Thoreau on Patriotism: the Iraq Connection
by Gary Sloan (e-mail: [April 16th, 2003]

Now that the die is cast, Pavlovian patriots are urging Americans to desist from anti-war demonstrations and to support Operation Iraqi Freedom whatever the sentiments before the invasion began. We are all, as Hamlet might say, to assume a hawkish virtue even if we have it not. Ideally, everyone will adopt the chameleon morality of W. H. Auden’s Unknown Citizen: “He held the proper opinions for the time of year. / When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.”

“Incarcerated essentially for obeying his conscience, Thoreau concluded: 'The State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced.,”

The Unknown Citizen always acquiesces in prevailing opinion and does what he is told. He deems himself patriotic because he votes, pays his taxes, displays his flag, and obeys the law. He would never participate in an anti-war demonstration unless he were required by law to do so--at which time, should the odd eventuality ever occur, there would probably be no war left to protest.

Given the recrudescence of war fever, now seems an apt time to revisit Henry David Thoreau’s classic essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” which contains trenchant commentary on true patriotism versus the ersatz variety practiced by the Unknown Citizen.

Thoreau’s immediate purpose in writing the essay, first delivered as a lecture in Jan. 1848, was to protest the Mexican War (1846-1848), condemned by many Whigs and Democrats as an “executive’s war” because President Polk had initiated hostilities without having obtained a congressional declaration of war. Although the war was popularly viewed as a crusade to bring republican government to an oppressed people, Thoreau, an abolitionist, thought it was waged at the behest of slaveholders who hoped to extend slavery into territories wrested from Mexico.

The war, in Thoreau’s estimation, “was the work of a comparatively few individuals using the standing government as their tool” to achieve their own avaricious ends. Thoreau protested the war by refusing to pay his poll tax. He understood that all taxpayers were complicit in the war. They financed it. He was jailed for his delinquency.

While Thoreau may have erred in his causal analysis of the war, the error doesn’t invalidate his analysis of patriotism.

To Thoreau, true patriots are those who place the dictates of their own conscience above public opinion and the laws of the state. When law or opinion conflicts with the voice of conscience, true patriots obey the latter.

Thoreau believed that a government in which the majority rules cannot be invariably just. He inveighed against the tyranny of the majority: “The practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest.”

Obedience to law, Thoreau observed, does not of itself make one virtuous. In fact, the law-abiding citizen may perpetuate injustice. Hence, “it is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. 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.” Witness soldiers who fight when they are told to, even when their consciences say they shouldn’t: “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 will, aye, against their common sense and consciences.”

In their relation to the state, most people are like the soldiers: “The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment 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 commend no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt.”

Even the official thinkers, the devisers of policy, the opinion shapers are guided more by expediency than conscience: “Politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.”

True patriots are usually regarded as enemies of the state: “A very few, as heroes, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated by it as enemies.”

Why, Thoreau asks, doesn’t the state value its “wise minority”? And “why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better?” Why indeed.

Incarcerated essentially for obeying his conscience, Thoreau concluded: “The State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced.”

Not all, perhaps not even most, anti-war protester are creatures of Thoreauvean conscience. But those who are merit applause, not boos.

Resources and Avenues for Further Study

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