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Thoreau Smacks Down Clinton


My five-minute attention span does not permit me to track down a quotation in which Barack Obama directly mentions Henry David Thoreau, but it’s a safe bet that he’s familiar with Thoreau’s works.  After all, Thoreau inspired Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi; he was a favorite of Bill Clinton and John Kerry; and people who like Obama tend to like Thoreau as well.

So when Obama said last night that “I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves; that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity,” he must have been talking about Thoreau, who wrote at the start of his rabble-rousing essay “On the Necessity of Civil Disobedience”:

I heartily accept the motto,–”That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.  Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe,–”That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

And when Obama hearkened back to Thoreau’s day to promote lavish government spending:

In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry.  From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age.  In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history.  And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world. 

In each case, government didn’t supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise.  It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive.

once again he broke with Thoreau, who wrote:

Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way.  It does not keep the country free.  It does not settle the West.  It does not educate.  The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way. . . . Trade and commerce, if they were not made of India-rubber, would never manage to bounce over the obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way; and, if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of their actions and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railroads.

You have to wonder what Thoreau would have made of Barack Obama — and what the answer to this bookstore clerk’s question, contributed by a reader to a recent Jay Nordlinger “Impromptus” column, really is:

Stopped by my local B&N (Grosse Pointe, Mich.) on the way home from work one Friday to pick up the Wall Street Journal, as I enjoy the weekend section. I plunked down the B&N gift card my employees had given me as a thank-you for some reason. The face of the card bore the image of Henry David Thoreau. The clerk, a man sporting a BHO button, picks it up, scans the WSJ, looks at me, and says, “I wonder if a brilliant man like Thoreau would have read the Wall Street Journal. Probably not.”


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