Civil Discourse, or Civil Disobedience? Celebrating 200 Years of Thoreau

dakota-protest  After six months of mostly peaceful resistance, the Dakota Access Protest Camp erupted in flames February 22 as the final demonstrators left the camp. Thousands of people had attended the protest, leaving behind mountains of bedding, trash and waste that, ironically, threatened to pollute the very river they were trying to protect. The fight is not over, however. Hundreds have vowed to continue their protests on private lands in the area. Charles Whalen, a protestor from Minnesota, declared, “Passive resistance. We are not going to do anything negative. It’s about prayer.”


thoreauThe concept of passive resistance as a catalyst for change is often attributed to Henry David Thoreau and his essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau was running errands on a calm summer day in July 1846 when he was nabbed by a constable and tossed into jail. His crime? Not paying the poll tax. For six years. Thoreau’s reasoning was sound: he objected to both slavery and the Mexican-American war, and refused to fund either enterprise through his taxes. He chose to go to jail that day rather than pony up. Thus began his metamorphosis as a hero of civil resistance.

Within a few hours of Thoreau’s arrest, a friend “unfortunately saw fit to pay it,” and Thoreau was free to go—though he was reluctant to do so and expressed contempt that the tax had been paid. Thoreau wore the arrest as a red badge of courage, and the experience became the catalyst for his most important work, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.”

Libertarian philosophy is steeped in principles from the essay:

“That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it [no government], that will be the kind of government which they will have.”

“Government of itself never furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of the way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate.”

“Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support, are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so, frequently, the most serious obstacles to reform.”

“On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” was a direct rebuke of 18th century Christian apologist William Paley’s “Duty of Submission to Civil Government,” particularly Paley’s thesis of expediency: “So long as the interest of the whole society requires it, that is, so long as the established government cannot be resisted or changed without public inconveniency, it is the will of God that the established government be obeyed, and no longer.”

Thoreau was not content to accept the things that could not be “conveniently” changed. He demanded—and practiced—resistance, regardless of “expediency.” Community organizers from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King have credited Thoreau’s essay with guiding their own philosophies of passive resistance, using the word “civil” in its definition as “mannerly and polite.” Let us be civil in our protests, they suggested. And it worked, by and large. Opponents paid attention, listened, and made changes.

Passive Resistance or Active Protest?

Thoreau's_cabin_near_Walden_Pond_and_his_statueThoreau clearly meant “civil” in its definition as “the citizen’s relationship to the State.” He proclaimed it the citizens’ duty to resist the State. “Must the citizen… resign his conscience to the legislator?” he asks in the essay. “Law never made men a whit more just.” Far from recommending passive resistance, Thoreau taunts those who accept the status quo. “Unjust laws exist,” he observed. “Shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”

Today these questions are more relevant than ever.

Should we blithely accept things as they are and work patiently within the system to change the laws we don’t approve, or violently and passionately resist immorality and injustice wherever we see it?

Should we listen and persuade through civil debate, or should we drown out the opposition with rocks and megaphones?

Does freedom of speech exist only so long as we don’t hurt someone else’s feelings? Or will we, like Voltaire, defend to the death the right of our opponents to offend us? Are we justified in throwing rocks when our feelings are hurt, trading injury for insult?

Violence and Vitriol Replace Ideas and Issues

Since the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, the exchange of ideas has been anything but civil. Protests have become violent and vitriolic. We’ve become a country of street fighters, determined to shout down the opinions of others—particularly the opinion of those whose candidate won.

Speakers have been silenced. Onlookers have been beaten up. Homes, businesses and cars have been looted and burned. Traffic has been stopped. Labels are used as shortcuts to character.

Even well-reasoned libertarians have jumped into the fray, shouting epithets and creating a scene at the recent ISFLC conference in Washington D.C., for example. Shouting and making a scene have become the new mode of political discourse. Neither side is listening to the arguments of others, nor have they been persuaded to change their minds. If anything, we have become more stubborn in our opinions, right or wrong.

Even worse, we make assumptions and judgments based on what we think the other person believes, rather than on listening to what the other person actually believes. If some Trump supporters happen to be bigoted, well then all Trump supporters must be bigoted.

Recently I overheard a conversation between two libertarians in which one person described himself as a conservative libertarian. Even before he had a chance to explain what he meant by that, in what could have become an enlightening exchange of ideas, the other person immediately snapped, “Oh, so you believe in freedom, but not in the freedom of a woman’s right to choose!” Nothing had been said about abortion. But because some conservatives want to overturn Roe v Wade, she assumed that he did too, and what had been an amiable and interesting conversation suddenly turned ugly.

200 Years of Henry David Thoreau

In these tumultuous times, it’s fitting to celebrate the 200th birthday of Henry David Thoreau alongside the 10th anniversary of FreedomFest. This outspoken friend of individual liberty and proponent of civil disobedience was born July 12, 1817, when America was barely 40 years old. Yet 200 years later, in 2017, we’re still sending American soldiers to fight a conflict that seems to be making matters worse rather than better; we’re still at odds with Mexico; we’re still considering the far-reaching consequences of slavery and how to make things right; we’re still facing challenges to privacy and property, still arguing for the right simply to be left alone.

At FreedomFest, we take these concerns seriously. Never mind what’s “proper”; what is the most effective path to change? Can civil disobedience be civil?

That’s why we’ll be presenting debates and panels on:

“100 Years of Capitalism vs 100 Years of Communism”

“Saul Alinsky: Satanic Communist or Radical Freedom Fighter?”

“Marketing, Media and Messaging: How to Make Your Voice Heard”

“Civil Discourse or Civil Disobedience: Which is the Most Effective Path to Change?”

“Henry David Thoreau: The Man and His Message”

We’ll be putting “The Police on Trial” in our famous mock trial, and we’ll enter Round Two of last year’s raucous debate about Donald Trump and his policies.

FreedomFest will also feature sessions on civil asset forfeiture, criminal justice reform, and many other aspects of the law that will help you protect your life and business. We might even endure a protest or two—although we hope that all discourse will remain civil throughout the conference! See you there.

Jo Ann Skousen is co-producer of FreedomFest and founding director of the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival. Both will take place July 19-22 at Paris Resort, Las Vegas. To register, go to or call 855-850-3733 ext. 202.