Henry David Thoreau on When Civil Disobedience Against Bad Governments Is Justified: An Animated Introduction

“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hen­ry David Thore­au on When Civ­il Dis­obe­di­ence and Resis­tance Are Jus­ti­fied (1849)

Hen­ry David Thoreau’s Hand-Drawn Map of Cape Cod (1866)

6 Polit­i­cal The­o­rists Intro­duced in Ani­mat­ed “School of Life” Videos: Marx, Smith, Rawls & More

Read the CIA’s Sim­ple Sab­o­tage Field Man­u­al: A Time­less, Kafkaesque Guide to Sub­vert­ing Any Orga­ni­za­tion with “Pur­pose­ful Stu­pid­i­ty” (1944)

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.

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Comments (6)
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  • Carlos Garcia says:

    How can I colab­o­rate post­ing cap­tions in span­ish?

  • Susie says:

    This is great! Thank you.

  • Stanl ey hayward says:

    Love to read more and learn

  • Thomas J Peters says:

    Human beings have an oblig­a­tion to act as their con­science leads them.

  • Bill W. says:

    Polk always gets a bad-rap, even though he was only doing what every oth­er for­ward-think­ing nation was doing in that era–expanding. If you’re a Cal­i­forn­ian or live in the South­west or PNW, do you LIKE where you live? If so, Polk is the pres­i­dent to thank! It’s no won­der he’s con­sis­tent­ly ranked in the Top-10 POTUS’s. BTW, speak­ing of unjust wars and sedi­tion, where were you peo­ple (agree­ing with this arti­cle) for the 8 years Oba­ma was a wartime pres­i­dent, bomb­ing 8 dif­fer­ent coun­tries?

  • Ana says:

    Real­ly enjoy and love read­ing the infor­ma­tive con­tent pre­sent­ed here. It is rich in edu­ca­tion­al and cul­tur­al val­ue!

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