Those “Impossible Citizens”:
Civil Resistants in 19th Century New England
libertarians view civil disobedience or resistance to the State differently
than members of the general public. Many people, of a variety
of persuasions, recognize the right of the individual to resort to self-defense
when attacked or threatened by the criminal. In the libertarian
view, and by libertarian definition, only the criminal resorts to the
initiation of force against the peaceful and the innocent. Where
the libertarian and the non-libertarian part company is over the criminality
of State initiated compulsion. To the libertarian, the whole State
apparatus is criminal. Relying on taxation for its very existence,
it obtains its income by threatening or using force to collect its revenues--not
by relying on voluntary subscriptions or mutual trade. The inference,
for libertarians at least, is that it is right to oppose both the common
criminal and the State, since both aggress against individual rights.
Hence the libertarian proclivity for and interest in civil disobedience.[l]
libertarians have not been the only people opposed to the State, although
they may have been the only group to have branded the State as illegitimate
and criminal to its core. Religious groups, such as the early
Christians and Quakers, were attacked by the States within which they
lived. Conscientious objectors have long opposed State policy
and their opposition has not always been limited to conscription and
the refusal to pay taxes to support governmental wars. Those with
conscientious scruples have resisted compulsory vaccination, compulsory
schooling of their children, and even rejected the use of government
money. Such groups and the individuals composing them have
never initiated aggression against their neighbors. They were
peaceful dissenters who did not conform to the demands of their government.
Every act of aggression against their lives or property implied an injustice.
Whether they chose to react non-violently, such as the non-resistant,
William Lloyd Garrison, or whether they chose to offer active resistance,
such as the forceful John Brown, they all in their own way were resisting
demands of coercive governments.
best known civil resistant of 19th Century New England was Henry David
Thoreau (1817-1862). For several years, Thoreau did not voluntarily
pay his taxes, even under protest; rather he resisted the State by not
paying his taxes at all. "The impressive thing about Thoreau's
dealing with the State is that he did not stop with theorizing but acted."
"He not only objected to the law, he made himself an object for
the law to deal with."
his essay, "On The Duty of Civil Disobedience," Thoreau relates
the story of his own tax resistance. During the 1840's, state
law in Massachusetts imposed on every male inhabitant above the age
of 20 an annual poll tax assessment, subject to a maximum tax of $1.50.
The poll tax was simply a source of revenue for the State. If
a person should neglect or refuse to pay his tax, the tax collector
was authorized to seize the property of the delinquent, or in the absence
of sufficient property, the tax collector was empowered to seize the
body of the debtor and commit him to prison, there to remain until he
shall have paid the tax and the charges of commitment and imprisonment.
The latter is exactly what happened to Thoreau on either July 23 or
July 24, 1846. As he related in Walden:
"One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to
the village to get a shoe from the cobbler's, I was seized and put into
jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to,
or recognize the authority of the State. . . ." Thoreau
was not desirous of being a bad neighbor, but rather only being a bad
subject of the State. As he said, "It is for no particular
item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to
refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it
effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if
I could, till it buys a man, or a musket to shoot one with--the dollar
is innocent--but I am concerned to trace the effect of my allegiance."
had one earlier encounter with the city authorities of Concord, Massachusetts,
in 1840, when he had refused to pay "a certain sum toward the support
of a clergyman whose preaching my father attended, but never I myself."
He demanded that his name be removed from the church tax rolls and at
the suggestion of the town selectmen, he filed a statement with them
saying: "Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau,
do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which
I have not joined." If he had known how to name them all,
Thoreau adds that he would have appended a list of all the societies
to which he did not belong. Thoreau no more wished to be a
member of any society that he did not voluntarily join, than he wished
to be a citizen of the State without his consent. "To be
strictly just," the authority of government "must have the
sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right
over my person and property but what I concede to it."
Further, Thoreau recognized the right to rebel against injustice: “All
men recognize the right of revolution: that is, the right to refuse
allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or inefficiency
are great and unendurable,"
essay "On The Duty of Civil Disobedience" shows that Thoreau's
opposition to government was both on general principles and on specific
issues. Of the latter, he repeatedly asserts his abolitionist
and anti-war views:
cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my
government which is the slaves government also. . . . [W]hen the friction
comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized,
I say let us not have such a machine any longer. In other words,
when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be
the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun
and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think
it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.
What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact, that the country so
overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.
realized that majorities ruled over minorities because they are physically
the strongest, but that did not prevent him from advocating the rights
of the minority and even individual secession from government: "I
do not hesitate to say that those who call themselves abolitionists
should at once effectually withdraw their support both in person and
property from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they
constitute a majority of one. . . ." "Why do they not
dissolve . . .the union between themselves and the State,--and refuse
to pay their quota into its Treasury?”
concerned with his own self-respect and personal integrity, Thoreau
queried: "Must the citizen ever for a moment resign his conscience
to the legislator?" And he answered, "I think we should
be men first and subjects afterwards. It is not desirable to cultivate
a respect for law so much as for the right. The only obligation
I have the right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right."
is a higher law than civil law--the law of conscience--and that when
the laws are in conflict it is the citizen's duty to obey the voice
. . . within rather than that of the civil authorities without.
If he will go to prison rather than obey an evil law, he will through
his courage and his martyrdom arouse the conscience of the people "en
masse" and through their resistance they will clog the machinery
of tyranny by filling the courts and jails and thus bringing about the
repeal of the offensive law.
was Thoreau the only New Englander of his time to have this attitude
towards natural law and conscience. Thoreau's refusal to pay his
poll tax was not the first such episode of tax resistance in Massachusetts.
There were at least two earlier precedents involving people known to
Thoreau. A. Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) was a well-known school
teacher, writer and transcendentalist. His English associate in
Fruitlands, their co-operative farm, Charles Lane, supported Alcott
in his tax resistance and also became a resistant himself. Lane
had arrived from England in October 1842, with the purpose of visiting
Alcott. Within a month of his arrival on American soil, Lane had
begun advocating abolitionism, the overthrow of the American "slave"
government and the immediate secession of every right-minded man.
Lane's arrest occurred near the end of 1843, and was described by Emerson
in his letter of December 17, 1843 to Margaret Fuller: "Mr. Lane
was here lately again for two or three days having been arrested for
his taxes as he stopped with the Harvard Stage at the tavern.
He declined bringing any friend to answer for him and was put into jail.
Rockwood Hoar heard of it and paid the debt and when I came home from
seeing you in Boston I found him at my house." Lane strenuously
objected to the use of the general warrant which was used to arrest
him and Alcott, and later Thoreau. Tax delinquents were treated
more harshly than debtors of private creditors and there was no legal
appeal possible from imprisonment for failure to pay one's taxes.
Thoreau, too, protested against this arbitrary law of imprisonment:
would think that a deliberate and practical denial of its authority
was the only offense never contemplated by government; else why has
it not assigned its definite, its suitable and proportionate penalty?
If a man who has no property refuses but once to earn nine shillings
for the State he is put in prison for a period unlimited by any law
that I know of, and determined only by the discretion of those who placed
him there; . . . 
Alcott was the first to protest. On January 17, 1843, he was arrested
(but not committed) for failure to pay his 1842 poll tax. His
own Journals for this year have been lost, but fortunately there
is a very clear description of his resistance which appeared in a letter
written by Lane and published in William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator
on January 27, 1843. Lane insisted in his letter to the
Liberator that Alcott's resistance "does not rest upon the
plea of poverty" but on a moral opposition to coercive taxation.
Under the title of "State Slavery--The Imprisonment of A. Bronson
Alcott--Dawn of Liberty," Lane wrote:
is often said, that in a condition of society where one is obliged to
let pass so much that is immoral, it is not worthwhile to undergo so
much inconvenience as close imprisonment on account of State prosecution.
different to this however has been the feeling of A. Bronson Alcott,
of Concord; and being convinced that the payment of the town tax involved
principles and practices most degrading and injurious to man, he had
long determined not to be a voluntary party to its continuance.
Last year by the leniency of the collector in prepaying the $1.50 the
question was not brought to issue. . . .
year a collector was appointed who could execute the law and although
no doubt it went hard with him to snatch a man from his home, from his
wife, from the provision and education of his little children, in which
latter he found Mr. Alcott serenely engaged, he nevertheless did it.
He witnessed with his own eyes the little hasty preparations. . . ,
the packing of a few personal conveniences to ward off the inclemencies
of the season, and yet, with no higher authority than the general warrant
in his pocket, which without particular investigation, trial, or inquiry
hands over the liberty of every townsman to his discretion, he took
a fellow citizen . . . to a long commitment.
the country jail, therefore, Mr. Alcott went, or rather was forced by
the benignant State and its de1icate instrument. . . .
worked up to this point, it appears that the enemy's courage failed.
The constable-collector, having brought his victim to the jail, the
next step was to find the jailer who was not at home. The prisoner,
of course, waited patiently; and nearly after 2 hours had been thus
passed, the constable announced that he no longer had the right to detain
his captive. On inquiring how that happened, he said that both
the tax and costs had been paid. To the question, by whom the
payment had been made, he replied by naming a gentleman who may be regarded
and who would willingly be regarded as the very personification of the
these facts, humble as the individual and the circumstances may appear,
we have a wide and deep subject for reflection. . . . This act of non-resistance,
you will perceive, does not rest on the plea of poverty. For Mr.
Alcott has always supplied some poor neighbor with food and clothing
to a much higher amount than the tax. Neither is it wholly based
on the iniquitous purposes to which the money when collected is applied.
For part of it is devoted to education and education has not found a
heartier friend in the world than Bronson Alcott. But it is founded
on the moral instinct which forbids every moral being, to be a party,
either actively or permissively, to the destructive principles of power
and might over peace and love.
the tax were levied by the town . . . and the full value on the amount
were to be returned the next day to each payer in bread. Would
it not be a sacred duty in every man, in the virtuous integrity of his
nature, to deny such a proceeding? Doubtless it would. All
but the meanest souls would thereby be raised to dis-annex themselves
from the false and tyrannous assumption, that the human will is to be
subject to the brute force which the majority may set up. It is
only tolerated by public opinion because the fact is not yet perceived
that all the true purposes of the corporate state may as easily be carried
out on the revolutionary principle, as all the true purposes of the
collective church. Every one can see that the Church is wrong
when it comes to men with the Bible in one hand and the sword in the
other. And is it not equally diabolical for the State to do so?
The name is of small importance. When Church and State are divorced
by public opinion, they may still carryon an adulterous intercourse.
look at the peculiar law in this case. When a debtor is imprisoned
by an ordinary creditor, he can be bailed out, and have considerable
liberty to employ himself, preserve his health, and the like. But the
impersonal town is an inexorable monster and permits not his debtor
to quit the prison walls. He is treated as a convicted felon.
No trial, no jury is permitted him.
are the points worthy of consideration involved in this uncouth, barbaric,
unchristian state of the law; and I earnestly trust you will not allow
the occasion to escape your enlightened and benevolent pen, nor fail
to inform the public at large of the facts.
Mass. January 16, 1843
tax is traditionally said to have been paid by Squire Samuel Hoar, the
first citizen of the town. Both Thoreau and Emerson preserved
their reaction to Alcott's bravado. Thoreau, in a letter to Emerson,
suppose they have told you how near Alcott went to jail; but I can add
a good anecdote to the rest. When Staples [the tax collector]
came to collect Mrs. Ward's taxes, my sister Helen asked him what he
thought Mr. Alcott meant--what his idea was--and Sam Answered, "I
vum believe it was nothing but principle, for I never heerd a man talk
his part, wrote in his Journal for 1843:
thought he could find as good grounds for quarrel in the State tax as
Socrates did in the edicts of the judges. Then I said, "Be
consistent, and never more put an apple or kernel of corn into your
mouth. Would you feed the Devil?" Say boldly "I
will not any longer belong to this double-faced, equivocating, mixed,
noted in her own Journal for January 17, 1843 that it was a day
of some excitement, "as Mr. Alcott had refused to pay his town
tax and they had gone through the form of taking him to jail. After
waiting some time to be committed, he was told that it was paid by a
friend. Thus we were spared the affliction of his absence and
he the triumph of suffering for his principles."
in spite of his earlier experience, was still resisting payment of the
poll tax in 1846. In his Journal for May 4th of that year,
he noted that Staples was threatening to advertise his land to pay for
the tax. Alcott still rejected the State for forcing itself upon
"the freedom of the free-horn and the wisest bearing is to over-hear,
let it have its own way, the private person never going out of his way
to meet it. It shall put its hand into a person's pocket if it
will, but I shall not put mine there on its behalf."
Later that same year when Staples arrested Thoreau, Alcott wrote that
he had an "earnest talk with Emerson dealing with the civil powers
and institutions." In Alcott's words, "E[merson] thought
it mean and skulking and in bad taste," for Thoreau to have refused
to pay his taxes."
and Lane were involved in a co-operative farm and reforming venture
known as Fruitlands, near Harvard, Massachusetts, during 1844-1845.
Among the individuals congregated at the Fruitlands farm was another
civil resistant by the name of "Old Jew" Palmer or Joseph
Palmer of "No Town." In November 1840, both Alcott and
Palmer had been present at a gathering of religious reformers, known
as the Chardon Street Convention. At one session, there was an
outcry over Palmer's beard. Alcott rose to inquire, "in the first
place, whether in the opinion of the assembly there was anything in
the essential nature of a beard which prevented its wearer from becoming
a Christian, and secondly, he wished to know if they had really come
to discuss beards or rather, as he supposed, certain other fundamental
questions." Palmer's claim to fame as a civil resistant
was his absolute insistence on wearing a full beard in an age when beards
were ridiculed and worn only by Jews.
himself had fought in the War of 1812 and he had an eccentric character,
but was steadfast and upright and immovable when it came to his principles.
"Wearing a beard became a fixed idea with him, and neither the
law of the land nor the admonitions of the church could make him falter
in his determination to claim freedom of action in this respect."
His nick- name, "Old Jew" Palmer, was no reflection on his
religious affiliation, but only showed the bigotry of his persecutors.
His farm at "No Town" was very successful and was located
on a tract of land which lay outside of Fitchburg and Leominster, Massachusetts.
As it belonged to no township, and was untaxed, it came to be known
as "No Town." "So when he married the widow Tenney,
rumors circulated through Fitchburg that the marriage was not legal
because he did not publish the banns at the meeting house at "No
Town." But investigation proved the marriage legal because
he had published the banns in his own handwriting on a large piece of
paper which he had tacked to the trunk of a fine old pine tree which
grew near his home."
day Palmer was attacked by four men, intent to shave off his beard.
With the aid of an old jack-knife he carried, Palmer was able to thwart
his assailants. However afterwards he was "arrested for committing
an unprovoked assault and ordered by Justice Brigham to pay a fine,
which he refused to do, as he claimed to be acting for maintenance of
a principle." He was thrown into jail and lodged with the
debtors where he remained for over a year. When once asked why
he wore his beard, "he said he would tell if any one could tell
him why some men would, from 52 to 365 times a year, scrape their face
from their nose to their neck." He refused to pay his
fine, although he was a man of property and he far outstayed his sentence.
He refused to leave the jail because he thought he was being cheated
on his upkeep, which he had to pay out of his own pocket. "The
sheriff and jailers, tired of having him there, begged him to leave.
Even his mother, Margaret Palmer, wrote to him 'Not to be so set.' But
nothing could move him. He said they had put him in there and
they would have to take him out, as he would not walk out. They finally
carried him out in his chair and placed it on the sidewalk."
On his tombstone in the old North Leominster graveyard is said to be
the carving of the head of an old man with a flowing beard and underneath
it the inscription: "Joseph Palmer, died October 30, 1875--Persecuted
for Wearing the Beard."
as Palmer was with his beard, he was also a temperance advocate and
an abolitionist. The abolition of slavery and the cessation of
government support to the slave system was of great concern to nearly
all the New England resistants. Particularly annoying to them
was the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 and 1850.
When Boston was forced to aid in the return of the fugitive slave, Sims,
in 1851, Alcott wondered in his Journal,
if, "It would not be a handsome piece of honor and justice to withhold
the payment of the assessment for this item of the tax-bill when it
shall be claimed by the municipality. . . .I am tempted to try it.
Certainly the prison could not be put to better use than the holding
of honest men, to the discredit of unrighteous laws."
A few years later, Alcott displayed his courage and fidelity to principle
when he risked his life entering the Boston Court House, which was under
siege by a mob. At the time, the fugitive slave, Anthony Burns,
was under the protective custody of the government (pending his return
to the South) and an unsuccessful attempt was being made to rescue him.
Of the personalities mentioned so far, only Thoreau and Emerson were
not outright abolitionists. Nor was Emerson a civil resistant,
although he did go so far as to advocate that judges and magistrates
interpret the law and Constitution for themselves. This was also
a favorite theme of Thoreau's. Emerson concluded "not merely
that the Fugitive Slave Law was to be disobeyed by those who felt it
to be immoral, but that the official interpreters and executives were
bound to make and enforce righteous laws of their own; . . . The first
duty of a judge was to read the law in accordance with equity, and if
it jarred with equity, to disown the law."
anti-slavery and abolition movements had a long tradition of resistance
and opposition to government. From the beginning of the abolition
movement the question of violence was significant. How was
the movement to express its opposition and what course of action were
the slaves and abolitionists to follow? By the late l830's, the
movement in America had answered this question and had split into two
distinct factions. One radical faction, led by William Lloyd Garrison
[1805-1879], called for the immediate abolition of slavery, non-participation
in government, and non-resistance. However for many abolitionists,
gradual emancipation, office holding and voting, and the use of force
in self-defense were legitimate and a question of expediency only.
Those led by Garrison, on the other hand, realized that slavery was
the casual temporary seizure by the Southerners of a few million of
Negroes, but the ancient and universal recognition, contrary to the
Christian teaching, of the right of coercion on the part of certain
people in regard to certain others. A pretext for recognizing
this right has always been that men regarded it as possible to eradicate
or diminish evil by brute force, i.e., also by evil. Having once
realized this fallacy, Garrison put forward against slavery neither
the suffering of the slaves, nor the cruelty of the slaveholders, nor
the social equality of men, but the eternal Christian law of refraining
from opposing evil by violence, i.e., of "non-resistance.”
Garrison understood that which most advanced among the fighters of slavery
did not understand: that the only irrefutable argument against slavery
is the denial of the right of any man over the liberty of another under
any conditions whatsoever. . . . Garrison understanding that the slavery
of the Negroes was only a particular instance of universal coercion,
put forward a general principle with which it was impossible not to
agree--the principle that under no pretext has any man the right to
dominate, i.e., to use coercion over his fellows. Garrison did
not so much insist on the right to be free as he denied the right of
any man whatsoever, or any body of men, forcibly to coerce another man
in any way.
non-resistant abolitionists were the pacifists of the 19th Century peace
movement. Garrison led a splinter group away from the American
Peace Society, and in Boston, on September 20, l838, they formed the
New England Non-Resistance Society. The key clause in their constitution
members of this society agree . . . that no man or body of men . . .
have a right to take the life of man as a penalty for transgression,
that no one who professes to have the spirit of Christ, can consistently
sue a man at law for redress of injuries, or thrust any evildoer into
prison, or fill any office which he would come under obligation to execute
penal enactments--or take part in military service--or acknowledge allegiance
to any human government--or justify any man in fighting in defense of
property, liberty, life or religion; that he cannot engage in or countenance
any plot to revolutionize or change by physical violence any government
however corrupt or oppressive.
term "non-resistance" which was chosen to identify Garrison
and his followers was derived from Christ's injunction to individuals
not to resist evil. In 1835, when threatened by a Boston mob,
Garrison had proclaimed his fidelity to this ideal: "I will perish
sooner than raise my hand against any man, even in self-defense, and
let none of my friends resort to violence for my protection."
Garrison and his followers realized that if a slaveholder once became
a non-resistant, he could never again strike a slave, never resort to
that law of violence by which a slave was compelled to labor and in
which the relation of master and slave originated and by which it must
continually be sustained.
non-violence, however, was only one aspect of Garrisonian non-resistance.
Those who deplored Garrison's view of government, dubbed him and his
followers as "no-government" men. To renounce all manifestations
of government, as the Garrisonian non-resistance men did, was to make
them quasi-anarchists or "no-government" men. "Actually
the Garrisonian non-resistants resented and disclaimed the name of 'no-governmentism.'
They insisted that they were striving for and placing themselves under
the only true and effective government, the government of God.
They maintained that they opposed not government, but human pretensions
to govern." Thoreau had used the term and had made the
distinction that what he called for was not "no-government"
but a better government." Thoreau recognized the right
of self-defense and violent revolution, contrary to the position of
the non-resistants. Thoreau had taken the affirmative position
in a debate with Alcott before the Concord Lyceum in January 1841, on
the question: "Is it ever proper to offer forcible resistance?"
Despite this difference with the non-resistants, Thoreau agreed with
their position on non-participation in government. He invited
all public officers and tax collectors to "Resign your office,"
and concluded that "When the subject has refused allegiance and
the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished."
The non-resistant agitation for resignation had little effect, for as
late as 1854, Thoreau still doubted if there were a judge in the entire
state of Massachusetts who was prepared to resign his office and get
his living innocently whenever it was required of him to enforce the
Fugitive Slave Law.
office holding and voting were proscribed under the non-resistant philosophy.
The principle of democratic control of government through majority rule
came under attack, too. Since no group of human beings could rightfully
coerce others, it was wrong for the majority of voters to enforce their
choices on a minority. In the Liberator of September 28,
1838, Garrison protested against participation in any government:
every human government is upheld by physical force and its laws are
enforced virtually at the point of the bayonet, we cannot hold any office
which imposes upon its incumbent the obligation to compel men to do
right on pain of imprisonment or death. We therefore voluntarily
exclude ourselves from every legislative and judicial body and repudiate
all human politics, worldly honor, and stations of authority.
If we cannot occupy a seat in the legislature, or on the bench, neither
can we elect others to act as our substitutes in such capacity.
Wright, abolitionist, non-resistant, and associate of Garrison, held
a similar view:
is wrong to hold an office in which we must consent to be vested with
life-taking or war-making powers or to come under an obligation to use
it. . . It is wrong to vote for others to office which it is wrong for
us to hold. We must look to the character of the office itself
and not to the candidate or measures he proposes, however good these
may be. To exercise the franchise even to erect the abolition
of slavery would be wrong, would be to vote for murder to prevent
much of his argument on the implied threat of force behind the ballot.
He claimed that every vote carried with it the threat of war, of a bullet,
if one did not abide by the desires of the majority. "A bullet
is in every ballot; and when the ballot is cast in to the box, the bullet
goes in with it. They are inseparable as the government is now
constituted. . . . The ballot box is the first step--the gallows or
the battlefield the last; and whosoever takes the first must take the
last. There is no consistent or honest stopping place between
spite of their non-participation stance, the non-resistants did not
develop a stand against the payment of taxes. “All the New England
non-resistants, from Garrison on down, complied with Caesar's demands."
Tax-paying was seen as submission to compulsion exerted by the government,
much as a non-resistant might submit to a burglar. Therefore tax-paying,
in their eyes, was non-resistance. Garrison and his followers
excused themselves with the argument that since they paid their taxes
against their will, they were not guilty of disobedience and stayed
within the legal limits in expressing opposition to government.
“As for taxes, it is only our voluntary acts for which we are responsible.
When did government ever trust tax-paying to the voluntary good will
of its subjects? When it does, non-resistants will refuse to pay."
Only Alcott of the leading abolitionists went so far as to suffer arrest
or imprisonment rather than pay his tax.
such as Garrison and Wright were somewhat perplexed by John Brown's
raid on Harper's Ferry. On the one hand, they hated the institution
of slavery. On the other, they rejected the use of violence in
any, form to secure any end, however agreeable. Regardless of
their pacifist stance, both sympathized with Brown's violent effort.
Speaking at a protest meeting in Boston, on the day of Brown's execution,
am a non-resistant--a believer in the inviolability of human life under
all circumstances; I, therefore, in the name of God disarm John Brown
and every slave in the South. But I do not stop there; if I did
I should be a monster. I also disarm in the name of God every
slaveholder and tyrant in the world. . . . I am a non-resistant, and
I not only desire, but have labored unremittingly to effect the peaceful
abolition of slavery . . . yet as a peace man--an "ultra"
peace man--I am prepared to say: “Success to every slave insurrection
in the South, and in every slave country." I do not see how
I compromise or stain my peace profession in making that declaration.
Whenever there is a contest between the oppressed and the oppressor,
. . .God knows that my heart must be with the oppressed and against
the oppressor. . . . I thank God when men who believe in the right and
duty of wielding carnal weapons are so far advanced that they will take
those weapons out of the scale of despotism, and throw them into the
scale of freedom.
wrote a pamphlet shortly after John Brown's execution entitled, No
Rights, No Duties: Or, Slaveholders, As Such, Have No Rights, Slaves
As Such Owe No Duties. An Answer To A Letter From Hon. Henry Wilson,
Touching Resistance To Slaveholders Being
The Right And Duty Of The Slaves, And Of The People Of The Slaves Of
thesis he presented was simple. Slaves have no obligations at
all to their masters, who good or bad, deserve no more respect or consideration
than a gang of pirates or kidnappers. Freedom must be won by the
slaves themselves in alliance with their sympathizers among white freemen--by
all and every means that the latter would feel justified in using against
“burglars, incendiaries, and highway robbers" who might threaten
them. "It is the duty of the people and States of the North
to invade slaveholding States to free the slaves, and annihilate the
power that enslaves them." There are but two sides in the
conflict to break up these kidnapping, piratical hordes of the South,
called States. . . . You must fight for liberty or slavery--for the
pirates or their victims.
this pamphlet, Wright advocated the revolutionary doctrines practiced
by Brown and preached by Thoreau and Lysander Spooner. Thoreau,
in his final years, was heavily influenced by the activities of John
Brown, whom he had met. "At the news of John Brown's capture,
Thoreau was on fire, arguing with his neighbors, giving speeches, and
generally supporting the course of action John Brown had chosen."
Thoreau specifically approved of the Harper's Ferry raid and remarked
in his address, "A Plea for Captain John Brown":
was his [Brown's] peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to
interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave.
I agree with him. Those who are continually shocked by slavery
have some right to be shocked by the violent death of the slaveholder,
but no others. Such will be more shocked by his life than by his
death. I shall not be forward to think him mistaken in his method
who quickest succeeds to liberate the slave. I speak for the slave
when I say that I prefer the philanthropy of Captain Brown to that philanthropy
which neither shoots nor liberates me. . . . We preserve the so-called
peace of our community by deeds of petty violence everyday. Look
at the policeman's billy and handcuffs! Look at the jail!
Look at the gallows! . . . I think I know that the mass of my countrymen
think that the only righteous use of Sharp's rifles and revolvers is
to fight duels with them when we are insulted by other nations or to
hunt Indians or shoot fugitive slaves with them, or the like.
I think that for once the Sharp's rifles and revolvers were employed
in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could
days before his execution, Brown was asked what he had in mind when
he made his attack on Harper's Ferry arsenal. Brown answered:
"I knew there were a great many guns there that would be of service
to me, and if I could conquer Virginia, the balance of the Southern
states could nearly conquer themselves, there being such a large number
of slaves in them." According to the Chatham Constitution
of May 1858, Brown intended no offensive warfare against the South,
but only to restore the inherent rights of the Negroes there. "Not
revolution, but justice, not aggression but defense."56
Brown and his men been successful, they would have implemented the designs
of Lysander Spooner's "Plan for the Abolition of Slavery."
This manifesto was printed in the summer of 1858, and included a notice
to the "Non-Slaveholders of the South." Brown was familiar
with Spooner and the two had met in Boston sometime between May 10 and
June 2,1859. At that time, Brown requested that Spooner cease
circulation of his broadsides since their further publication might
embarrass Brown's future plans. After the failure of the raid
at Harper's Ferry, Spooner's "Plan" was published in a New
York newspaper and was described as Gerrit Smith's blueprint for Brown's
expedition. In a subsequent suit for libel, Smith (using Spooner
as his attorney) settled the case out of court. The Spooner manifesto
offers a highly consistent rationale for Brown's attack, but Spooner
in later correspondence made it very clear that Brown knew nothing of
it until after it was printed. The two men arrived at the
same conclusions independently, reasoning from the common premise that
one was legitimately entitled to come to the assistance of the slave
and forcibly resist the oppression of the slaveholder.
reasoning was based on the following four principles:
That the slaves have a natural right to their liberty.
That they have a natural right to compensation (so far as the property
of the Slaveholders and their abettors can compensate them) for the
wrongs they have suffered.
That so long as the government under which they live refuse to give
them liberty or compensation they have the right to take it by stratagem
That it is the duty of all, who can, to assist them in such an enterprise.
Based on these
premises, Spooner urged that all political institutions of the slaveholder
be spurned and ignored. In their place should be established government
which recognizes slaveholding as a crime and which grants to the slaves
civil actions for damages for the wrongs already committed against them.
The slaves should be recognized as the rightful owners of the plantations
they had worked, which would be awarded to them for the damages they
had already suffered. The non-slaveholders of the South were also
encouraged to form vigilance committees or leagues of freedom, whose
duty it should be to see that justice was done to the slaves and that
punishment was meted out to the slaveholders.
that some might object to the distribution of the slaveholders' property
to their slaves, Spooner wrote:
some may say that this taking of property by the Slaves would be stealing,
and should not be encouraged. The answer is that it would not
be stealing, it would be simply taking justice into their own hands
and redressing their own wrongs. The State of Slavery is a state
of war. In this case it is a just war, on the part of the negroes--a
war for liberty and a recompense for injuries and necessity justified
them in carrying it on by the only means their oppressors have left
to them. In war, the plunder of enemies is as legitimate as the
killing of them, and stratagem is as legitimate as open force.
The right of the slaves, therefore, in this war, to take property is
as clear as their right to take life, and their right to do it secretly
is as clear as their right to do it openly. And as this will probably
be their most effective mode of operation for the present, they ought
to be taught, encouraged, and assisted to do it to the utmost so long
as they are unable to meet their enemies in the open field. And
to call this taking of property, stealing is as false and unjust as
it would be to call the taking of life in just war, murder.
rested on the recognition of the slave's rightful claim to personal
liberty as well as to reparations for having been a slave. To
achieve liberty and compensation required that the slaves escape from
their masters and form guerrilla bands, and assemble the means to sustain
themselves in war against the slaveholders. "These bands
could do a good work of kidnapping individual slaveholders, holding
them as hostages for the good behavior of whites remaining on the plantation,
compelling them to execute deeds of emancipation, and conveyances of
their property to their slaves." If the property of the
slaveholder could not be converted to the use of the slaves, then Spooner
advised its destruction. Spooner suggested that the white non-slaveholders
of the South abandon their present governments: "Pay not taxes
to their government, if you can either resist them or evade them; as
witness and juror give no testimony and no verdicts in support of any
whites who voluntarily assisted the slaveholders in keeping their slaves
under subjection were the object of special attention by Spooner:
are one of the main pillars of the Slave System. You stand ready
to do all that vile and inhuman work which must be done by somebody
but which the more decent slaveholders will themselves not do. . . .
If you are thus indifferent as to whom you serve, we advise you henceforth
to serve the slaves instead of their masters. Turn about and help
the robbed to rob their robbers. The former can afford to pay
you better than the latter. Help them to get possession of the
property which is rightfully their due, and they can afford to give
you liberal commission.
position on the right of the slaves to commission assistance based on
a sharing of the proceeds of plunder realized from the just wars of
the slaves against their masters may have been unique:
it is right for the Slaves to take the property of their masters, to
compensate their wrongs, it is right for you [the non-slaveholders of
the South] to help them. . . . It will be perfectly easy for you, by
combining with the slaves to put them in possession of the plantations
on which they labor, and of all the property upon them. They could
afford to pay you well for doing them such a service. They could
afford to let you share with them in the division of property taken.
his "Plan for the Abolition of Slavery" Spooner addressed
himself to those Northerners who were willing to come to the aid of
the slaves. Spooner recognized that "when a human being is
set upon by a robber, ravisher, murderer, or tyrant of any kind, it
is the duty of bystanders to go to his or her rescue by force, if need
be. In general nothing will excuse men in the non-performance
of this duty, except the pressure of higher duties (if there be such),
inability to afford relief, or too great danger to themselves or others."
Legislation notwithstanding, "it is the duty of the non-slaveholders
of this country, in their private capacity as individuals,--without
asking the permission or waiting the movements of the government--to
go to the rescue of the Slaves from the hands of their oppressors."
war against the slaveholders of the South was what Spooner advocated.
It was John Brown, however, who put Spooner's reasoning into practice.
revolutions of this nature, it is necessary that private individuals
should take the first step. The tea must be thrown overboard,
the Bastille must he torn down, the first gun must be fired, by private
persons, before a new government can be organized or the old one will
be forced to adopt the measures which the insurgents have in view.
No one could
have been more radical or daring than John Brown in calling for the
abolition of slavery. In 1859, Spooner was still committed to
favoring some type of government. As the Civil War progressed.
Spooner continued to spin out the implications of his natural law reasoning.
By the late 1860's he had carried his natural rights theory to its infinitely
radical conclusion: individualist anarchism.
prior to the Civil War, Spooner had offered strong theoretical support
to disobedience to the State. He believed that if one is coerced,
if one lives under a tyranny, then one is fully justified in resorting
to force in return or in disobeying government law. He maintained
that private war was a form of individual self-defense and that force
in response to force was always justified. As part of his theory,
Spooner recognized a higher law than State law; that natural justice
supersedes State legislation and the results of State jurisprudence.
If the Fugitive Slave Law commanded the return of the slaves, then it
was wrong because it contradicted natural law, and it must be disobeyed.
Eventually Spooner arrived at the conclusion that all (State) legislation
was a crime, an absurdity, and a usurpation.
Spooner and Thoreau were "impossible citizens," who judged
the State and all its laws for themselves and acted according to the
dictates of their own consciences rather than according to the demands
of the State. It is interesting to note the similarity between
the thinking of Spooner and Thoreau. As contemporaries, Spooner
preceded Thoreau in actively opposing the State. Spooner openly challenged
the requirements of the Massachusetts legislature concerning admittance
to the State Bar in 1833. In 1844, he had operated a private mail
company in contravention of the federal laws imposing a government monopoly
on mail delivery. Spooner relied on a strict construction of the
Constitution and a theory of natural rights and natural justice to defend
his behavior. With the same theories he also defended active rebellion
against the State and eventually came to deny its authority. Thoreau
went to jail to offer testimony to his convictions. He supported
John Brown's attempt to free the slaves in Virginia. He advocated peaceful
revolution, whereby the masses withdrew their support from the State.
Thoreau was one of the first to draw attention to the duty of civil
disobedience. He placed primary emphasis on loyalty to one's conscience
and natural law rather than to the State. As "impossible
citizens," libertarians and civil resistants today would be hard
pressed to match the daring, the determination, and the quality of resistance
that we have found in 19th Century New England.
1. For a critical analysis
of the State see Benjamin Tucker, Instead of a Book (New York:
B. Tucker, Publisher, 1893), especially his essay "The Relation
of the State to the Individual." Also see Murray Rothbard. For
a New Liberty (New York: Macmillan Co., 1973).
2. Mulford Sibley and Phillip
Jacob, Conscription of Conscience (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1952), pp. 1-2.
3. Raymond Adams, "Thoreau's
Sources for Resistance to Civil Government," 42 Studies in Philology
(1945), p. 646.
4. John C. Broderick, "Thoreau,
Alcott, and the Poll Tax," 53 Studies in Philology (1956),
p. 614. Also see Henry Canby, Thoreau, (Boston: Houghton,
Mifflin and Co., 1939), pp. 233-239 and 472-473.
5. Henry David Thoreau,
Walden and "On The Duly of Civil Disobedience" (New York:
New American Library, 1960), p. 118.
6. Ibid, p. 236.
7. Walter Harding, The Days
of Henry Thoreau (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1966), pp. 199-200. Also
see Thoreau. op. cit., p. 233.
8. Thoreau, op. cit.,
9. Ibid., p. 225.
10 Ibid., pp. 224-225.
11. Ibid., p. 229.
12. Ibid., p. 228.
14. Harding, op. cit.,
15. Odell Shepard, Pedlar’s
Progress: The Life of Branson Alcott
(Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1937), p. 345 and 353.
16. Ralph L. Rusk, ed.,
The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), III, 230.
17. Thoreau, op. cit.,
18. The Liberator (January
27, 1843). p. 4.
19. F. B. Sanborn, Bronson
Alcott at Alcott House. England and Fruitlands, New England (Cedar
Rapids: The Torch Press, 1908), p. 47.
20. Ibid., p. 45.
21. Ibid., p. 49.
22. Odell Shepard, ed.,
The Journals of Bronson Alcott (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1938),
23. Ibid., p. 179.
24. Ibid., p. 183.
25. Shepard, op. cit.,
26. Clara Endicott Sears,
Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1915),
28. Ibid., p. 60.
29. Ibid., p. 66.
30. Shepard, ed., op. cit.,
31. Gilbert Seldes, The
Stammering Century (New York: John Day and Co., 1928). p. 220.
32. James Elliot Cabot,
A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co.,
1887), II, 597-98.
33. John Demos, "The Anti-Slavery
Movement and the Problem of Violent 'Means'," 37 New England
Quarterly (1964). p. 50l.
34. Fanny Garrison Villard,
William Lloyd Garrison on Non-Resistance (New York: Nation Press,
1924), pp. 48-49.
35. Demos, op. cit.,
36. Lewis Perry, Radical
Abolitionism-Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973), p. 57.
37. Villard, op. cit.,
38. Demos, op. cit.,
39. Perry, loc. cit.
40. Thoreau, op. cit.,
41. Adams, op. cit.,
42. Thoreau, op. cit.,
43. Henry David Thoreau,
The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, "Slavery in Massachusetts"
(New York: AMS Press, 1968), IV, 401.
44. Adams, loc. cit.
45. Peter Brock, Pacifism
in the United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968),
46. Ibid., p. 600.
47. Brock, loc. cit.
48. Broderick, op. cit.,
49. Ibid., p. 617.
Brock also comments on p. 600 that the anti-slavery movement did not
"produce its Thoreaus to spend their night of lonely protest in
the local jail or to endure the prolonged distraints suffered earlier
by the Quakers during the Revolutionary War."
50. Brock, op. cit.,
51. Henry C. Wright, No
Rights, No Duties (Boston: Printed for the Author, 1860).
52. Brock, op. cit.,
53. Gilman M. Ostrander, "Emerson,
Thoreau, and John Brown." 53 Studies in Philology (1956).
54. Writings of Henry David
Thoreau, IV, 433-434.
55. Jules Abels, Man on
Fire: John Brown and the Cause of Liberty (New York: Macmillan Co.,
1971), p. 242.
56. James Redpath, The Public
Life of John Brown (Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860). p. 233.
57. Charles Shively. ed.,
The Collected Works of Lysander Spooner, Vol IV--Anti-Slavery Writings
(Weston, Mass.: M & S Press, 1971). See pp. 4-7 of the “Introduction”
to "A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery" and "To the
Non-Slaveholders of the South."
58. Spooner, "To the Non-Slaveholders
of the South," column 1.
59. Ibid,, column 1.
60. Ibid., column 2.
On this paint Spooner adds that no objection could be made to the fact
that deeds of emancipation and conveyances of property were made under
duress. "[l]n as much as such contracts would be nothing more than
justice; and men may rightfully be coerced to do justice," they
could not be contested.
61. Ibid., column 3.
62. Ibid., column 3.
63. Spooner, "A Plan for
the Abolition of Slavery," column 1.
64. Ibid., column 3.
65. Murray Rothbard, "Introduction"
to Lysander Spooner's Natural Law of the Science of Justice, The
Libertarian Forum (September 1974), p. 1.