Why Reform Doesnt Work

Henry Thoreau and 'Civil Disobedience'

[50]     Thoreau specifically addresses fellow abolitionists who called for the immediate cessation of slavery. Instead of petitioning the government to dissolve the Union with slaveholders, Thoreau believed those reformers should dissolve “the union between themselves and the State – and refuse to pay their quota into its treasury.” Petitions only strengthened the authority of the government by recognizing its authority and honoring the will of the majority. “[Any] man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already,” he observes.
The reformers who petition government for permission “love better to talk” about justice than to act on it. Thus, Thoreau concludes, “Reform keeps many scores of newspapers in its service, but not one man.” To men who prefer a safe strategy, voting becomes a substitute for action and politics becomes a sort of game, like checkers or backgammon, only with a slight moral tinge.
To Thoreau, anyone willing to leave moral decisions to the will of the majority is not really concerned that right should prevail. When resisting the poll tax, he did not consult the majority; he acted. If he had allowed the majority to decide whether or not he should pay, by his own standards he would have shown no regard for what is right.

[51]     Moreover, Thoreau considers voting to be a poor vehicle for reform because voting follows real change; it does not precede or cause it. “When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery,” he writes, “it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote.” As for the other means that the state provides for changes to itself, they are extraordinarily slow. Thoreau notes, “They take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone.”