Summary: Our leaders and DC courtiers tell us that our role is to obey the government. Yet our forefathers found civil disobedience an invaluable tool in their quest to build and improve America: the Boston Tea Party, abolitionists, suffragettes, Martin Luther King and the freedom riders, Now we’re urged to do otherwise by those seeking to destroy it. Ignore them; gain strength by words from our past. Edward Snowden’s actions are in this tradition.
“Lay down true principles and adhere to them inflexibly. Do not be frightened into their surrender by the alarms of the timid, or the croakings of wealth against the ascendency of the people.”
— Letter by Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval (1816).
“How ready these men are to be slaves.”
— Tiberius, revolted by the sycophancy of the Senate. From The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero by Tacitus (AD 20-22).
Advice from Henry David Thoreau
From the On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849).
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 on injustice.
… 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 the 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.
… 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.”
… What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot today? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for other to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret.
… 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 put 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 rebels?
… 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 … 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 of 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.
Thoreau’s words live on, even in our time
These words influenced many brave men around the world. Perhaps the reason why was stated by Martin Luther King in his autobiography:
“Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.
“I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before.
“Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.”
For More Information
Why civil disobedience is necessary: We are alone in the defense of the Republic.
Operational advice: How to stage effective protests in the 21st century, 21 April 2009
For your reading pile: “Toward a Theory of Revolution” by James C. Davies (Prof of Sociology & Political Science, U OR) in American Sociological Review, February 1962. This introduces many Americans to de Tocqueville’s great work, The Old Regime and the French Revolution.
Other posts about the revelations about the NSA:
- Attention fellow sheep: let’s open our eyes and see the walls of our pen, 2009 — Five years ago these programs, and their growth, were easily visible. We just didn’t want to see.
- The NSA news might be a birthday for the New America!, 7 June 2013
- The US government spies on us because America is a democracy, 8 June 2013
- Our opinion leaders defend the government’s surveillance programs, 10 June 2013
- The government says “We do not have ‘direct’ access to your info …”, 11 June 2013
- Someone call Nixon’s plumbers. We need them again., 13 June 2013
- The Empire Strikes Back: The Demonization of Snowden Begins, 15 June 2013
- America’s courtiers rush to defend the government – from us, 22 June 2013