Where would we be without Henry David Thoreau? On the occasion of his 195th birthday today, it’s an apt question. Little-noticed in his lifetime, Thoreau’s “experiments with truth” gained traction after his death in 1862. Like Gandhi’s experiments, they were rooted in personal experience and framed in accessible but compelling prose. Though only two of his books were published while he was alive (and neither sold very well), all of his writings eventually were printed, including his journals that, brimming with two million words, came out in 1906.
Through these volumes, Thoreau’s vision and practical philosophy has percolated across space and time. From the vantage of nearly 200 years it is clear that his writing played an important role in the emergence of the modern environmental movement. Most of all, his essay about his night spent in jail in 1846 after refusing to pay taxes as a way of protesting slavery and the then-raging Mexican War — “Resistance to Civil Government,” later re-named “Civil Disobedience” — has exerted enormous influence on the thought and action of many agents of nonviolent change, including Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Through them and others, its power has rippled across the planet.
Both his years at Walden Pond and his willingness to be incarcerated were rooted in a vision of deliberate resistance to the way the world is organized. Thoreau famously wrote of walking to the beat of a different drummer, an image that evokes both the curse of modernity and its liberation. In an increasingly commercialized world, we are unconsciously absorbed into the machinery of production. We risk becoming machines ourselves, enmeshed in a regimented choreography of efficiency and control and subject to the incessant backbeat of whatever drum (progress, militarism, consumerism, racism, sexism, economic inequality) society happens to be thumping. Get free from the lockstep soundtrack, Thoreau advised. Move to another beat.
Thoreau took his own advice — and we are the lucky beneficiaries. His night in jail and his reasoning supporting it (if a law “is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law”) crystalized a key method of principled resistance that has been used and elaborated in countless social movements. He was not the first to engage in or ruminate on civil disobedience (with his classical education at Harvard College, Thoreau likely read Antigone, Sophocles’ play that turns on this dynamic), but he was the first to lay it out in a clear and accessible way. It has been replicated and refined ever since, down to the present moment.
Which brings us to an act of civil disobedience that took place this week in Texas — the state that, ironically or not, was birthed from the war Thoreau protested all those years ago. On July 5:
Gay couple Mark “Major” Jiminez and Beau Chandler of Dallas, Texas applied for a marriage license at the Dallas County Clerk’s office marriage bureau, and when refused, engaged in an act of civil disobedience by sitting down on the floor, refusing to leave. They promptly handcuffed themselves to one another and held hands, before they were arrested and taken to jail by Dallas county police. After posting a $500 bond each, they were released [that] night to freedom and the cheers of Texas LGBT activists.
The video says it all. The men are composed and clear. The clerk is nervous and doesn’t seem happy about having to say out loud that same sex couples aren’t welcome to apply. When Jiminez and Chandler calmly sit on the floor and handcuff themselves together, there is a solemnity to the whole business, as if the marriage they are being denied is nonetheless being performed on the premises of the government that has turned them down. When they are told to leave, they say that they will stay until they are issued a marriage license. An hour later, they are under arrest and are being hustled out to a waiting police car. They have an August 2 court date, where they face a potential jail sentence of six months and a $2,000 fine.
The power of Thoreau’s archetypal civil disobedience action over a century and a half ago rings through this one: withdrawing consent from the state’s policies that offend core values and one’s own conscience; doing so by delivering the message “in person,” using the most powerful language at our disposal, the vulnerable but resisting body; the potential effect which conscientious, centered and nonviolent action can have on those carrying out the policies in question and on those who chafe under them, as well as the larger population of self-described bystanders.
In the case of Thoreau there is the likely apocryphal story in which Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau is said to have replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?” In the Texas example, Thoreau’s question might properly be directed to the rest of us.
Jiminez and Chandler’s action is not the first act of civil disobedience for marriage equality. Sheila Schroeder and Kate Burns were similarly arrested in 2007 in Denver, Colorado, when they refused to leave the Clerk and Recorder’s Office after being denied a marriage license. There has also been a spate of civil disobedience actions supporting marriage equality legislation. Perhaps the most dramatic act of civil disobedience for marriage equality to date was San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s 2004 decision to order the San Francisco city-county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in violation of the then-current state law. Over the next couple of months some 4,000 couples took out licenses. Though the California Supreme Court eventually annulled these marriages because they conflicted with state law at the time, Newsom’s action undoubtedly played an important role in advancing the movement, including the recent decision by President Obama to support same-sex marriage.
Whenever movements create the conditions for more justice, equality, freedom and peace, they have likely been strengthened by the willingness of individuals and groups to engage in courageous and controversial acts of conscience, including acts of civil disobedience. Wherever this is the case, Henry David Thoreau’s legacy lives on — even in Texas.
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This is such a rich juxtaposition — thank you Ken. But of course the connection with Thoreau makes me think of the possible absence of strategic considerations, a disregard of effectiveness, and a preference for satisfying the individual conscience with isolated action. Sometimes, of course, nothing is more strategic than an honest, profound display of conscience, but I do wonder whether this action in Texas was plugged into an ongoing campaign, or whether it was an isolated incident.
Thanks, Nathan. Point well taken. Nonviolent action is best situated in a broader strategy. As one of the links in this post indicates,this action was supported by GetEQUAL Texas. Perhaps it is seen as part of its larger campaign, though it is not clear from this report.
That’s helpful, thanks. And while I do think it’s true that generally actions are best taken in the context of a broader strategy, many times that’s not the case. For instance, arguably the most important action of the Arab Spring, the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, doesn’t appear to have occurred in a strategic context, but as an act of individual desperation that just happened to ignite a movement.
It reminds me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “black swan” theory — that the most important events are the ones we can’t plan for or predict. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that the vast majority of other events will be more constructive if in fact they are planned for and strategized around.
What are the rest of us doing funding the wars? Why aren’t we also taking inspiration from Thoreau’s tax resistance?
“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” – Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
A small correction to the article:
You said that Thoreau “exerted enormous influence on the thought and action of many agents of nonviolent change, including… Gandhi,” but I believe that this is false. From Wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satyagraha ):
“In September 1935, a letter to P.K. Rao, Servants of India Society, Gandhi disputed the proposition that his idea of Civil Disobedience was adapted from the writings of Thoreau.
‘The statement that I had derived my idea of civil disobedience from the writings of Thoreau is wrong. The resistance to authority in South Africa was well advanced before I got the essay of Thoreau on civil disobedience.'”
Nevertheless, it is still true that Thoreau indeed influenced many with his essay and continues to, even though Gandhi is not on that list.
Also, I don’t mean to critique this too much, but I just want to say briefly that my view is that the government should not be involved in marriage at all.
Currently peoples’ attention seems to be focused on whether gay couples should be granted the same government marriage privileges at straight couples, but I think that this leads people to come to the wrong conclusion. I think the right conclusion is to say that neither gay couples nor straight couples should receive the coercive government privileges that the current government institution of marriage provides.
Here is a good essay on the subject:
Thank for the article.