary of Polk’s squabbles with Britain, and appalled by the administration’s policy of hunting down and returning runaway slaves to their masters in the South.

Thoreau’s anger for the President culminated in his 1849 essay, ‘Civil Disobedience’. At the heart of the essay is the question: ‘What should an honest citizen do about a President he or she wholeheartedly opposes?’ The prevailing view of the time was that because Polk had won a majority through the power of the Democratic process, his opposers should fall silent. It was believed that the duty of a good citizen was to fold away their objections and just respect the will of the majority. Thoreau strongly disagreed: he suggested that a true patriot was not someone who blindly followed their administration, but those who followed their conscience, especially the principles of reason. Thoreau wishes to redistribute prestige away from obedience towards independent thought. What marked a noble citizen of the…

Adam De Salle

I am a young writer interested in providing the intellectual tools to those in the political trenches so that they may fight their battles well-informed.