Nonviolence and Thoreau

I was on a panel at WCU, part of a month-long series of events on nonviolence. The question posed for the panel was about the limits of nonviolence. This was my contribution:

Thoreau: The Defender of Violence in the Nonviolent Canon

David Henderson

I love nonviolent, civil disobedience. From Chico Mendes and the rubber tappers protecting the Amazon to the many movements of the Arab Spring, I see nonviolent struggle as holding great promise for the transformation of the world toward peace and justice. When I consider these things, any resort to violence looks like a failure of imagination at least and maybe a failure of courage. Surely by now we know that dying for your cause is far more powerful than killing for it.

But I also love violence. I have spent countless hours training in the martial arts and learning diverse weaponry, with no other goal than personal enjoyment. I watch violent movies with vigilante heroes and I read violent novels about samurai. I am infected with the American sickness, the American bloodlust. Our love of violence is a terrible national idol, and we sacrifice our children in its fires still. But is an absolute principle of nonviolence the only way out of this mess? I’m reluctant to conclude an absolute so quickly, before we’ve really faced the full mess of our conflicted and ambiguous attitudes toward violence. So if I turn toward Thoreau for help, it’s partly because I know him best—my day job is as an environmental philosopher—and partly because he embraces and embodies the tangled mess of the contraries that I struggle with.

Principled, nonviolent disobedience in the face of violent and oppressive states is not a new idea. Shadrac, Mishac and Abednego provide a fairly typical example from the ancients—with no other resistance than that of their conscience they brought the king to his knees. And the conviction that lex iniusta non est lex, that an unjust law is no law at all, which gives courage to such disobedience was clearly articulated in late antiquity by the African Bishop. But nonviolent resistance has taken on a more definite form in the last century, a sort of movement across movements. It is a tradition all its own, with its heroes and a distinctive literature, from Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham jail to Gene Sharp’s list of 198 methods. And with an indisputable place in the core of this canon, is an essay written by Henry David Thoreau, generally known as “Civil Disobedience,” about his own trip to jail a century before King’s.

Thoreau went to jail for refusal to pay a tax, which would have conveyed not only material support but also his allegiance to a government which both condoned slavery and waged an unjust war on Mexico to perpetuate and expand that slavery. He begins by nodding approvingly toward the nonviolent Christian anarchism of William Lloyd Garrison, but stops shy of endorsing it out right—“I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government,” he writes instead. He can imagine a government he could respect, one that would act with justice toward each individual, the slave and the Mexican included. One that didn’t demand its subjects to check their conscience at the door. But the enslaving and pillaging American government, he could not in good conscience be associated with.

In this essay Thoreau declares himself to be personally at war with the US government. But his war is a small one. It doesn’t require blowing anything up or doing any violence at all. It just requires saying “no” to the government, when it asks for your acknowledgment. There is not a government in the world that could keep on with its abuses if its people simply cut it off from their support.

…if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name,—if ten honest men only,—aye if one HONEST man, in this state … were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. … If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. 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. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.

When the government forces a choice between giving allegiance to its violence, or being the object of its violence, there is only one principled choice. Be a person or a be cog. Serve your country in its sin, or save it from its sin by throwing yourself into the gears of the machine to gum up the works.

Thoreau thus laid out and modeled the blueprints for what has become a core tactic of nonviolent struggle. Go get arrested and fill the jails with prisoners of conscience. But Thoreau failed to account for the care of his friends and family, who preferred to pay taxes on his behalf and so bail him out than to join him in prison. They, in Thoreau’s words, “let their private feelings interfere with the public good.”  I do not mean to suggest that his personal war was ineffectual—for he turned it into an essay, which became the greatest example of the pen being mightier than the sword. Gandhi read and translated Thoreau, and used this tactic to great effect in India’s peaceful revolution. King recounts the essay having a profound effect on his own thinking. The essay deserves its spot in the canon of nonviolence.

But the same Thoreau who wrote “Civil Disobedience,” providing such an eloquent defense and model for nonviolent resistance, also wrote “A Plea for John Brown.” John Brown was also an abolitionist, a fellow worker with Thoreau on the Underground Railroad. But his means of abolition were rather more direct and confrontational. He fought with and killed pro-slavery forces in Kansas. He rescued slaves in military raids. While he moved in the circles of abolitionists committed to nonviolence, such as William Lloyd Garrison, it was often to raise money for weapons. He held his own constitutional convention among escaped slaves and abolitionists in Canada, to form a new state which he planned to establish in the middle of what was then Virginia. Frederick Douglas and others tried to dissuade him, but to no avail—although they may have reduced his recruiting ability among the escaped slaves.

With only a score of men, Brown took over an armory at Harper’s Ferry, VA. But a train came through and got out word. Brown was defeated and captured by US Marines, led by Robert E Lee. There was terrible violence in this, from which the nation recoiled. The first man killed in the raid was a free black man working on the train, shot by someone in Brown’s party, and Brown’s own children were among the casualties by the end. The initial news reports treated Brown as a terrorist and a madman. But not Thoreau. Thoreau not only spoke in his defense, but lionized him. He compared John Brown to Jesus and declared him to be the greatest and truest American yet. And he addressed the question of violence head on:

It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him. They who are continually shocked by slavery have some right to be shocked by the violent death of the slaveholder, but no others. Such will be more shocked by his life than by his death. I shall not be forward to think him mistaken in his methods who quickest succeeds to liberate the slave. I speak for the slave when I say, that I prefer the philanthropy of Captain Brown to that philanthropy which neither shoots me nor liberates me. At any rate, I do not think it is quite sane for one to spend his whole life in talking or writing about this matter, unless he is continuously inspired, and I have not done so. A man may have other affairs to attend to. I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable. We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy and the chaplain of the regiment! We are hoping only to live safely on the outskirts of this provisional army. So we defend ourselves and our hen-roosts, and maintain slavery. I know that the mass of my countrymen think that the revolvers is to fight duels with them, when we are insulted by other nations, or to hunt Indians, or shoot fugitive slaves with them, or the like. I think that for once the Sharps’ rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could use them.

The same indignation that is said to have cleared the temple once will clear it again. The question is not about the weapon, but the spirit in which you use it. No man has appeared in America, as yet, who loved his fellow-man so well, and treated him so tenderly. He lived for him. He took up his life and he laid it down for him. What sort of violence is that which is encouraged, not by soldiers but by peaceable citizens, not so much by laymen as by ministers of the gospel, not so much by the fighting sects as by the Quakers, and not so much by Quaker men as by Quaker women?

Some suggest Thoreau’s defense of Brown helped turn the largely pacifist abolition movement into something that could support the Union army and fight a civil war. That likely puts too much credit on Thoreau’s plea instead of on Brown’s raid, but Thoreau certainly turned the national conversation about the raid. And abolitionists like WL Garrison certainly turned from being absolutely committed to nonviolence to endorsing the use of military force to end slavery.

So how does Thoreau, a mostly vegetarian naturalist, who quit collecting specimens for Agassiz  because the killing got to him, who knows the power of nonviolent revolution, become the public defender, even the hagiographer, for John Brown? Because Brown’s action was not merely an act of violence, it was also many other things. From Thoreau’s perspective, it was also a man preferring to follow the higher law of his conscience rather than the petty rules of the state. It was a man voting against slavery and for justice with the whole of his being. He had dared to imagine a better state and had attempted to give it birth. Even Gandhi says he prefers violence to cowardice, and John Brown was courageous if he was anything.

The people and papers hadn’t really been appalled by Brown because he was violent. That was but a pretext for their horror. The whole slavery mess was drenched in blood and violence already. They called Brown a madman and a fool because he attacked the state, and challenged it’s right to be arbiter of that mess. Like King and Thoreau, he refused to recognize the unjust law as worthy of the name. “He had the courage,” Thoreau said, “to face his country herself, when she was in the wrong.” Brown also knew the power of dying for his cause.

Thoreau was not John Brown. And I don’t think that John Brown could have written “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau knew Brown, but he didn’t join the secret circle of his friends who went around raising money for Brown’s band. He did help smuggle an escaped survivor from the raid to Canada afterwards, earning a bit of legal complicity in the affair. Thoreau was not John Brown, but neither could he condemn him. Thoreau’s peaceful revolution had not succeeded. Unlike Gandhi, Thoreau could not inspire hundreds or thousands to follow him to jail. He could not even get the tax collector to arrest him again. It remained to be seen what fruit Brown’s sacrifice would bear.

Martin Luther King says that if we “succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle for justice, unborn generations will live in a desolate night of bitterness, and their chief legacy will be an endless reign of chaos” (in Long 196). Desolate bitterness and reigning chaos may describe the Civil War pretty well, but it also ended slavery. Would ending slavery nonviolently have been better in a thousand ways? Absolutely. Is the legacy of that violence still an obstacle to achieving the beloved community? Yes. But not more so than the legacy of the violence of slavery itself.

Is nonviolent resistance much more effective than violent resistance? Looking at the history of the last century, from Poland to South Africa, there are good reasons to say yes—it is a force more powerful. Does a commitment to nonviolent struggle carry moral power? Can it end the cycle of retaliation and improve the soil for growing a lasting peace? I am convinced it does and can. Like Thoreau, I find the arguments against a standing army convincing. But also like Thoreau, I cannot condemn John Brown. I do not know if slavery would have ended without him.

Some have characterized those who advocate nonviolence pragmatically and not absolutely as being weak, as offering the nonviolence of the weak (Chernus). Perhaps I am. But it does not seem to take strength to assert certainty and absolutes—asserting a stronger principle does not make a stronger mind. A physicist who thinks gravity is a stronger force than his colleagues do, is not a stronger, better or even a heavier physicist.

I’m a pragmatic advocate of nonviolence. I have used more than one of the methods on Gene Sharp’s list. I would rather die rightly than kill wrongly. I think no enemy is beyond the possibility of reconciliation into beloved community. But I do not know what situations may come my way, and I cannot say with certainty that violence would be appropriate in none of them. And I cannot condemn every violent act of resistance to injustice that has been waged through history. Would you condemn those who died on the beaches of Africa trying to set their families free from the departing slave ships? Would you call them weak?

What are the limits of nonviolence? Only time and struggle will tell.