Thoreau & Gandhi

January 26: Henry David Thoreau's thoughts on "Civil Disobedience" were first aired on this day in 1848, in a talk delivered to "an attentive audience" (Bronson Alcott's journal) at the Concord Lyceum. Originally titled "The Relation of the Individual to the State," the talk became "Resistance to Civil Government" when published in 1849, and then "Civil Disobedience" when republished four years after Thoreau's death. The increasing militancy in the various titles may reflect a publisher's marketing ploy, but it seems justified:

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

The Indian National Congress, led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, issued their Declaration of Independence on this day in 1930; on this day in 1931, Gandhi was unconditionally released from jail after serving eight months for his salt rebellion; and on this day in 1950, with the legalization of its own independent constitution, India officially became a Republic. As early as 1907, when he was still an activist-lawyer in South Africa and urging on the local Indians to nonviolent protest, Gandhi cited Thoreau's essay and example:

Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet, and withal a most practical man, that is, he taught nothing he was not prepared to practice in himself. He was one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced. At the time of the abolition of slavery movement, he wrote his famous essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience". He went to gaol for the sake of his principles and suffering humanity. His essay has, therefore, been sanctified by suffering. Moreover, it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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