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Lincoln and Thoreau’s Perspectives on the Duty to Obey the Law

by Edgar Carerro | Summer 2017

Abraham Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau, though both similarly at the forefront of American history, offer up completely contradictory views on the adherence to law. While Thoreau advocated for civil disobedience in the face of injustice, Lincoln held the opinion that the law was to be adhered to in all cases, until such a time that the bad law was repealed. This article sides with Thoreau and argues that Lincoln’s view isn’t substantiated when laws violated basic human rights.

2. Ibid.

4. Ibid. 970.

6. Ibid.

8. Lincoln, “Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum,” 973.

10. Lincoln, “Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum,” 971.

The understanding of morality’s relation to the legal system has a profound impact on how one interprets and respects the law. Similarly, differing levels of trust in government and the democratic legislative process overall lead to different levels of obstinate respect for authority. Throughout the course of American history, notable political figures have differed greatly in their perspectives on the duty to obey the law. Henry David Thoreau’s profound understanding of the moral insignificance of legality rightfully made him an advocate of civil disobedience in the face of injustice, while Abraham Lincoln’s more simplistic assumption that morality and legality are interwoven led him to advocate a stubborn reverence for the law that is often not warranted in real life examples.

In order to properly understand Thoreau and Lincoln’s differing levels of deference to the law, it is important to recognize their philosophical underpinnings. Thoreau was a proponent of small government, with little faith in a central administration overall. He was a strong proponent of the classically liberal ideal that the best government is the one which governs least. In his seminal text Civil Disobedience, Thoreau states: “governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed on, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage.” This statement displays his fundamental mistrust in the legitimacy of the governmental system, and particularly in its responsibility of the allocation and legislation of morality. Thoreau believed that legality and morality were independent factors because “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 the physically strongest.”  This kind of tyranny of the majority, which exhibited a flagrant disregard for fairness or righteousness, was an apt depiction of many facets of legal actions enacted by democratic governments of his time. With legal injustice occurring in the spheres of race relations and discrimination, blatant disenfranchisement of oppressed communities, and unjust wars, Thoreau’s wariness to conflate legality and morality is both judicious and venerable.

On the other hand, Lincoln’s bold reverence for law and order stems from his fear of anarchy and mob justice. He openly expressed these fears in his Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois when he referred to the law as integral to society’s freedom. He dreaded the “increasing disregard for law which pervades the country” and a perceived widespread expansion of mob justice in his time.  Lincoln addresses how foregoing punishing violations of the law encourages the “lawless in spirit” to become “lawless in practice” and attempts to justify how without the fear of punishment people become “absolutely unrestrained.”  When referencing the specific incident of the hanging of gamblers Lincoln openly expresses his lack of sympathy for their lives, going so far as to call them “worse than useless in any community,” caring only about the legal precedent it set. Surprisingly, his reverence for the law was far more important to him than the natural right to life of the gamblers, regardless of his perception of the virtue of their profession. This fact raises serious questions for the moral underpinnings of his reverence for the law that he claims should “be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles her lap.”

Laws are an important part of society and can be net-positive when they protect citizens’ natural rights to life, liberty, and property. However, it is important to note that historically grave injustices have been performed and perpetuated in the name of legality. Most of what are now considered some of the most heinous crimes of humanity were at some point legal and even encouraged by the state, be it slavery, domestic violence, child labor, segregation, or other appalling violations of citizens’ personal and natural liberties. This fact points to the accuracy of Thoreau’s suggestion that laws were just the wishes of the powerful majority, and these wishes can be far from just. To this statement Lincoln would say that bad laws should be repealed as soon as possible, but that while they are still laws “for the sake of example they should be religiously observed.”  Paradoxically, in the same speech, Lincoln also refers to “establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty” as the “noblest of causes.” Given the vast amount of examples in American History of laws violating both of these—i.e. the Alien and Sedition Acts or the imposition of a particular religious “morality” in the legal code– it is hard to reconcile these two positions Lincoln holds.

Among the monstrous crimes against humanity that were perpetuated through the legal system stands the perennial issue of both Thoreau and Lincoln’s time in American politics, slavery. Its place—and future—in an American society that claimed that all men were created equal, remained fraught with discord and polarized opinions. On this topic, Lincoln’s devout reverence of the law allowed him to somehow feel justified in allowing the institution of slavery to continue, all the while expressing his moral opposition to it. In his timeless debates with Stephen Douglas he stated: “as I understand the Dred Scott decision if any one man wants slaves, all the rest have no way of keeping that one man from holding them.”  Here Lincoln draws upon the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court decision that denied personhood to African Americans in order to legally, albeit indubitably not morally, justify the spread of the institution of slavery into the new Western territories. Thoreau would have swiftly informed Lincoln that complying with unjust laws makes one complicit in their crimes against humanity. The very fact that Lincoln considered slavery unjust but still believed that these laws should be religiously observed leads to the presumption that he must have understood that morality and legality were not necessarily intertwined. The religious observance of unjust laws and corrupted governance in certain cases, could lead to outcomes which counterintuitively endanger basic natural rights to life, liberty and property. In the face of such blatant contradictions, it is the compliance with a corrupted authority and its legislative agenda which is inherently immoral, and Lincoln’s ad hoc approach to different situations suggests as much.

Unsurprisingly, Lincoln and Thoreau differed greatly in their religious beliefs, and this certainly influenced their respective understanding of the duty to obey the law. Throughout Lincoln’s speeches and texts, his piety is clearly displayed. Rarely does he go more than a couple of paragraphs without referring to God’s will; even when describing the scenes of the Revolution that he so revered, he states that they “will be read of, and recounted, so long as the Bible shall be read.”  The excess of biblical passages emphasizing the importance of following the law of the land probably strengthened his views on the importance of revering authority. On the other hand, Thoreau was a radical for his time: an advocate of the school of transcendentalism. Transcendentalism emphasized the importance of both nature and individualism, and its adherents were typically very progressive in regards to their contemporary social issues, namely slavery and feminism. These progressive views would have made living with the injustices of Thoreau’s time much harder for him to justify. These views help explain why Thoreau was willing to be jailed in order to not pay taxes that he believed would ultimately be used in an unjust war which could potentially spread slavery to the acquired Mexican territories. In the face of such injustice, Thoreau refused to be complicit and exercised civil disobedience in accordance with his beliefs “that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.”

The claims this essay has made do not advocate for lawlessness but definitely defend the doctrine of civil disobedience in the face of injustice, irrespective of legality. Lincoln’s dogmatic defense of the law was probably not purposefully oppressive, but rather misguided and can be in part explained by the fact that he was the least likely archetype to be unfairly subjected to unjust laws in the mid-19th century. Namely, he was a well off white male, who possessed significant political clout.  Lincoln memorably stated “let every man remember that to violate the law is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the charter of his own and his children’s liberty.”  Had the law consistently perpetuated his, or even his children’s, enslavement or deprival of natural liberties, it is likely that he would have held very different beliefs on the sanctity of the rule of law.

These contradictions are palpable in contemporary case studies, as exemplified by Venezuela’s contemporary societal decay. Venezuela is nearing a decade of legislation aimed at suppressing civil liberties and violent threats to the rule of law. From imprisoning members of the political opposition and subjecting them to torture, using the military to terrorize civilians and suppressing the autonomy of the judiciary, the Venezuelan government exemplifies how a corrupted source can issue legal, yet unjust, laws. When considering these tensions between morality and legality, the lingering threat of a corrupted power taking control of the legitimate source of legal enactment is not addressed by Lincoln, who elaborated theories based on a virtuous society. Thoreau’s skepticism of the pervasive power of the government and the risk of takeover that might give birth to immoral and unjust laws, is more fitting to the reality of cases like Venezuela’s legal injustice.

Intriguingly, both Thoreau and Lincoln were profoundly influential in American history yet they held polar perspectives on the duty to obey laws. Thoreau was not an anarchist, but he understood that unjust laws were not moral simply because a controlling majority decreed it. The failures of the law in nations like Venezuela illustrate the dichotomy between morality and legality. Throughout history, most of society’s worst crimes have been completely legal. Lincoln lacked this insight many a time, but even he as President intermittently exercised discretion with which laws he followed. Following his example, the Venezuelan people are justified in disobeying laws in a country where the very mob justice Lincoln feared, is paradoxically perpetuated by the “legal” government. Ultimately, obeying unfair laws is inherently unjust and no rationale can credibly justify it.

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1. Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience (1849)” In American Political & Constitutional Thought, 932-939. Vol. 1. Origins through the Civil War, (Indianapolis, IN, Hackett Publishing Company, 2007), 933.

3. Abraham Lincoln, “Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois (1838)” In Classics of American Political & Constitutional Thought, 969-973. Vol. 1. Origins through the Civil War, (Indianapolis, IN, Hackett Publishing Company, 2007), 969-970.

5. Ibid. 971

7. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, “Selected Debates (1858)” In American Political & Constitutional Thought, 1054. Vol. 1. Origins through the Civil War, (Indianapolis, IN, Hackett Publishing Company, 2007), 1054.

9. Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” 933.

REFERENCES

Lincoln, Abraham. “Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois (1838)” In Classics of American Political & Constitutional Thought, 969-973. Vol. 1. Origins through the Civil War. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2007.

Lincoln, Abraham; Douglas, Stephen. “Selected Debates (1858)” In American Political & Constitutional Thought, 1054. Vol. 1. Origins through the Civil War. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2007.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience (1849)” In American Political & Constitutional Thought, 932-939. Vol. 1. Origins through the Civil War. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2007.