BECK index

Abolitionists, Emerson, and Thoreau

Channing on War
American Peace Society
Abolitionists and Garrison's Nonresistance
Emerson's Transcendentalism
Thoreau's Civil Disobedience

This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

Click below to watch and listen to Sanderson Beck's audio recording of American Peace Society and Abolitionists.

Let us teach that the honor of a nation
consists not in the forced submission of other states,
but in equal laws and free institutions,
in cultivated fields and prosperous cities;
in the development of intellectual and moral power,
in the diffusion of knowledge, in magnanimity and justice,
in the virtues and blessings of peace.
William Ellery Channing, "First Discourse on War"

Our country is the world, our countrymen all mankind.
We love the land of our nativity,
only as we love all other lands.
The interests, rights, and liberties of American citizens
are no more dear to us,
than are those of the whole human race.
William Lloyd Garrison, "Declaration of Sentiments, 1838"

Nonresistance cannot be for war,
capital punishment, slavery and all sorts of penal injury.
Nor can it be for any government
which is fundamentally for these things.
Adin Ballou, Christian Non-Resistance

Peace has its battle-fields; bloodless, but brave
to a degree of heroic endurance of wrong and outrage
to which martial courage could never attain.
The patriotism of peace, like the first grace of Christianity,
is first pure, then peaceable;
pure from those intense emotions of selfishness
which are generally the heart and soul
of the patriotism of the warrior.
Elihu Burritt, "Passive Resistance"

Love is the adamantean shield which makes blows ridiculous.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals III, 295

The manhood that has been in war
must be transferred to the cause of peace,
before war can lose its charm,
and peace be venerable to men.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "War"

Whenever we see the doctrine of peace embraced by a nation,
we may be assured it will not be one that invites injury;
but one, on the contrary, which has a friend
in the bottom of the heart of every man,
even of the violent and the base;
one against which no weapon can prosper;
one which is looked upon as the asylum of the human race
and has the tears and the blessings of mankind.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "War"

Only the defeated and deserters go to the wars,
cowards that run away and enlist.
Henry David Thoreau

Men make an arbitrary code, and because it is not right,
they try to make it prevail by might.
The moral law does not want any champion.
Its asserters do not go to war.
It was never infringed with impunity.
Henry David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience"

The law will never make men free;
it is men who have got to make the law free.
They are the lovers of law and order,
who observe the law when the government breaks it.
Henry David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience"

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.
This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution,
if any such is possible.
Henry David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience"

Channing on War

William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) was a forerunner of the Transcendentalists and preached against slavery, poverty, and war at a Boston church from 1803 until his death. He began as a Congregationalist, but in 1815 he was attacked as a Unitarian. He defended Unitarian Christianity and in 1820 formed a conference of liberal Congregational ministers, which five years later became the American Unitarian Association. Channing, like Emerson, disliked sectarian squabbles, and he was praised by Emerson above all other ministers. Channing was active in the peace movement, which began in 1815 when Noah Worcester founded the Massachusetts Peace Society, the first influential peace society in the world.

Channing's first address on war was given to the Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts at Boston in 1816. He described the miseries and crimes of war, their causes, and some possible remedies. In addition to the suffering and destruction, he pointed out how war corrupts the morals of society, promotes "criminal modes of subsistence," and endows government with dangerous powers. The sources of war are the human propensity for excitement that makes war the deepest game of all, the passion for superiority and power, admiration for warlike deeds, false patriotism that puts one's nation over others, and upbringing and education which glamorize military exploits.

Channing saw the remedies as well as the causes to be of a moral nature. Yet he considered national subjugation worse than a war of defense. He argued that just as a government has a right to repress the violence of its own citizens, it also may resist a foreign army because the "very end and office of government is to resist evil men."1 He suggested that rulers should take more honor in the prosperity of their states than in the extent of their territories. Even more we should honor nations for their free institutions, equal laws, knowledge, benevolence, and justice. We must learn to admire the heroes of conscience, human rights, the martyrs for peace and freedom more than the false attributes of military courage. The peaceful qualities of the Christian teachings ought to be emphasized and demonstrated by its ministers. Courage can reach a much more generous height working for peace than on the rough field of war.

Channing gave another discourse on war on January 25, 1835. He suggested that the most conspicuous use of human wisdom has been to use civil institutions to repress war, retaliation, and the resort to force among citizens of the same state; but governments have organized and let loose their forces against other nations, spreading desolation, misery, and death. All other evils fade in comparison to war. The old barbarous worship of mere courage must be replaced by wise moral judgment. Justice must be the first element of a nation's honor. People who systematically sacrifice justice for their own selfish interests are basically a band of robbers. The next element of national honor that Channing recommended is the spirit of philanthropy. Spreading education can purify morals and refine manners. Once again Channing disagreed with the nonresistants, as he believed that outrages against peace must be repressed by force. Yet a nation should engage in war wisely, aware of what is right, and with sorrow. Usually a nation loses more by going to war to redress a past wrong. The main consideration should be security for the future. He held that governments have a duty to protect their people from violence and aggression. To make sure that it is being just, a nation should refer disputes to an impartial umpire. An unjust war involves people in the guilt of murder.

Channing also gave a lecture on war in 1838. Again he described the physical and moral evils of war, which can only be overcome by the principles of universal justice and love. He noted that Europe had been at peace since 1816 and had been able to apply its industry to useful arts. He emphasized the inward morality. "No calculations of interest, no schemes of policy can do the work of love, of the spirit of human brotherhood. There can be no peace without but through peace within."2 Channing found various reasons why people become insensitive to war. First, it appears common and seems familiar. Second, war is exercised by the great power of the government with its assumption that it is right. Yet he argued that government's right to war must be bounded, and those who go beyond what is truly right are responsible. Thus he maintained that the citizen before fighting must inquire into the justice of the cause and is "bound to withhold his hand if his conscience condemns the cause."3 The presumption should be that war is always unjust because of the dangers of false patriotism.

Channing warned that the attitude of rulers and nations towards foreign states, which is usually partial and unjust, ought to show us that war is rarely just or necessary. He advised the Christian to refuse war and to submit if necessary to prison and execution in martyrdom for peace. We must distinguish between reasonable laws and those which require a person to commit manifest crimes. Every individual is responsible for one's own actions, even if the rulers claim the "right of war." In a republican government the rights of speech, press, and peaceful methods of redressing public grievances are extremely valuable. Even in war these freedoms are of great importance. Channing tempered the right of free discussion with the admonition to speak and write only the truth. The third cause of insensitivity he attributed to the deceptive shows, costumes, and splendor by which war is arrayed. Finally he noted that people tend to be blind to the dignity of human nature, because they do not see their enemies and dehumanize them.

Channing also drew lessons from the life of Napoleon and exposed the problems caused by the passion for dominion. On August 1, 1837 Channing published an 80-page open letter to Henry Clay on the "Annexation of Texas." He reviewed the insurrection and the underlying scheme to take over Mexican territory and considered it the first encroaching step toward crime, war, and the extension of slavery. Although he did not want to see the Union dissolved, he indicated he would prefer that to becoming a partner in this war to spread slavery. After the death of Noah Worcester in November 1837, Channing wrote a tribute to the saintly founder of the Massachusetts Peace Society. At the end of his life Channing wrote that if the spirit of justice and humanity pervaded the country, they would not be easily driven to war.

American Peace Society

Peace societies were formed at the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 in both England and America. In August of that year the successful New York merchant David Lord Dodge founded the New York Peace Society. Years earlier Dodge had been advised to carry firearms while traveling because of robbers; but after nearly killing the landlord at an inn, he decided that the use of weapons was contrary to being a Christian. By 1808 he had adopted the nonresistant position, renouncing all violence even in defense. The next year he published a pamphlet condemning defensive war as against the teachings of the Gospels.

The publication of Dodge's longer War Inconsistent with the Religion of Jesus Christ was delayed by the war until 1815. In this book he argued that war is an economic calamity because even the winning side usually loses more than it gains. He believed the distinction between offensive and defensive war is illusory. War destroys the young and healthy, and it does not lead to peace and freedom because of its hatred and violence. He noted that nations do not allow soldiers to decide which wars are unjust because it would undermine military discipline. If they did allow soldiers to follow their consciences, war would become impractical. Dodge was surprised that so many Christians protest slavery and intemperance but fail to see the greater evil of war. Dodge explained the difference between personal defense and war; the latter is a planned and organized activity that allows time for debate and reflection. Dodge did not accept arguments from the Old Testament because Christians are under a new dispensation. A nation is a collection of individuals and still has the same ethical responsibility that an individual has.

Because of Dodge's leadership the New York Peace Society adopted a nonresistant platform, and he criticized the more moderate views of Noah Worcester, who founded the Massachusetts Peace Society, also in 1815. The year before Worcester had published A Solemn Review of the Custom of War in which he argued that war does not right wrongs because the people killed are not the people responsible for the wrong policies. He recommended settling international disputes by arbitration in a world court. By 1818 the Massachusetts Peace Society had a thousand members, including the governor and some military officers. The Baptist minister Henry Holcombe and Quakers formed the Pennsylvania Peace Society in 1822. In 1828 these groups joined to become the American Peace Society, and William Ladd emerged as the new leader.

In 1832 the South Carolina slave owner Thomas S. Grimké (1786-1834) gave an address for the Connecticut Peace Society in which he orated that war in any form is utterly contrary to Christian principles. He was one of the first to argue that even the American War of Independence was wrong and unchristian to use violence. In 1841 the Unitarian minister Sylvester Judd from Maine would publish The Moral Evils of Our Revolutionary War. Actually even John Adams admitted that the real American revolution occurred between 1760 and 1775 and was nonviolent, but it was followed by the violent war for independence. In 1836 Bowdoin professor Thomas Upham (1799-1872) published a long Manual of Peace that discussed many peace issues and suggested that until more people had advanced to the level of nonresistance a congress of nations could bring world order. That year the American Peace Society had been kept vibrant by the speaking tour of the zealous Rev. Henry C. Wright. In 1837 he and Garrison were able to persuade Ladd to put through an amendment to clarify that the American Peace Society was "founded on the principle that all war is contrary to the spirit of the gospel."4 This caused some moderates, like the society's vice president Dr. William Allen, to resign because they opposed the radical nonresistants and supported "defensive" wars.

In 1839 Ladd published An Essay on a Congress of Nations. He proposed two main international bodies-first, a congress of ambassadors from all Christian and civilized nations to make a mutual treaty for preserving peace, and second, a court of nations to arbitrate and judge cases brought before it by mutual consent of disputing nations. Instead of an executive branch, Ladd trusted to public opinion, which he called "the queen of the world."5 His plan gave equal representation to every nation sending delegates and required unanimous consent to establish international laws. The congress was to organize the court of nations.

After Ladd died in 1841, the American Peace Society reverted to a moderate program under the conservative administration of George Beckwith. Most of the "ultras" supported the more radical Non-Resistance Society founded by Garrison in 1838. The more moderate abolitionist Lewis Tappan in 1843 represented the American Peace Society at the first World Peace Congress in London. On July 4, 1845 Boston lawyer Charles Sumner gave an oration in which he suggested that in their time no war was honorable, and no peace was dishonorable. Instead of "trial by battle" he recommended arbitration and a congress of nations, and he called international conflict unchristian. To the surprise of his audience of patriots, he called for disbanding the standing army, the regular navy, and state militias, though he would preserve some armed naval forces to suppress piracy and slave trading. Lewis Tappan got 400 New Yorkers to sign a petition against going to war over Oregon in 1846. During the Mexican War the southern Episcopalian minister Philip Berry wrote "An Essay on the Means to Preventing War" and suggested sending peacemakers from different countries to risk their lives as "soldiers of peace." Such unarmed world-police might perish as martyrs or they might "arrest the collision of the two armies."6

Peace Congresses were held at Brussels in 1848, at Paris in 1849, at Frankfort in 1850, at London again in 1851, and at Edinburgh in 1853. Two fugitive slaves joined the large American Peace Society delegation to the World Peace Congress in Paris in 1849. In his address at Paris the great novelist Victor Hugo urged organizing peace by using arbitration, proportionate and simultaneous disarmament, and a Congress of Nations. Hugo prophetically believed that cooperation between the United States and a union of European nations could lead the world to peace. Between 1842 and 1854 efforts to get nations to stipulate with each other that they would use arbitration instead of war to settle disagreements were led by Richard Cobden and Henry Richard in England and by Judge William Jay in the United States. In 1849 Cobden proposed in the House of Commons that the British government pursue this, but it was defeated 176-79.

Elihu Burritt (1810-79) was from a poor family and became a blacksmith, but studying on his own he learned many languages. In 1843 he realized the oneness of life and joined the American Peace Society. He perceived that the law of love is for the spiritual universe what the law of gravity is in the physical world. In 1845 Burritt became editor of the Society's publication Advocate of Peace and added to its name and Universal Brotherhood. However, when Beckwith gained control of the American Peace Society the next year, the pacifists, including Burritt, resigned from the executive committee. Burritt and Amasa Walker had started the Worcester County Peace Society and wanted to oppose all wars, and in June 1846 Burritt went to England. There he lectured and got thousands of people to sign a pledge not to support war nor prevent peaceful brotherhood in any way. He was strongly supported by Quakers. As a laborer himself, Burritt appealed to the working class. By 1847 some 30,000 people had signed the pledge in England and the United States as the League of Universal Brotherhood was officially formed. For a decade Burritt spent most of his time in Britain working for the League with the London Peace Society. However, League activities declined in the 1850s in America and in England with the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1855 and Burritt's departure with the result that in 1857 the League dissolved into the American Peace Society and the London Peace Society.

Elihu Burritt wrote essays on "Passive Resistance" that were published in his Thoughts and Things at Home and Abroad in 1854. He believed that the full power of the Gospel precept to "overcome evil with good" had never been fully tested by a community to subdue evils and overcome oppression; but he found a few recent examples of passive resistance successfully withstanding oppressive force. When the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) imposed a tax on liquor to reduce drunkenness, the French navy threatened to use cannons if they did not repeal the tax on French brandy; but the people did not give in nor resist with force, and the French marines were powerless. A community at the Cape of Good Hope refused to cooperate with the British attempt to make the country a penal settlement. Passive resistance uses the power of the will by holding to what is good. Burritt argued it can raise the smallest nation to the equal of the great powers on Earth, but resistance using brute force weakens the will of a nation and subordinates it to the precarious contingencies of the battlefield. Conquering by moral will is to be like a God, but conquering by brute force is to be like a beast. Burritt found a greater patriotism in being courageously peaceful. He wrote,

Peace has its patriotism,
deep, earnest, unselfish, self-sacrificing, and sensitive,-
a love of country that would bleed to the last vein,
but never wound, for its rights, honor, and prosperity.7

He described how William Penn courageously faced Indians after they had been scarred by previous conflicts with European colonists and made peace with them. Burritt argued that passive resistance is most economical and moral. In a battle right has no advantage over wrong, and oppressed people lose the moral force they had before fighting.

Burritt asked what force can a despotic government use to overcome the will of people who oppose it without fighting. Every act of violence puts it more in the wrong; thus it has no moral force, and its soldiers become powerless. Women and children can also become heroes in this struggle by enduring patiently wrongs without doing wrong in return. The generals can hang a few leaders; they can put hundreds in prison; they can spoil the goods of thousands. Yet the total destruction is always less when only one side is fighting instead of two, and those enduring peacefully are not subjected to the despotism of military rule. This bravery of the human heart can face down gigantic despotism as people establish democracy by their wills. This is the way to realize fully liberty, equality, and fraternity. Alien armies of despots "may encamp around such a nation, but they can no more withhold from it the freedom it has won by its capacity to enjoy it, than they can withhold the communion and friendship of the Holy Spirit from the individual soul."8 In 1867 Burritt hoped that one day working Christians would form one big trade union and go on a world-wide strike against the whole war system. The next year at the Social Science Congress he proposed that a congress of nations be called to codify international law.

Abolitionists and Garrison's Nonresistance

William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79) was born into a poor family in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He became a printer's apprentice, and in 1826 he started the Free Press. After editing reform newspapers in Boston and Vermont, Garrison went to Baltimore in 1829 to become co-editor of The Genius of Emancipation. He was soon converted by the Quaker Benjamin Lundy to the radical position of immediate emancipation. Garrison wrote the first nationally published demand for the immediate and unconditional emancipation of slaves. The next month he opposed compensating slave owners because it would be like paying a thief to give up stolen property. At age 24 he refused to appear at a militia muster and paid a fine of four dollars. He also supported other reforms such as peace, temperance, women's rights, vegetarianism, and abolishing capital punishment of criminals, corporal punishment of children, and the use of tobacco. Garrison was sentenced to six months in prison for criminal libel when he did not pay the $50 fine for condemning those connected to slavery. After seven weeks the wealthy Arthur Tappan of New York paid his fine, and Garrison returned to Boston. When Garrison gave an impassioned speech, the saintly Unitarian pastor Samuel J. May called him a prophet who will shake slavery out of the nation.

On January 1, 1831 Garrison began publishing The Liberator under the well known motto "Our Country Is the World-Our Countrymen Are Mankind." Having recanted on gradual abolition, he promised to be "as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice." The periodical was excluded from the South, but the number of subscribers grew gradually to 3,000 by 1837 and stayed at that level until all slaves were emancipated in 1865. In 1832 Garrison organized the New England Anti-Slavery Society and published the 240-page pamphlet Thoughts on African Colonization, in which he exposed the contradictions of the Colonization Society and called for the immediate liberation of all slaves in the United States and recognized their right to live where they choose. Arthur Tappan distributed a pamphlet by Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier calling for the abolition of slavery without "violence or blood."

In 1833 Garrison and his followers met in Philadelphia with Quakers and moderate abolitionists from New York led by Arthur and Lewis Tappan to form the American Anti-Slavery Society. The founding members adopted a constitution that declared the society would never "countenance the oppressed in vindicating their rights by resorting to physical force."9 Overnight Garrison wrote a "Declaration of Sentiments" that was modified and signed by all the founding members. This document contrasted their nonviolent methods with the shedding of blood in the American Revolution, saying that their principles forbid doing evil that good may come. Thus they advised the oppressed to reject all carnal weapons and use the power of love to overthrow prejudice with the truth. They declared that all laws supporting slavery were before God null and void. The Anti-Slavery Society grew quickly, and by 1838 there were 1350 societies with about 250,000 members. Garrisonian blacks William Whipper and Robert Purvis of Pennsylvania persuaded the Negro national convention in 1835 to use peaceful methods in disobeying the fugitive slave law.

Garrison bravely spoke out, but once he escaped threats to lynch him in Boston by sailing to England. Abolitionists there were surprised to learn that he was not a Negro, because African Americans made up the large majority of subscribers to The Liberator. In 1835 a mob led by property owners disrupted a meeting of the Female Anti-Slavery Society and tied a rope around the unresisting Garrison, dragging him away. Eventually the mayor put him in jail overnight for his own safety; this incident was witnessed by the young Wendell Phillips, who later became the abolitionists' finest orator.

The abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy was driven out of Missouri and went to Alton, Illinois, where mobs destroyed his printing press three times and invaded his house more than that, driving his wife to distraction. The mayor said that he could not defend his new press but in November 1837 permitted Lovejoy to guard it with arms. When a mob arrived to destroy it, both sides fired; one person in the mob was killed. The mayor ordered them to go home, but they refused. When someone climbed a ladder with a torch to set the roof in fire, Lovejoy aimed his gun and was shot dead. This incident led Garrison and others to emphasize not resisting violence as Jesus taught in the sermon on the mount. Thomas S. Grimké's sisters Sarah and Angelina were won over to Garrison's nonresistance. Channing, who did not adopt nonresistance, advised the abolitionists that they could not use violence successfully. Most abolitionists agreed, and their efforts in this era were primarily nonviolent. Nonetheless the tolerant view of Garrison and Lewis Tappan prevailed that there should be no specific test regarding nonresistance for membership in the Anti-Slavery Society.

In 1838 Garrison organized and wrote a "Declaration of Sentiments" for the New England Non-Resistance Society that was open to all regardless of color or sex or creed who accepted their principle of renouncing all violence. The founders considered themselves "a few obscure, moneyless, uninfluential men and women." One of the outspoken leaders was the Quaker Lucretia Mott. Novelist Lydia Maria Child did not like to attend meetings, but she wrote that the idea of nonresistance is what distinguishes the gospel of Christ from other philosophies and makes it holy.

In this "Declaration of Sentiments" Garrison even went so far as to renounce allegiance to any government that uses force, asserting that they consider God as the only Judge and Ruler of mankind. They affirmed no distinction of rank nor inequality of sex. They proclaimed equal love for all lands and that the rights and liberties of the entire human race are as important to them as those of American citizens. They denied that any nation has the right to defend itself or punish. They opposed all wars and all preparations for war. Since human governments are upheld by force, they stated they could not hold any office. They held that the old penal code of "an eye for an eye" had been abrogated by the new covenant of forgiveness taught by Jesus Christ. They believed that the meek shall inherit the Earth, because the violent resorting to weapons will perish by them. They had faith that God would protect them if they adopted the nonresistance principle. They would obey all requirements of government except those contrary to the Gospels, and they would meekly submit to any penalties for their disobedience. Although they submit passively to enemies, they promised to act and speak boldly for the cause of God "to assail iniquity in high places and in low places." Thus they would employ lecturers and circulate publications for universal peace. Having withdrawn from human protection, they put their trust in God.

For a time Garrison devoted himself primarily to the cause of nonresistance, and Henry Wright went on speaking tours. Adin Ballou (1803-90) became the Society's president in 1843 and tried to revive the Non-Resistant in 1845 and 1848; in the latter year Wright managed to arouse interest in Ohio; but after that, Ballou's Practical Christian absorbed this cause. Ballou founded the Hopedale community in 1841, and it lasted until 1856, longest of the five socialist communities in this era. Hopedale was nonresistant, religious, racially integrated, and allowed some wage differences. In addition to Garrison the cause of nonresistance was promoted by the speeches and writings of Ballou, Henry C. Wright, and Charles K. Whipple (1808-1900). Wright gave thirty reasons why the armed forces were incompatible with the teachings of Christ. They were criticized for many as "no-government" men; but Ballou was certainly not for anarchy, and even Garrison believed that to abrogate existing laws and government regulations that punish wrong-doers would be calamitous if the people were not morally and spiritually regenerated. Usually the nonresistants complied with government in paying their taxes.

In 1839 Whipple published the 16-page pamphlet "Evils of the Revolutionary War" because patriotic feelings about this often kept people from accepting nonresistance. He agreed with the aims of the revolutionaries but suggested they could have obtained independence as effectively and as quickly with more honor and in better circumstances by not resorting to arms. Patriots could have refused to carry out unjustified demands or pay taxes and boycott imported tea and other products. Even if they had taken leaders to England and hanged them, continued peaceful resistance would surely have aroused public opinion to change British policy eventually. Instead of resulting in an independent government based on force, a successful nonviolent revolution would have produced a much better society in which slavery, the child of war, would have to be abolished, and Indians would have been treated better. After John Brown's raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal in 1859, Whipple praised his heroism but once again deprecated his violent methods. He repeated that Christ's spirit of love is the way to win over enemies; otherwise one is using Satan to cast out Satan. Whipple also urged slaves to peacefully resist by refusing to work for a master. Whipple's main approach was to encourage the free to help the oppressed escape by the underground railroad.

Adin Ballou lectured on nonresistance in 1839 and in 1846 published his first book on Christian Non-Resistance. He did not advise passivity but moral resistance to evil without injuring any person. Ballou developed the concept of "uninjurious physical force" that can be used to restrain the insane, the delirious, disruptive children, the intoxicated, and the violently passionate. One may actively put oneself between the helpless victim and the destroyer and even use physical force as long as no personal injury is inflicted. Ballou delineated seven things a nonresistant will not do. These are not killing or injuring any human even in self-defense, not participating in any lawless conspiracy or mob that would cause personal injury, not being a member of any voluntary association that practices war, capital punishment, or personal injury, not being an officer or a chaplain for the military, not being an officer or agent of any government that authorizes war, slavery, capital punishment, or injury, not being a member of a corporation that supports government violence, and not promoting or encouraging any act that injures a person.

Ballou argued that nonresistance is the best way to preserve oneself in safety as well as others, and he gave numerous examples. Quakers like Robert Barclay and Leonard Fell had each escaped unscathed after being attacked by highwaymen. In 1798 Quakers in Ireland refused to fight for the Catholics or the Protestants and were criticized by both sides; but during two years of war their houses were the safest, as eventually both sides realized that they should be spared because they had done good to all and harm to none. Essentially Ballou argued simply that evil cannot be overcome by evil but only by good. He explained that nonresistants cannot work within a corrupt government because they cannot be for war, capital punishment, and slavery. Such governments are anti-Christian, and any Christian swearing to support them would be committing perjury. He observed that those considered "political good men" tend to be used as tools for mischief but that "non-political good men" are more likely to influence the government to be decent. He thought it an absurd assertion to say that no one could live in the world without actually fighting, threatening to fight, or being armed to fight.

Ballou suggested that if they could get two-thirds of the people to support nonresistance as true Christians, then government could dispense with the military and violent punishments. Such a government would save 80% of its expenditures and could greatly improve society by spending half of that savings on education and reformation. Noninjurious force could be used to prevent personal outrage in extreme cases. Such a government of superior justice, forgiveness, and charity would be a tremendous blessing.

The Anti-Slavery movement used many nonviolent methods to protest racial prejudice and pressure people to abolish slavery. In 1841 anti-slavery whites and blacks began riding railroads to protest racial segregation. Efforts were made to integrate segregated churches and to get people to leave churches that countenanced slavery. In addition to the schools in the socialist communities, others also offered education to Negroes. In 1833 Garrison persuaded the Quaker Prudence Crandall to accept Negroes in her school in Canterbury. The white students left; but she persevered teaching the blacks, won her case in court, but was driven out the next year. In 1838 the Connecticut legislature repealed the law they had passed to persecute the school. Abolitionists boycotted segregated schools. Educational reformer Horace Mann was an abolitionist and did much to improve public schools in Massachusetts. Oberlin College in Ohio accepted Negroes, and in 1840 their students formed a branch of the Non-Resistance Society.

Abolitionists also boycotted products of slavery, particularly cotton, following the example of the British who ended slavery in the West Indies after boycotting sugar. Lucretia Mott carried her own free-labor sugar to sweeten her tea, and many wore linen clothing. Abolitionists promoted the planting of sugar beets. Stephen S. Foster and Parker Pillsbury gained attention by attending churches and speaking out against slavery. Ministers were encouraged to get everyone in their denomination to renounce slave-holding. Quakers and the peace churches (United Brethren, Mennonites, River Brethren, and Shakers) accomplished this, and by 1864 Wesleyan Methodists, German Methodists, African Methodist Episcopal, United Presbyterians, and Reformed Presbyterians had joined them in excluding slaveholders from membership. Courageous missionaries sponsored by the American Missionary Association took the abolitionist message into the southern states. Not cooperating with the government's laws that promoted slavery meant helping fugitive slaves escape through the underground railroad. Evidence indicates that violence or weapons were rarely used in these escapes.

For many years Frederick Douglass also followed Garrison's views on nonresistance, while riding on railroads, for example. However, resistance to the fugitive slave law and battles in Kansas caused many to begin to fight back against violent pro-slavery forces. Douglass began advocating force to protect fugitives. When Sojourner Truth heard Douglass persuading an audience that slavery could only be destroyed by bloodshed, she changed their minds by asking, "Frederick, is God dead?"10 In the 1850s Garrison opposed the compromises made to protect slavery, although he never condoned the use of violence in the anti-slavery cause. He pressured President Lincoln to emancipate the slaves. After all the slaves in the United States had been freed in 1865, he resigned and retired.

Emerson's Transcendentalism

Click below to watch and listen to Sanderson Beck's audio recording of Emerson and Thoreau.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts as the son of a Unitarian minister. He graduated from Harvard College in 1821. Emerson married in 1829, but his wife died less than a year and a half later. At this point he doubted his beliefs and profession as a minister, and he decided to resign, stating that it was because of the Eucharist. In 1832 he went to Europe, where he met such noteworthies as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle.

Emerson gave public lectures, and in 1836 he published Nature. He had become the sage of Concord, and the literary colleagues gathering around him became known as the Transcendental Club. Emerson's inspiring lectures, essays, and poems elucidated a philosophy of life based on the inner resources of the self and revelation from the divine presence of the soul. "Trust yourself," he would say, and live spontaneously and freely in harmony with nature. He described the spiritual laws of life in great essays such as "Compensation," "Spiritual Laws," "Love," "Self-Reliance," and "The Over Soul." He found his own insights echoed in the Hindu scriptures and the Romantic poets. He urged an American renaissance of culture and influenced writers such as Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, and the Alcott family. He believed that culture was a way of modulating violence, which is not power, but the absence of power. He concluded "Self-Reliance" with these words: "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles."

In 1832 Emerson heard the "very good views" of Channing at a peace meeting. Emerson criticized the Mexican War, which he felt was caused chiefly by the interests of the slave states, and he prophesied that there would be retribution for the nation just as there is for any private felon. In a discussion with Thomas Carlyle at Stonehenge a few years later, Emerson put forward the pacifist philosophy of nonresistance and non-cooperation with governments which institutionalize violence as an indigenous American conviction; this idea was championed by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and others who would not compromise on this point as Channing had. Emerson gave one or two anecdotes, which made an impression on Carlyle, and concluded, "'Tis certain as God liveth, the gun that does not need another gun, the law of love and justice alone, can effect a clean revolution."11

For Emerson the soul transcends all conflict and has no enemies; soldiers he considered to be ridiculous. War is "abhorrent to all right reason" and against human progress. From the perspective of spiritual oneness he spoke of "the blazing truth that he who kills his brother commits suicide." He looked at the Civil War as a retribution to purge the nation of the evil of slavery, and he detested the lack of freedom during the war. In 1865 he vowed that if martial law came to Concord, he would disobey it or move elsewhere. He foresaw "that dream of good men not yet come to pass, an International Congress." Prophetic also was this: "As if the earth, water, gases, lightning and caloric had not a million energies, the discovery of any one of which could change the art of war again, and put an end to war by the exterminating forces man can apply."12

In 1838 Emerson delivered an address to the Boston meeting of the American Peace Society which has been published under the title "War" and contains his thinking on the issues of war and peace. He described war as "an epidemic insanity, breaking out here and there like the cholera or influenza, infecting men's brains instead of their bowels."13 He could see that violence was dangerously contagious. For Emerson war is part of wild and primitive societies, and the primitive stages of religion lead to religious wars. "It is the ignorant and childish part of mankind that is the fighting part."14 Cruelty and violence are juvenile, and the mature spirit renounces them. Like others, Emerson noted that trade works against war because it gives people contact, knowledge, and familiarity with their enemies. The development of learning, art, and religion make war seem like fratricide, and he added that it is. History depicts the slow mitigation and decline of war. Yet the doctrine of the right of war still remains.

Emerson asked the perennial question: Cannot we have love instead of hate, peace instead of war? This idea, he pointed out, was not invented by Saint Pierre nor Rousseau, but it is "the rising of the general tide in the human soul,-and rising highest, and first made visible, in the most simple and pure souls, who have therefore announced it to us beforehand; but presently we all see it."15 Societies have been formed on this thought, and the hopes and prayers for peace are preparing for its actualization. Though it appears to be visionary to most, the idea is growing in influence and is inevitable. "War is on its last legs; and a universal peace is as sure as is the prevalence of civilization over barbarism, of liberal governments over feudal forms. The question for us is only How soon?"16

What is good and true will eventually prevail. The wise learn to trust ideas over circumstances, for appearances depend on the mind. "Every nation and every man instantly surround themselves with a material apparatus which exactly corresponds to their moral state, or their state of thought."17 Our war establishments "only serve as an index to show where man is now; what a bad, ungoverned temper he has; what an ugly neighbor he is; how his affections halt; how low his hope lies."18 However, friendly attitudes can change all this and make weapons things of the past to be displayed only in museums. Emerson delineated three stages of cultivation in regard to war and peace.

At a certain stage of his progress, the man fights,
if he be of a sound body and mind.
At a certain higher stage, he makes no offensive demonstration,
but is alert to repel injury, and of an unconquerable heart.
At a still higher stage, he comes into the region of holiness;
passion has passed away from him;
his warlike nature is all converted into an active medicinal principle;
he sacrifices himself,
and accepts with alacrity wearisome tasks of denial and charity;
but, being attacked, he bears it and turns the other cheek,
as one engaged, throughout his being,
no longer to the service of an individual
but to the common soul of all men.19

Emerson answered the common criticism of nonresistance even to the extent of not defending oneself or one's family against robbers and assassins. This, he said, only looks at the passive side of the friend of peace. Lovers of peace obviously do not choose to be plundered or slain; if they accept martyrdom, it is for

some active purpose, some equal motive, some flaming love.
If you have a nation of men
who have risen to that height of moral cultivation
that they will not declare war or carry arms,
for they have not so much madness left in their brains,
you have a nation of lovers,
of benefactors, of true, great and able men.
Let me know more of that nation;
I shall not find them defenseless,
with idle hands swinging at their sides.
I shall find them men of love, honor and truth;
men of an immense industry;
men whose influence is felt to the end of the earth;
men whose very look and voice
carry the sentence of honor and shame;
and all forces yield to their energy and persuasion.20

A peaceful nation is protected by its spiritual power because everyone is its friend. In individual cases it is extremely rare that a person of peace ever attracts violence. Yet Emerson added that the wise do not decide in advance how to respond, but they follow the guidance of Nature and God.

Emerson observed that organizing societies, passing resolutions, and publishing manifestoes are not too effective, especially when the participants do not practice what they preach when put to the test. He preferred private conviction to public opinion; our hope is in "increased insight, and it is to be accomplished by the spontaneous teaching, of the cultivated soul, in its secret experience and meditation."21 Thus humans can expel their devils, transmute their bestial nature, hear the voice of God, and go forward in their right minds. Nor is fear the right motive for peace; nothing great can be attained by cowards. Courage must be transferred from war to the cause of peace. Individuals are responsible for themselves and should not ask for protection from the state. The person of principle cannot be coerced into any wrongdoing and will not compromise one's freedom and integrity. The cause of peace is not for the cowardly preservation of the safety of the luxurious and the timid. Peace must be maintained by true heroes, who are willing to stake their lives for their principle and who go beyond the traditional hero in that they will not threaten another person's life-

who have, by their intellectual insight
or else by their moral elevation,
attained such a perception of their own intrinsic worth
that they do not think property or their own body
a sufficient good to be saved by such dereliction of principle
as treating a man like a sheep.22

Emerson placed his faith in "the search of the sublime laws of morals and the sources of hope and trust, in man, and not in books, in the present, and not in the past,"23 and he hoped that these would bring war to an end. The way this happens is of little importance, although he predicted that society and events point toward a Congress of Nations. Once the mind accepts the reign of principles the modes of expression are easily found. At the end of this excellent essay on war Emerson asked his readers if it shall be war or peace.

After his friend Thoreau went to jail for failing to pay his poll tax, Emerson wrote in his journal that the abolitionists give much time to denouncing the Mexican War but pay their tax; he suggested they "ought to resist & go to prison in multitudes on their known & described disagreements from the state."24 He also noted that the state tax does not pay for the war but that imported goods such as coats, sugar, foreign books, and watches do. Later in his life Emerson proposed boycotting all goods produced by slave labor. In an address in Concord on August 1, 1844, the tenth anniversary of the slaves' emancipation in the British West Indies, he suggested that the United States could follow the British example by buying the freedom of the slaves from their plantation owners.

Thoreau's Civil Disobedience

See the top of this page to watch and listen to Sanderson Beck's audio recording of "Emerson and Thoreau."

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12, 1817 and died there peacefully on May 6, 1862. He was educated at Harvard (1833-37) where he developed his love for Greek and Roman poetry, Oriental philosophy, and botany. He earned his living doing odd jobs, teaching school, and making lead pencils. He spent little time working at these though; having few wants, he made free time his greatest wealth. He loved nature, and his preoccupation four hours each day was exploring the woods and ponds making detailed observations of plants and creatures. Emerson was his close friend, and he lived in Emerson's house for a time. Henry led a singular life, never marrying, and marching to his own drummer, as he put it.

From 1845 to 1847 he lived alone in a small cabin he built by Walden Pond near Concord. He described this unique experiment in natural living in his great book Walden. Despite all the superfluities of customary society, he believed, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."25 Thoreau lectured occasionally and struggled to get his writings published. His personal independence and straightforward manner was abrasive to some people, and he gained very little recognition during his lifetime. He lectured and wrote against slavery, particularly when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, compelling northern law enforcement officials to capture and return runaway slaves. Thoreau was known to have helped some runaways, and he thought it absurd for a court to try to decide whether a person ought to be free. He defended the radical abolitionist John Brown.

By his personal example Thoreau put into practice the Transcendentalist principles of self-reliance, personal integrity, and spontaneous intuition. About the uplifting spiritual energy within he wrote, "I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor."26 He stated, "Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep."27 For Thoreau philosophy was not clever logic or formulating a doctrine, but loving wisdom by living according to its dictates in simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. He exhorted people to explore themselves and love life. We must learn to obey the laws of our own being which will never be in opposition to a just government. Thoreau's great innovation was in the ways he suggested for opposing an unjust government in order to be true to the higher laws of one's own being.

One day in late July of 1846 while he was living at Walden, he walked into Concord to get his shoe repaired. He was met by his friend Sam Staples, who was the local tax collector, constable, and jailer. Thoreau had not paid his tax for several years. Staples offered to pay Henry's tax for him or get it reduced; but Thoreau declared that he did not intend to pay it as a matter of principle. When Staples asked what he should do about it, Thoreau suggested that he resign his office. However, Staples replied, "Henry, if you don't pay, I shall have to lock you up pretty soon."

Thoreau answered him, "As well now as any time, Sam." So Staples took him to jail. The tax was paid by someone, probably Thoreau's Aunt Maria, and Henry was released the next morning. According to Staples, Thoreau was "as mad as the devil" and did not want to leave jail, but Staples made him. He wanted to stay so he could call attention to the abolitionist cause and the Mexican War. People in Concord wanted to know the reasons for his going to jail; so Thoreau wrote out an explanation and gave it as a lecture twice in 1848. It was published in 1849 as "Resistance to Civil Government" and posthumously in 1866 as "Civil Disobedience."

Thoreau began his essay with the well-known motto-"That government is best which governs least."28 This carried to its natural conclusion is no government at all, which he said will happen when people are prepared. He objected particularly to a standing army and the current "Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool."29 Yet Thoreau realized that the immediate need is not for no government but for better government. "Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it."30 Majorities usually rule because they are the strongest physically; but their policies are based upon expediency. Thoreau asked whether it is not better to decide right and wrong by conscience, which everyone has. "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."31 But a corporation has no conscience, although conscientious people may be a corporation with a conscience. Undue respect for law leads to soldiers marching to the wars against their wills, common sense, and consciences. Such men have let themselves become machines, serving the state with their bodies. Others, like lawyers and politicians, serve the state with their heads. A few, reformers and martyrs, serve the state with their consciences also, but they are usually treated as enemies.

Thoreau declared that he could not associate with the American government because it was a slave's government. He appealed to the right of revolution and the case of 1775. He lamented, "A sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves."32 It has become a military state, and honest men ought to rebel. He criticized not only southern slave-owners but northern merchants and farmers, who care more about commerce and agriculture than they do about humanity. Thousands are against slavery and the war, but they do nothing about it. Voting, he said, is like playing a game with right and wrong. Voting for the right does nothing for it if the majority passes the expedient instead. Thoreau accurately predicted that by the time the majority abolished slavery there would be no slavery left to abolish. Although it is not necessarily a person's duty to work to eradicate a wrong, it is one's duty not to support practically a wrong. We must not only refuse to fight in an unjust war but also refuse to support the unjust government which conducts the war. Thoreau suggested that individuals refuse to pay their quota into the treasury.

"Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary."33 When unjust laws exist, there are three choices: 1) obey them, 2) obey them while working to change them, or 3) transgress them at once. Yet the evil resulting from breaking an unjust law is the fault of the government. Thoreau wondered why government resists reform. "Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?"34 Thoreau advised us to let minor injustices pass if the remedy is 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.35

If a person is truly in the right, one has God on one's side and constitutes a majority of one. His contact with the tax collector was Thoreau's only association with the government and therefore his best means of protest. The action of one honest man can do more for reform than all the words in the world. "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."36 The person who has experienced a little injustice for the sake of justice is more effective, as truth is stronger than error. Thoreau exhorted us:

Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely,
but your whole influence.
A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority;
it is not even a minority then;
but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.
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.37

Thoreau treated of imprisonment instead of the seizure of property because he believed that people of principle are usually poor; the rich have sold themselves to the institution, and they enjoy Caesar's government and neglect God. It is not necessary to rely on the protection of the state. When the state is corrupt, it is no shame to be poor; then disobedience is more worthy than obeying.

In prison Thoreau thought of the absurdity of confining his body when his mind and spirit are free; he pitied the state for trying to punish his body because they could not get at him. They used superior physical strength against his body, but moral force comes from a higher law. When a government says, "Your money or your life," it is playing the thief. Why should one give in to that? Thoreau described his stay in prison and the changed attitude of the townspeople to him when he came out. He also mentioned that he never refused to pay the highway tax or support the schools, but he must refuse allegiance to the state. Those whose taxes support the state at war are helping injustice. Thoreau expressed an eagerness to conform to the laws of the land so long as there is no moral principle to be violated. He was willing to obey those who know more than he; yet the authority of the government depends upon the consent of the governed.

There will never be a really free and enlightened State,
until the State comes to recognize the individual
as a higher and independent power,
from which all its own power and authority are derived,
and treats him accordingly.38

Thoreau's essay had little impact in the nineteenth century, but in the twentieth it has become a manual for social protest. Leo

Tolstoy noticed it and asked Americans why they did not pay more attention to Thoreau's ideas instead of their financial and industrial millionaires and their generals and admirals. Mahatma Gandhi put civil disobedience into practice on a mass scale in South Africa and India; Martin Luther King used the techniques in the civil rights movement, and anti-war activists have also applied these principles, as we shall see in later chapters.


1. Discourses on War by William Ellery Channing, p. 33.
2. Ibid., p. 95.
3. Ibid., p. 103.
4. Quoted in Radical Pacifists in Antebellum America by Peter Brock, p. 72.
5. An Essay on a Congress of Nations, p. xlix-l by William Ladd quoted in Plans for World Peace through Six Centuries by Sylvester John Hemleben, p. 106.
6. A Review of the Mexican War by Philip Berry, p. 53 quoted in Radical Pacifists in Antebellum America by Peter Brock, p. 192.
7. "Passive Resistance" by Elihu Burritt in Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History, p. 103.
8. Ibid., p. 108.
9. Quoted in Black Freedom by Carleton Mabee, p. 21.
10. Ibid., p. 84.
11. "Stonehenge" by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Complete Writings, p. 509.
12. "The Fortune of the Republic" by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Complete Writings, p. 1186.
13. "War" by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Complete Writings, p. 1139.
14. Ibid., p. 1140.
15. Ibid., p. 1142.
16. Ibid., p. 1142.
17. Ibid., p. 1143.
18. Ibid., p. 1144.
19. Ibid., p. 1144.
20. Ibid., p. 1145.
21. Ibid., p. 1146.
22. Ibid., p. 1147.
23. Ibid., p. 1147.
24. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, IX, 446.
25. Walden by Henry David Thoreau, p. 5.
26. Ibid., p. 61.
27. Ibid., p. 60.
28. "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau.
29. Ibid.
30. Ibid.
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid.
33. Ibid.
34. Ibid.
35. Ibid.
36. Ibid.
37. Ibid.
38. Ibid.

Copyright © 2003-2005 by Sanderson Beck

This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

Prophets of Israel
Chinese Sages
Upanishads and Yoga
Mahavira and Buddha
Greek Philosophers and Aristophanes
Stoic Philosophers
Jesus and the Early Christians
Zarathushtra, Mani, and the Cathars
Sufis, Philosophers, and Nanak
Francesco and Bonaventure
Dante, Marsilius, and Petrarch
Magna Carta to Wyclif
Erasmus, Anabaptists, and Mennonites
International Law Pioneers
Quakers: Fox and Penn's Holy Experiment
Peace Plans of Rousseau, Bentham, and Kant
Abolitionists, Emerson, and Thoreau
Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá on World Peace
Tolstoy on the Law of Love
Suffragettes and Women's Rights


Chronology of Peacemaking

BECK index