[Note: This one is for the OVA crowd. My sincere apologies for not attending this year’s reunion, but circumstances did not permit it. Next year will be different, I hope.]


I heartily accept the motto, – “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe – “That government is best which governs not at all”…

Henry David Thoreau[1]

 [What’s the relationship between Edward Snowden and Henry David Thoreau? Well, I don’t know Snowden’s mind, or whether he’s even read Thoreau, but I’ll bet some of his critics have. That group, or at least its older members, grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s, when civil disobedience, public debates and demonstrations were a very big thing. There was the Vietnam War, you may recall, and lots of young folks didn’t particularly want to fight in it. Some radicals thought they could use that war to start a revolution, overthrow the government and replace it with something better. The saner protestors didn’t see that happening, but thought demonstrations, even violent ones, might affect public policy, limit a seemingly endless conflict, and perhaps help abolish the draft. But for some of them there was a different question: Just how far can one go, morally speaking, in violating the law to change it?

This is a perennial question whenever revolution is afoot. Revolutions today feature terror strikes, ethnic and religious massacres and so forth, and are quite bloody and often indiscriminate. But such things were mostly unknown back then, at least in the U.S[2]. I remember going to a seminar on civil disobedience in 1965 or 1966. There were no obvious revolutionaries in attendance; just law students and a blue ribbon panel of great intellects from around the country. And there were no calls for mass slaughter. Instead there was a more or less civilized discussion of the First Amendment, parade restrictions, the police power, trespass on public and private facilities and things of that sort. Attitudes might have changed later but even so, in the U.S. at least, the great revolution of the 1960’s – 1970’s was relatively peaceful.

So how far can one go to advocate for or incite a revolution? Morally speaking, I mean? The legal issues are a whole different matter. Let’s assume, for the purpose of this piece, that at least one law is broken at any given rally, etc., and perhaps many more at one time or another. Is there a moral limit to law-breaking? How much is too much?

Well, one idea from that long-ago conference was that it might be moral to break laws in protest, if the lawbreaker is willing to face up to the consequences. And what do I mean by that? Well, to appear in court and be tried for whatever offenses he or she might commit.

And here’s where Thoreau comes into the picture. In many ways he was the first of the American refuseniks. He was a famous opponent of slavery in the U.S.[3], but also opposed state taxes and went to jail from time to time for not paying them.[4] In short, he protested, disobeyed, and occasionally suffered consequences. He also wrote about his experiences, most famously in a piece called Civil Disobedience.[5]

Some say Thoreau, by standing his ground and litigating when necessary, set the paradigm for what people ought to do if they take a position of conscience against their government and violate its laws. That’s pretty much what the Obama Administration says about Edward Snowden.  He purloined and ran off with a large cache of classified material, and released some of it to the world. Now he should return from his sanctuary abroad, and stand trial in the United States for his crimes. He’ll have a public trial; his rights will be protected by our court system; and he’ll have plenty of opportunity to make his case to the American public.[6]

So the question is, what would Henry David Thoreau think about Snowden’s predicament? Would he tell Snowden to defer to the United States Government, stand trial, and take his punishment? Or would he advise Snowden to stay where he is, and continue protesting from a foreign sanctuary?]

This is G. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I never read Thoreau in my student days. I heard about him but, like most young people, I drank more than I read.  So this is all new ground for me, and interesting to boot.

Obviously Thoreau was not a real fan of the bureaucracy. He said the best government “governs least,” or hopefully “not at all.”[7] That sounds pretty Conservative, or perhaps Libertarian, doesn’t it? And what did he mean by governing “not at all?” I think he meant it literally. When men finally are prepared for no government, “that will be the kind of government which they have.[8]

Thoreau didn’t like the idea of a standing army and thought even less of a “standing government.” Government employees take orders; they don’t follow their conscience. “The mass of men serve the state … not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies.  … In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense …They have the same sort of worth only as horses or dogs.” [9] And even the best of our executives ignore their consciences when serving the state. They follow their heads rather than their hearts, and are more likely to fall in with the Devil’s schemes, rather than God’s. [10]

And what about our Congress, the people who write our laws? What about the Rule of Law? Aren’t we supposed to respect that above everything else? Not really, said Thoreau. Everybody has a conscience, and nobody endowed our legislators with the right to substitute theirs for ours.  We don’t need to respect the law so much as we need to follow our conscience and respect what’s right.[11]

So given all that, what might Thoreau think of someone like Edward Snowden? Thoreau said “[a]ll men recognize the right of revolution, that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.”[12] It’s all speculation, of course, but Snowden may well see himself as operating in that mold. And, if Thoreau were alive today, he might well see the NSA’s spying activities as (i) greatly tyrannical and, due to the astounding leaks perpetrated by Snowden and the bumbling cover-up by the NSA, (ii) unendurably inefficient.

And what about the final question? Would Thoreau advise Snowden to stay abroad, in sanctuary, or return to the U.S. to face trial? Well, any answer to that is really speculative, but it’s worth noting that Thoreau didn’t have the opportunity to travel that we have today and, in any case, the penalties that Thoreau faced – a few days in jail – were certainly far less than the ones government lawyers are cooking up for Ed Snowden. So, given Thoreau’s generally low opinion of government and its employees, it’s quite possible he might advise Snowden to stay where he is. I know I would.

Ave atque vale,[13] Edward.



[1] See Thoreau, Collected Essays and Poems (LOA, 2001) at Civil Disobedience, p. 203. The Library of America is an excellent (and growing) collection of American literature, covering notable works from the pre-colonial days to the 20th Century. Its selections are frequently controversial, but always interesting. Henceforth this particular volume will be cited as Thoreau Essays at __.

[2] In the 20th Century there was always plenty of terror and blood somewhere in the world.

[3] See Thoreau Essays at Slavery in Massachusetts, p. 333 – 347.

[4] See Thoreau Essays at Civil Disobedience, p. 216 – 219.

[5] The complete article appears in Thoreau Essays at Civil Disobedience, p. 203 – 224. The piece began as two lectures he gave in 1848. In 1849 he submitted a written version to Elizabeth Peabody’s Aesthetic Papers under the title “Resistance to Civil Government.” The piece was revised somewhat and republished in 1866 as Civil Disobedience. See Thoreau Essays at Notes on the Texts, p. 659 – 660. Thoreau died in 1862, so this final version was posthumous. See Thoreau Essays at Chronology, p. 656.

[6] See, e.g., Yahoo News, Kerry tells Snowden to ‘man up’ and come home (May 28, 2014), at http://news.yahoo.com/kerry-tells-snowden-man-come-home-115623320–politics.html

[7] See Thoreau Essays at Civil Disobedience, p. 203.

[8] See Thoreau Essays at Civil Disobedience, p. 203.

[9] See Thoreau Essays at Civil Disobedience, p. 205: “The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus &cc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones, and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses or dogs.”

[10] See Thoreau Essays at Civil Disobedience, p. 205: “Others, – as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers and office holders, – serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the Devil, without intending it, as God.”

[11] See Thoreau Essays at Civil Disobedience, p. 204: “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right.”

[12] See Thoreau Essays at Civil Disobedience, p. 206: “All men recognize the right of revolution, that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now….”

[13] Do you want the translation? Go to Merriam-Webster at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ave%20atque%20vale