“This American government…endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will. It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves; and, if ever they should use it in earnest as a real one against each other, it will surely split.”
The year is 1846, and the adolescent United States is in the midst of the Mexican-American War. President James K. Polk has attempted to make a land purchasing agreement with Mexico in order to fulfill the country’s sense of manifest destiny. By acquiring the desired lands that lie between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, the United States would then own the majority of what the modern day southern states would be. However, the Mexican government declined the transaction, resulting in the immediate deployment of troops into the desired section of land. These troops were ambushed, the first shots signifying the beginning of the war.
Just one year post the completion of the Mexican-American War, Henry David Thoreau published his first piece in a duology of papers relating to the inadequacy of the democratic government; one of these papers being “Civil Disobedience”. Henry David Thoreau (July 12th, 1817 – May 6, 1862) became relevant to our minds first as a world-renowned transcendentalist. His naturalist writings shook the populous to its core, revealing that nature was not as useless or unnecessary as many thought it to be. During the 19th century many people thought that nature was a “commodity to be used”, serving little purpose other than to benefit the development of society. Thoreau became a prominent naturalist and spent the majority of his days fighting to aid in the resurrection of natural beauty. However in 1849, Thoreau took a bold approach on the government and declared that:
“The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.”
Where many saw the government as an entity that wasn’t to be trifled with, Thoreau saw the government as a tyrant and refused to allow it to dictate to him what was right and wrong. To take a stance against the government, Thoreau staged two writings as a means of expressing the corruption of justice through his eyes.
The Battle of Chapultepec (1847) by Sarony and Major.
While the Mexican-American War was primarily seen as an opportunity to fulfill manifest destiny, to a remaining few it was seen as a travesty. If new territory was acquired, how would it be evenly designated between the free and slave states? An inequality in the balance resulted in a biased advantage towards one side or the other, creating a building tension between the two sides. The Mexican-American War caused the development of the Great Compromise of 1850. This compromise was split into five separate bills, each addressing the major issues that resulted from the war. While the Great Compromise aided in solving some issues, it also created others. It allowed the creation of new slave states and required northerners to aid in the capture of fugitive slaves when necessary.
This war and its aftermath sparked many tensions in the still adolescent nation. It caused more and more abolitionists to join with peaceful and violent protest groups. One specific flaw of the Constitution came to attention: the tolerance of slavery. While slavery already had a monumental impact on the history of the United States, it was at this point in history that Thoreau and many others began to say, “why?”
Thoreau was enraged that the government of the nation he loved allowed such an atrocity. He endeavored to let those who would listen know that he didn’t stand for it. He highlights government overreach in “Civil Disobedience”, explaining the major flaws:
“Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed on, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage.”
Where many blindly accepted the ideology of slavery, Thoreau strongly thought of it as an attack on humanity. Thoreau believed that the men who controlled the government during his time had their own agendas, and that they were using their higher power as a method of achieving their means. Based on this opinion, Thoreau situated himself amongst other abolitionists and strove to teach his disciples how deep the corruption ran.
Slaves picking cotton on the Lawton plantation in South Carolina.
At the time that “Civil Disobedience” was released, Thoreau resided in New England. During the 1840s and the 1850s New England had a slavery crisis; the first of many disputes that eventually divided the nation and evolved into the Civil War. New England was flooded with a mixture of emotions, some people remaining unaffected and more concerned about whom would harvest their crops and others attacking the injustice of slavery head-on. Those abolitionists then began to question the loyalty of their government. To be a politician, one had to be a white land-owning male of at least middle-age. These requirements insinuating that most owned plantations or something of the sort. Naturally these men would do nothing to prevent or abolish slavery, especially since it would mean the demise of any/all of their businesses. Thoreau was enraged at this realization: that a body of people designated with the sole purpose of governing the masses and doing what the majority desired would be allowed to become this corrupt.
“[i]t 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…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.”
Believing that the government injured any hopes of unity more than it aided in the encouragement of doing so, Thoreau said that:
“Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.”
Thoreau’s protest of anti-unification sentiment among government officials and within the broader public, and his attack of government corruption are vividly reflected within modern day America. A recent political election has resulted in the division of multiple factions within our country, resulting in a wide variety of disagreements upon vital national confrontations.
While it seems that a solution will not be found, similar to Thoreau we must remain optimistic and be unafraid to speak our free minds. His faith within the people is timeless:
“[w]e should be men first, and subjects afterward.”