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· De-Voted to Thoreau ·

I'm heeding Senator Kerry's call that we all come together. His defeat, if a disappointment yesterday, marks a wider victory for the happy resilience of American political democracy. In conceding the election, Kerry noted correctly "the danger of division in our country and the need — the desperate need for unity, for finding the common ground, coming together." In doing so, he marks our traditional line of duty in American politics — to speak up and, next morning, to get up and then go duly about our business.

But lest we think our business is nothing more — always after merely counting up votes — I thought to cite someone who knew otherwise. It is Henry David Thoreau in Civil Disobedience. As the great issue of his day was slavery, just as the fight between liberty and security is of ours — and of defending one against the other — Thoreau caught perfectly the difficulty of a more genuine, authentic suffrage in America.

Here's a passage prompting the main claim from Thoreau's introduction:

All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.


You can hear in that passage the stylish, authentic voice of someone who cared much about the fate of his country. That Thoreau didn't vote is, from my point of view, a clear failure, but that he knew voting was not the sole duty of American politics is quite refreshing.

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Thoreau's last introductory paragraph makes a more sharply styled point on devotion:

It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, "I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico; —see if I would go"; and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute. The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war; is applauded by those whose own act and authority he disregards and sets at naught; as if the state were penitent to that degree that it hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that degree that it left off sinning for a moment. Thus, under the name of Order and Civil Government, we are all made at last to pay homage to and support our own meanness. After the first blush of sin comes its indifference; and from immoral it becomes, as it were, unmoral, and not quite unnecessary to that life which we have made.

Posted by
Styles on November 3, 2004 07:06 PM

Happily, you can see a recent example of Thoreau's advice at Jocalo's A Writing Teacher's Blog, in Jim Bouman's comment, What do we do now?

Posted by Styles on November 4, 2004 02:35 PM

Thanks, Styles, for this refreshing reminder of Thoreau's perspective.

Posted by Mary Lee on November 4, 2004 02:43 PM

I think at least 55 million Americans will be looking to Thoreau for guidance these next few years. Good stuff, Styles.

Posted by Jocalo on November 5, 2004 10:23 AM


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