Thoreau and Jefferson: A Comparison

Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Jefferson were two of our nationís greatest thinkers, writers, and shapers of political thought. Both have been regarded since their (respective) times as visionaries and prolific intellectuals. However, when one compares Jeffersonís original composition of the Declaration of Independence with Thoreauís essay "Resistance to Civil Disobedience", the differences (as well as similarities) are striking.

Both Thoreau and Jefferson express their parallel ideas of the creation of (and rebellion to) a sovereign authority. When Jefferson states,

We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent...and...whenever any form of government shall become destructive of [the preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.
...His direct tone reflects his purpose Ė that is, the institution of his afore-mentioned new government. Likewise, Thoreau argues that, "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." He cements Jeffersonís ideals, but brings to the table a harsher sentence for the intolerable government. While Jefferson calls for the abolition of a state if it becomes destructive of the preservation of life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness, Thoreau states that revolt is called for even when the stateís level of inefficiency is too high. The criteria for revolution seem to be flexible.

Probably the most basic of Thoreau and Jeffersonís ideas is that of government as a product of the people. "Governments are instituted among men, deriving their power from the consent of the governed," Jefferson writes. The same democratic thoughts manifest themselves as Thoreau ends, "The authority of government still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed." The parallel between these two statements is fairly straightforward.

Again, we see the analogous nature of Thoreau and Jeffersonís arguments when they speak of the response to intolerable abuse by a political power.
...But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, began at a distinguished period, and perusing invariably the same object, evinces a design to subject them to arbitrary power, it is [the peopleís] right, it is their duty, to throw off such government and provide new guards for their future security.

As in their arguments for independent sovereignty, revolt and revolution play direct roles in their quest for a just government. Thoreau writes,
...When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.

Once again, the basis for their statements is the same.

Also, rather interestingly, both bring up the question of slavery and utilize it to justify part of their argument, albeit in different ways. This is striking since Thoreauís vehement abolitionist stance conflicts with Jeffersonís ownership of slaves, yet they both seem to argue against it.

As similar as their ideologies seem to be, however, they differ in very fundamental ways. Thoreau ardently believes that just because something is popular doesnít make it right, while Jefferson is much less critical of democracy and thinks it better to have the large majority rule justly rather than an unjust minority at the expense of others.

While both works write persuasively and directly, Jeffersonís pragmatic idealism is strikingly absent from Thoreauís comments; when one reads lines like, "I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society," it is obvious the criticism is that of Henry David Thoreau.

Part of these ideological differences stem from basic differences of context; while Jefferson was declaring war for his new nationís independence, Thoreau is writing a more passive response to grievances he has suffered at the hands of his government. Thoreauís is not a war cry, only a rebuttal to the system that he feels is not working the way it should.

While contextual differences may account for some of the differences is Jefferson and Thoreauís writing, a larger one is at work: the men looked at democracy in