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Wednesday, July 23, 2014
From The Halls of Montezuma to The Jail of Concord
Originally Published on forbes.com on August 7th,2011
I recently mentioned the case of William Ruhaak. Mr. Ruhaak refused to pay his income tax for 2007. He was willing to pay the amount involved either to an organization that worked for peace or to the federal government as long as it was earmarked for non-military purposes. I used the case to spring board a discussion of my friendTom Cahill, a long time peace activist and one of the founders of Just Detention International. Bait and switch. So sue me. Actually please don’t, I’d probably have to give up either blogging or my day job if you did. Some of the responses I received, though, have inspired me to do a fuller discussion of tax resistance as a form of war protest. This post is the foundation of the series. I guess that means I’m promising to write at least one more after this one to make it a series. This one is about the most famous act of American war tax resistance.
Mexico was provoked by the United States admitting the Republic of Texas to the union. Mexico considered Texas a rebellious province that it would take back someday. Mexico probably should have quit while it was just a little behind. The war added to the United States the territory that would become California, Nevada, Utah and New Mexico. Also most of Arizona and Colorado and pieces of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming. Disputes over territory being a zero sum game, Mexico got a lot smaller. Round numbers Mexico was less than half the size it had been before it started messing with the fundamental rights of its Texan citizens – like the right to own slaves. Regardless, if you view history as something of a board game, the Mexican War was a big win for the United States. This may account for why the tremendous unpopularity of the war in some quarters is not well remembered.
Margaret Fuller, America’s first female foreign correspondent wrote from Europe:
Then there is this horrible cancer of slavery and the wicked war that has grown out of it. I listen to the same arguments against the emancipation of Italy that are used against the emancipation of our blacks; the same arguments for the spoilation of Poland, as for the conquest of Mexico. I find the cause of tyranny and wrong everywhere the same and lo! my country! the darkest offender because with the least excuse.
Some of the fighting men were also disenchanted with the cause. Reflecting on his thoughts on the war, as a junior officer, Ulysses Grant, the first American solider to wear four stars, wrote in his memoirs:
Generally the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation [of Texas] was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.
That’s another view of the Mexican War. It was kind of a warm up war for those junior officers who, as generals, would command stupendous forces in West Point’s big intramural war less than twenty years later.
In the enlisted ranks a variety of grievances including the anti-Catholic bigotry, that pervaded American culture, influenced a significant number of US soldiers, mostly Irish immigrants, to switch sides. Under the command of John Riley, they formed the Batallón de San Patricio.Their exploits were the subject of a Tom Berenger movie called One Man’s Hero, which despite having the same plot as Avatar and Dances With Wolves is still worth watching.
The Mexican War provoked one simple act of tax resistance, that would have far reaching effects. Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax. He spent the night in jail. His aunt paid the tax on his behalf, an act of kindness that he did not approve, leaving him free the next day to lead a huckleberry expedition. He got something else out of the experience. He wrote a really good book. On the Duty of Civil Disobedience has a great virtue among books of its sort. The sort I mean is books that are tremendously influential such that they will be frequently discussed. The great virtue is that it is short. So unlike Democracy In America or Clauswitz’s On War, you can just go read it again anytime you care to discuss it. Here are some high points:
The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.
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.
How does it become a man to behave toward the American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.
If a thousand [citizens] 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
Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison… the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.
The message of the book is complex. Sometimes the focus is on the moral accountability of the individual regardless of the effect and other times on the possibility that passive resistance might effect practical change. Thoreau’s refusal to pay tax did not spark a movement immediately and clearly had no appreciable effect on the war then in progress. That is not the end of the story though.
The Marine Corps Hymn would be more edifying if the “Peak of Surabachi” replaced “Halls of Montezuma”. It would also coordinate with the most iconic image of the Corps, add an additional rhyme and give a better appreciation for how global their service has been . That’s probably not going to happen any time soon. Marines don’t get to choose their country’s battles, they just get to fight them. Margaret Fuller is remembered today, but not nearly as well as she should be. There were some great events for her 200th birthday in 2010, but I recently met a young woman who had never heard of her. This would not have been that disturbing if the young woman had not been a college senior majoring in woman’s studies. Ulysses Grant suffered in reputation due to poor choice in advisors while president and the virtual deification of the man who surrendered to him at Appomattox. The San Patricios are remembered as heroes – in Mexico and Ireland – in the United States, not so much. That little book of Thoreau’s did some travelling though.
It went to South Africa, where Mohandas Gandhi would use its principles before bringing them to India:
Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet, and withal a most practical man, that is, he taught nothing he was not prepared to practice in himself. He was one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced. At the time of the abolition of slavery movement, he wrote his famous essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”. He went to gaol for the sake of his principles and suffering humanity. His essay has, therefore, been sanctified by suffering. Moreover, it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable. And then it found its way back to the United States, where Martin Luther King wrote:
During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times
Mr. Ruhaak’s argument has no technical merit. The seventh circuit has told him he needed to show cause as to why he should not be sanctioned for putting forth a frivolous argument. I have to say that as a tax professional, I’m 100% with the court on that one. Despite that and even though I believe our military is now mainly concerned with convincing people it is an extremely bad idea to organize passenger jets crashing into our office buildings, I’m not going to knock Mr. Ruhaak. And now I’m committed to talking a bit about what his fellow war tax resisters are up to. Stay tuned.