To speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it. After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? — in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It 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. ---Henry David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience"
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was a Harvard educated scholar who became a follower of the great American transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. He started out after university as an elementary school teacher but was dismissed for being not strict enough on his pupils--he would not exercise corporal punishment on his students. He then became a surveyor to support himself while writing and also sold pencils for a time while living near Boston.
He is remembered best today by political groups of all types for speaking out against authority, in essays and at least in one case, and in deeds such as public speaking and spending a night in jail.
To Thoreau, ideas and truth were more important than anything--even love.
His greatest desire was to be self-sustaining. In pursuit of this in 1845 he built a small cabin on some property owned by Emerson. He spent some two years near Walden Pond, living mostly alone, with a copy of "The Iliad" to read and time to reflect and write "Walden", a collection of philosophical observations about the a life of humility, study, work and conscience. (Admittedly, he also came into town--Concord, Massachusetts-- and had Sunday dinner with his mother as well.)
"Walden" has also become a primer of the environmental movement since it is hard to be an individual when you are surrounded by a legion of striving urbanity. Nature affords us the time to reflect and draw strength from our inner selves.
HIs next most famous work was an essay called "Civil Disobedience". In it, he challenged the very notion that the United States had any right to make war on Mexico in 1846-7, especially since it was clear the war would lead to the spread of slave territories. For refusing to pay his poll tax--to support elections and the Massachusetts regiments who were sent to the war--Thoreau himself spent a night in jail and later wrote his essay about it. This was shortly after the end of his stay at Walden.
A dozen years later, Thoreau endorsed the desperate attempt of the followers of John Brown, the radical abolishionist, to seize the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry in a quixotic attempt to free slaves in the South. If Thoreau compromised his principas against violence, he did it on the eve of the greatest war in American history, one fought in no small part because of the evils of slavery, a "peculiar institution" certainly worth fighting about as any fighting done by the Founders of the UNited States against the British government over taxation.
Thoreau died in 1862 in a nation engulfed in a war that at its end ultimately celebrated the ideal of its foundation--that all men were created equal and that conscience can overcome conformity.
It says something that so many have drawn strength from this singular man and his commitment to an inner truth. Here are two great men influenced and inspired by his legacy.
"I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest." - Martin Luther King, Jr, Autobiography
"Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet, and withal a most practical man, that is, he taught nothing he was not prepared to practise in himself. ... He went to gaol for the sake of his principles and suffering humanity. His essay has, therefore, been sanctified by suffering. Moreover, it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable." - Mohandas Gandhi
It doesn't stop there---here is some music inspired by Thoreau's efforts, from Rage Against the Machine: