Thoreau’s Way

Good morning, it’s Thursday, July 12, 2018. At the NATO summit in Europe, Donald Trump has treated Europeans to a rhetorical formulation already known to many Americans. “I’m very consistent,” the 45th U.S. president told a reporter from Croatia. “I’m a very stable genius.”

That got me to wondering this morning. Not about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation about “foolish consistency” being the “hobgoblin of little minds.” But about whether stability and genius are even compatible. Today, you see, is the birthday of Emerson’s great friend and protégé, Henry David Thoreau, an American original I’ve always considered a genius.

Image result for henry david thoreauBut was Thoreau “stable”? Even his best friends wondered about that sometimes. As for being “consistent,” I’m not convinced that Henry David Thoreau would consider this trait a virtue.

“I heartily accept the motto ‘That government is best which governs least,'” Henry David Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience. “Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe — ‘That government is best which governs not at all.'”

As I wrote last year in this space, Thoreau was serious about his small-government views. He hated paying taxes, on grounds both principled and practical. On the practical level, he had little money and no inclination to join the mid-19th century rat race to success in a rapidly industrializing country. Philosophically, he considered government-mandated taxes little different morally than armed robbery. “When I meet a government,” he once wrote, “which says to me, ‘Your money or your life,’ why should I be in haste to give it my money?”

Yet he was an ardent liberal on race relations, a committed abolitionist who was jailed in 1846 for not paying his poll tax — not as a tax protest, but as a remonstration against slavery. Yet at the same time, it was beginning to dawn on other New England abolitionists that if slavery were to be abolished in this country, it was going to take a strong federal government — and a standing army — to do it.

In some ways, Thoreau’s politics don’t translate to modern America, which is a point that liberal Democrats are at pains to make to Republicans when, well, when a Supreme Court vacancy presents itself. We can say that Thoreau was not a big law-and-order proponent, as he often espoused progressive views on criminal justice issues. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” he proclaimed, “the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

In one area, it’s pretty clear how Henry David Thoreau would fit in today. He would definitely be considered a dedicated environmentalist in the 21st century, which was true in his day, too.

“If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer,” Thoreau wrote. “But if he spends his whole day… shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed as an industrious and enterprising citizen.”

Would he be part of the “resistance” today? Could the Democrats (or, more likely, the Libertarian Party) persuade him to run for office? There’s no way to know that, but I feel certain that if he were a candidate, he wouldn’t heed the wishes of his party’s “base,” or its donors, and he wouldn’t be a slave to the RealClearPolitics poll average. I don’t think he’d even hire a pollster, and I have quote that backs me up.

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer,” said Thoreau. “Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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