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 Republic, a real American, was not (in Thoreau’s opinion) that they respectfully shut up, but that they thought for themselves everyday of an administration’s life.
To underline his opposition to Polk’s Mexican war, repatriation of slaves, and overall outlook of his administration, Thoreau held back on the payment of his taxes, specifically the poll tax. In July 1846, he walked into a town to get his shoes repaired and was promptly arrested and put in jail. Thoreau saw nothing undignified about spending some time behind bars: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly the true place for a just man is prison.” All machines have their friction, Thoreau admitted, but when injustice is too great, you should let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.
Thoreau did not advocate for the non-payment of taxes as a rule, and in fact, a wealthy Aunt soon paid his bills. However, the non-payment was just an example of one non-violent way a Democratically elected administration could and should be resisted whenever its actions veer into aggression and unreason. An election may settle who the President is, but it does not determine that everything the President does is right, or that one should do nothing until the next election. Above all, Thoreau hated political passivity, writing sarcastically, “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.” Or to quote Edmund Burke, “ The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Thoreau argued that the citizen can never just resign his conscience to the legislation and put himself at the service of an unscrupulous man in power: “How does it become a man to behave towards this American Government today? I answer that he cannot without DISGRACE be associated with it.” Thoreau marked that most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office holders are more likely to serve the Devil (without intending it) than God. Citizens are morally obliged to oppose governments who uphold hypocritical or flagrant laws — and this is true now more than ever.
“How does it become a man to behave towards this American Government today? I answer that he cannot without DISGRACE be associated with it.”
Henry David Thoreau
Donald Trump’s administration is one of the most vile in American history. This is a government run by a misogynistic, racist, xenophobic bigot, that has locked children in cages, killed and harmed their own citizens on the street with a force claiming to ‘Protect and Serve’, nearly started World War Three (and still might), amongst countless other crimes and offenses. Although Thoreau hated Polk, at least Polk was a politician, not a washed up geriatric reality star, and above anything Polk actually cared about America and making it stronger — Trump looks at the role of President and the USA as a cash cow he can milk for all the power, publicity, and money he can get. So while Thoreau may have written ‘Civil Disobedience’ with Polk in mind, the ideas set down in the essay are applicable to the 45th President, and in fact many others as Thoreau influenced Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and the Anti-Nazi Resistance. As Thoreau argued, it is men like Trump that the public should adopt civil disobedience against. To quote Thoreau one last time, as he sat in jail for not paying his taxes, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.”