24. Thoreau and Dr Warren

I recently read Henry David Thoreau's most important political essay, "Civil Disobedience." Thoreau calls for a higher understanding of what it means to be a citizen of this or any democratic nation. I can't help but think he was influenced by elements from the early stages of the American Revolution, in particular the Suffolk County Resolves, which were a written response to the liberty-limiting Intolerable Acts, including the closing of the port of Boston, after the Boston Tea Party.

The Suffolk County Resolves were originally written outside of Boston in September 1774 at the Suffolk County Convention. At this same time, the First Continental Congress was also in session in Philadelphia. There were over 65 delegates from the 19 towns within Suffolk County, Boston being the largest. The first time they met, they came up with a working draft. When they met again three days later, that draft had been reworked by Dr Joseph Warren. The now largely forgotten Dr Warren was a self-sacrificing doctor, patriot, writer, war hero and natural leader. He is the person who would send Paul Revere (and William Dawes) on the famous "midnight ride" to Lexington and Concord (Thoreau's hometown) in April 1775. Two months later, Dr Warren was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The Suffolk County Resolves were written outside of the legal limits of Boston, as it was now illegal to have a town meeting without the approval of the Crown-appointed-Governor (one of the Intolerable Acts). The Governor didn't like town meetings because that is where people got together and talked to one another and protests such as the Boston Tea Party could become possible. Dr Warren's reworking of the Suffolk County Resolves includes a lengthy and eloquent prologue not in the earlier draft. When the Suffolk County Convention heard Dr Warren's reworked draft, they unanimously endorsed it.

Paul Revere then took one of his not-so-famous rides and delivered the Suffolk County Resolves to the Continental Congress, in time for the Congress to unanimously endorse them. The Suffolk Resolves, as they are now known, was our would-be nation's first articulation of a citizen's responsibility in the need to stand up to a government, when that government had become tyrannical, oppressive or had in other ways lost-its-way. The Suffolk Resolves call for simple, common sense protests such as boycotting foreign made goods, supporting locally made goods and consciously not paying your taxes. The Suffolk Resolves was an essential step toward our Declaration of Independence.

Thoreau was disturbed enough by how his taxes were being used, or misused, to not pay them and consequently spent a night in jail. The reasoning behind his protest was two-fold: he disagreed with slavery (easy to understand) and he disagreed with the then current war with Mexico (also easy to understand). He first delivered this essay as a lecture in January 1848 and it was published twice, once in his lifetime and once posthumously (all three had different titles). When it was published posthumously, it was given the title we now know it as: "Civil Disobedience."

"Civil Disobedience" influenced Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Martin Luther King Jr in their non-violent calls for governmental reform. Many people are frustrated these days with how unresponsive our government has become to the needs of the bottom 99%. However if we look to our collective heritage, we'll discover nearly 250 years of ideas and actions on how responsible citizens molded, shaped and helped our democratic government evolve from some rather lofty ideals.

The title of Thoreau's original 1848 lecture is "The Relation of the Individual to the State" (Petrulionis, Sandra Herbert, ed. Thoreau in His Own Time. lviii). Thoreau gave this lecture more than once, with more than one title, which has caused some confusion throughout the years. When Thoreau published it as an essay in 1849 in Aesthetic Papers (Ed. Peabody, Elizabeth) he gave it the title he preferred: "Resistance to Civil Government." Thoreau died in 1862 and four years later it was again published, but with a new title: "Civil Disobedience" in A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers (Eds. Channing, William Ellery and Sophia Thoreau). I wonder why it was changed?

originally posted October 2013
reposted March 2018

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