郭宝胜 Baosheng Guo

Original Individualism and Nonviolence Struggle --- the comment of Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

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Baosheng Guo

PLS: Political and Democratic Theory

The Shining City on the hill is the symbol of U.S. democracy. As a person who has lived in communist China for decades, I have praised and cherished American democracy. However, the well-known writer Henry David Thoreau criticized the democracy system in the U.S. It astonished me and made me so surprised. At least his book, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, lets us recognize a democratic country has many problems too. In addition, his book teaches us about the essence of individualism and government and how to conduct a nonviolent struggle movement against an elected government in a democratic country.

In Thoreau’s perspective, the individual is above government forever because the purpose of establishing government is service to each individual. Although facing an elected government, the individual could have the right to choose to obey or disobey. The ultimate reason for obedience is neither authority force nor majority people; it only depends on the individual conscience. Conscience is above the law and the vote. As Thoreau wrote, "the only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right.” “I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my fashion.” Thoreau also practiced his political views; he had not only denounced slavery and the Mexican war but also had rejected paying taxes for six years and rejected the state’s command to fund a church.

Thoreau’s opinion was an original individualism and firmly defended the citizens’ rights and liberty, like freedom of speech and expression of politics. Everyone has the right to criticize the policy of the government. Furthermore, one can disobey unfair policies enforced by the government. In particular, it’s significant liberty when the government has made mistakes, like slavery and injustice war. The government cannot improve without the people’s disobedience and denouncement. Meanwhile, society, including the elected government, would forget the original purpose of establishing government without individuals criticizing and disobeying.

On the other hand, Thoreau agrees with the motto --- that government is the best which governs least”, and he wrote, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” So, he did not like anarchy, but he needed a limited government. Although an elected democratic government is more favorable than an autocratic government, it could violate the will of the people and expand its power at home and abroad. One example includes slavery. To protect the ballots and profit of slave plantation owners and maintain the unity of the U.S., the government had to keep the slavery institution. Meanwhile, enhancing national strength and expanding national territory meant the government must fight with Mexico. However, all these national interests conflict with the individual conscience. As Thoreau wrote, “The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.” No government is perfect because of the sin of human beings, so the democratic government also needs to be supervised and be improved constantly by the people. As the model of democracy in the world, the U.S. needs the people’s criticism, protest, and even disobedience.

Against the autocratic government, we can use the right of revolution, which was the principle of the Declaration of Independence. But against the elected democratic government, we should only use the nonviolent approach. Thoreau not only explained the necessity of nonviolent struggle but also introduced many kinds of ways of nonviolent resistance. He wrote, “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then, but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.” “For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever”. Many individuals’ collective actions could change the policy of the government. So, it is vital to realize the vision of the individual through nonviolent resistance. As Thoreau wrote, “If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.” “When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.” Except for the demonstration, procession, and freedom of speech, Thoreau emphasized resignation and rejection to pay taxes. He even introduced the experience that he practiced himself with these two approaches. All approaches are efficient ways of nonviolent resistance which inspired well-known civil rights movement leaders like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. These approaches and theories persistently encourage people’s struggle in democratic or authorism countries.

Undoubtedly, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience theory is one of the significant thought resources of the U.S. democracy. It can help the government repair and refresh constantly, and it lets the people think about the essence of individualism and government forever. To some extent, the Civil Disobedience theory parallels a vaccine. If the state gets it, it has ensured to clear the disease and maintain health. If rejected, the state would walk to the opposite of the original purposes. The government is expedient that the people must use it to contain the sin of human beings. The government is not perfect, so any government needs to be corrected and modified sustained.

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