Only in our time did Thoreau's essay "Civil
Disobedience" become influential.
After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of
the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule
is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems
fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a
government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on
justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in
which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?
�in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of
expediency is applicable? 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. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no
conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a
conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their
respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.
A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may
see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys,
and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against
their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it
very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have
no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are
all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts
and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the
Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make,
or such as it can make a man with its black arts, �a mere shadow and
reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as
one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniment...