For more than 160 years, Henry David Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience has inspired Americans to «make known what kind of government would command his respect» so that we could live under that government in good conscience.
Ultimately, in a free society, that’s all we have that is truly our own; our conscience. Following its dictates, says Thoreau, is the only rational way to live your life and be true to oneself.
It had been years since I read Civil Disobedience and I was surpised by how Cliven Bundy’s words echoed many of the theses in the essay. Legal experts overwhelmingly agree that Bundy has no case – that his pronouncements about the land not belonging to the federal government and him not having to pay grazing fees have no basis in the law.
But how about a moral basis for Bundy’s stand? Here, he’s on firmer ground, as Thoreau painstakingly, and relentlessly shows:
Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?- in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. 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 of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?
Thoreau writing about the evil of slavery and the Mexican War. He takes those to task who would ignore their conscience in the service of expediency. What if you’re confronted with the choice of obeying the law or obeying your conscience?
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 be on the alert to point 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?
One would think, that a deliberate and practical denial of its authority was the only offence never contemplated by government; else, why has it not assigned its definite, its suitable and proportionate, penalty? If a man who has no property refuses but once to earn nine shillings for the State, he is put in prison for a period unlimited by any law that I know, and determined only by the discretion of those who placed him there; but if he should steal ninety times nine shillings from the State, he is soon permitted to go at large again.
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- certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice 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 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.
Is the law, or the court order, that Bundy is defying evil? Since it’s a matter of conscience, it would seem that this would be up to each of us to decide. This is the beauty of Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience.At bottom, it is the individual acting on his own, listening to his inner voice that determines the moral framework in which he acts. And in Bundy’s case, whether out of pure selfish interest or a principled stand against his personal bout with «tyranny,» Bundy has made a compelling moral case against the government.
It’s not a legal case and he is likely to lose. But Bundy’s stand has made it certain that the government isn’t going to win anything out of it either.