“In March 1845, the United States acquired a new president – James K. Polk – a forceful, aggressive political outsider intent on strengthening his country and asserting its pre-eminence in front of other world powers, especially Mexico and Great Britain,” says The Book of Life. “Within a year of his inauguration, he had declared full-scale war on Mexico because of squabbles over the Texan border, and was soon rattling his saber at Britain over the ownership of Oregon. To complete the picture, Polk was a vigorous defender of slavery, who dismissed the arguments of abolitionists as naive and sentimental.” How did Americans who disagreed with this vicious-sounding character endure his term?
Though Polk did enjoy popular support, “a sizeable minority of the citizenry disliked him intensely,” especially a certain citizen by the name of Henry David Thoreau. The author of Walden; or, Life in the Woods believed that “true patriots were not those who blindly followed their administration” but “those who followed their own consciences and in particular, the principles of reason,” even when it meant publicly standing against not just the man in office but the many who agree with him, or even when it meant running afoul of the laws of the land. He elucidated the principles behind this position in the 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience,” which Josh Jones wrote about here last November.
The animated video above from Alain de Botton’s School of Life, also the producer of The Book of Life, places Thoreau’s ideas on the role of the individual versus the state in the context of Thoreau’s life — one he lived without fear of, say, getting thrown into jail for refusing to pay taxes to what he saw as an immoral state. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” the transcendentalist figurehead declares in “Civil Disobedience,” “the true place for a just man is a prison.” Well over a century and half on, Thoreau still reminds us that political systems, no matter how long they last, remain ever subject to breakdown, adjustment, and even dismantling and rebuilding at the hands of the rulers and the ruled alike. Politics, as history occasionally and forcefully reminds us, is negotiation without end, and sometimes negotiations have to get ugly.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.