What does Thoreau think of the voting populace?

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chsmith1957 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Henry David Thoreau never voted in an election. He expresses his opinions about voting in the 11th paragraph of “Civil Disobedience”:

All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. … Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men.

In another essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau had this to say about the act of voting:

The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls – the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.

Through these passages, Thoreau demonstrates his preference and admiration for the power of concrete individual action. Marks on a ballot aren’t enough for him. In an election, people are asked to choose sides and to merely vote for one person or another. For many, this is their sole involvement with government. They voice their opinions, and then let others work out the details. The voting populace just goes through the motions without giving the process much thought. This method doesn’t make enough of a difference for Thoreau. He doesn’t offer an alternative or an easier way to govern such a large country. But in “Civil Disobedience” and other essays, like “Life without Principle,” he maintains that the rights of the individual are not considered as highly or as valuable as they should be. He believes that every person has a higher law dwelling inside him/her that supersedes any legislation the larger government can come up with. He would prefer that individuals do something about challenges themselves, rather than transfer their power to government employees.

Of course, in the voting examples above, Thoreau is indeed referring only to men. Only men could vote in state and federal elections during his lifetime (1817-1862). American women did not gain the right to vote until 1920.

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Thoreau did not think very highly of voting in general or individuals who expressed their opinions by casting votes.  He thought that voting was too much like gambling: risky and uncertain.  He said that many people have opinions that seem strong. However, he thought that people often did not do enough to actually remedy the social or political ills they witnessed.  Although they might regret that some policy or institution exists, they did not take any real effective action to curb or banish it.  He says the following in Civil Disobedience:

They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have to regret.  

In other words, these individuals may wait in the hopes that their government will actually cure the problem.  Further, 

At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and God-speed, to the right, as it goes by them.

Thus, Thoreau paints voting as tantamount to a prayer: there is a chance that one might get what one wants, but there is just as significant a chance that what one wants to happen will not actually happen.  The more effective way to achieve change is to actually get one's hands dirty and do the work oneself.  People who only vote are doing no work to actually change anything.