The Individual and Government

In her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe points out the flaws in the the imposing force of law in relation to the ethical individual. In at least two of her scenes, Stowe constructs a portrait of white southerners who find themselves in a moral conflict with the government of the time. One of these scenes portrays the character Mr. Symmes aiding Eliza, a fleeing slave. The historical impact of this is heightened when taking into account the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which mandated that all white southerners aid in the capture of escaped slaves. The law also strongly prohibited the aiding of escaped slaves. After helping Eliza, Stowe makes a statement on the actions of the white southern man. She says that “this poor, heathenish Kentuckian, who had not been instructed in his constitutional relations, and consequently was betraying into acting in a sort of Christianized manner, which, if he had been better situated and more enlightened, he would not have been left to do”(1720). The statement Stowe makes displays a disconnect between the law and ethical obligations. As she paints it, the law forces individuals to act unjustly toward others. In this situation, had Mr. Symmes acted in accordance with the law, he would have been forced to act in opposition to his own beliefs as well as deny the right of freedom to Eliza.

What Stowe argues here is the same thing that Thoreau does; that the State is not armed with superior wit, honesty or ethics; only force. Because the State is liable to corruption, it is ultimately the individual who must stand up against injustice. In much the same way, it is the individual that enables the government and institutions such as slavery. “in my opinion, it is you considerate, humane men, that are responsible for all the brutality and outrage wrought by these wretches; because, if it were not for your sanction and influence, the whole system could not keep foot-hold for an hour…It is your respectability and humanity that licenses and protects his brutality.” Stowe here says the same thing that Douglass does and resonates with Thoreau. Douglass says almost the exact same thing in his own narrative, but Thoreau’s view on the matter has different roots.

Stowe resonates with Thoreau because he says in his essay “Resistance to Civil Government” that “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail”(1861). The bottom line for both authors is action, or rather, inaction. Stowe proposes that humane supporters of injustice stop giving credence to the old reprobates by refusing to acknowledge them and condemn their actions. Thoreau’s idea of non-cooperation with an unjust government is a strong correlation that can be drawn out through the conversation of the individual in society and ultimately democratic idealism.

Perhaps one of the most authoritative voices on the ideal relationship between the individual and the government are those that have truly been consumed by that government. Frederick Douglass, a Maryland-born slave, discusses in his narrative the necessity for equality in his admonition of slavery. To try and convey the horror of being a slave, Douglass says in his narrative that “it was a most painful situation; and, to understand it, one must needs experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances. Let him be a fugitive slave in a strange land — a land given up to be the hunting-ground for slaveholders — whose inhabitants are legalized kidnappers — where he is every moment subjected to the terrible liability of being seized upon by his fellow-men, as the hideous crocodile seizes upon his prey!” While his words directly addressed slavery, they apply to the idea of freedom in general. Douglass aptly conveys the constant terror at the lack of freedom; that one’s life belongs to another. This view of a man animalizes him and destroys his individuality and humanity. Douglass believes and strongly espouses that man has an inherent right to freedom as well as humanity. He says that “to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must not be able to detect inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.” The obvious message of this excerpt is that man must be convinced slavery is wrong because he knows innately that it is not; that he is entitled to freedom. Freedom, then, is not something that may be removed at will or ever transgressed upon, for doing so infringes upon the individuality as well as the humanity of citizens.

Frederick Douglass, as displayed by his views, believes the individual to be the measure of freedom. Each man has an inherent right to life, liberty and property and imposing anything upon a man in opposition to his manner of living is removing his humanity for it denies his essential individualism.

Wendy McElroy says in her essay, entitled “Henry Thoreau and ‘Civil Disobedience’” that although Thoreau “’came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad’” and that “first and foremost, he clearly stated, people should live their lives;” every man has a duty of non-cooperation with a government that partakes in injustice. To succinctly sum up the latter portion of this statement, McElroy is saying that Thoreau did not charge men with the duty of seeking out injustices in government to fix them. Rather, as government inevitably grows larger and more powerful, citizens have a duty to keep that power in check by refusing to cooperate when necessary. To give a definitive example…

Henry David Thoreau was imprisoned in July of 1846 for refusing to pay his tax to the government with the reason being that “If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood”(1865). To put this in a more contextual light…

Just a few months before this incident, the United States had declared war on Mexico; a war that Thoreau did not agree with. In his opinion, Thoreau thought, as seen in the above quote, that no citizen should be compelled for any moment to “…resign his conscience to the legislator”. Then “why has every man a conscience?” as Thoreau asks in his essay “Resistance to Civil Government” As McElroy puts it; “This is the key to Thoreau’s political philosophy. The individual is the final judge of right and wrong. More than this, since only individuals act, only individuals can act unjustly.” The relationship of the individual to the government is for Thoreau the most important political idea to keep in mind. As Thoreau rightly points out, when the individual begins to submit to the government as a higher power, there is little to keep the government from wielding this power. This is the ultimate downfall of a government because the State, as Thoreau says, “is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior strength”(1867). Striving toward an ideal government is not a possibility from within the government because superior intellect, morals and honesty will always come from the individual and so it is important the power remain with them, otherwise the State becomes impervious to improvement. The rejection of the individual is the rejection of progress and justice.

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