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One Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

Lincoln and Thoreau Get Pious

On January 12, 1848, Rep. Abraham Lincoln of Illinois made his first major address to the House of Representatives. His subject was the war with Mexico, which was winding to a close. Lincoln had endorsed the war as a candidate in 1846, but now he vigorously disputed President James K. Folk’s pretext for starting it, that Mexico had “shed the blood of our fellow citizens on our own soil” by attacking an American fort on the north bank of the Rio Grande in May 1846.

The territory where the skirmish took place was claimed by both countries. Therefore, Lincoln said, if the settlers in the area (who were in fact Mexicans, as everyone knew) had objected to Mexico’s rule, they could have settled the issue themselves by rebelling. “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better,” he said. “This is a most valuable,—a most sacred right—a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world.”

Lincoln’s remarks on the right to revolution were tangential to the main point of his speech, which was to ridicule Folk’s ill-considered rush to arms. In being so expansive, he was simply conforming to the oratorical style of the day, which favored orotund phrases and appeals to the spirit of ’76. Nonetheless, Lincoln’s words would be quoted with glee by Confederate sympathizers after he became President.

On January 26 Henry David Thoreau delivered his own thoughts on the Mexican War to an audience at the lyceum in Concord, Massachusetts. Like Lincoln, Thoreau opposed the war and cherished the right of resistance to authority. But while Lincoln gave that right to “any people”—that is, to any group acting collectively—Thoreau placed it in the hands of the individual.

This address, known today as the essay “Civil Disobedience,” grew out of Thoreau’s jailing two years earlier for refusal to pay his taxes (an irregular procedure, by the way; legally, the government should have seized and sold his property). Defending his actions, Thoreau said: “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. … When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country [i.e., Mexico] is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.”

Thoreau made clear that his main interest was in promoting his own selfesteem rather than freeing slaves or stopping the war: If he had paid the tax, he explained, “I should feel as if I were worth less.” He disdained practical politics (“It is not my business to be petitioning the governor or the legislature”) and wanted only “to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually.”

It is unlikely that any Southern slaves, if they could have heard or read Thoreau’s words, would have been consoled by the purity of his moral perfection or impressed at his courage in spending one night in jail—certainly not as impressed as Thoreau himself was. Like many latter-day anarchists and tax rebels, he asserted that the government never did anything for him except try to take his money. Yet the slavery that Thoreau abhorred was ended by a cohesive society whose members willingly gave their dollars and sometimes their lives—not by individuals reveling in their own unsullied virtue.

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