Democratic government is breaking down, and we are reaching a crisis point in American society. Increasingly, America resembles a police state. Everywhere we go, we are watched as the government amasses massive data files on us. We are plagued by a faltering economy and a monstrous financial deficit that threatens to bankrupt the country.

Black oil continues to poison the Gulf, devastating the environment and those who depend on it for their livelihood. Overtaxed Americans are losing their jobs and homes. Small businesses are preparing to deal with the bureaucratic nightmare of red tape arising from Congress’ health reform legislation. State governments are struggling to remain operational. Partisan politics has put a stranglehold on any real hope for governmental reform. The Supreme Court has adopted a pro-business, pro-government, pro-political correctness mindset that bodes ill for individual freedom.

This is more serious than a government that is simply malfunctioning. These are symptoms of a government that is out of control, and a government out of control is one that won’t listen to its people.

There was a time when Americans would have been hard pressed to contain their outrage. They certainly wouldn’t have tolerated such governmental corruption and abuse. But we are no longer the people we once were. From an early age, we have had lessons about conformity and acquiescence to the state drummed into our heads. We have allowed ourselves to be easily placated by technological distractions and entertainment spectacles — including political spectacles. And we have willingly handed over control over our government and our lives to faceless bureaucrats who view us as little more than ends to a means.

In this way, ignorant about our history and our rights, never having learned the lessons of citizenship effectively, we’ve failed to keep pace with our revolutionary forbears. But it’s not too late. We still have an incredible heritage of independent thinkers and freedom fighters to pull from and make our own. In fact, a good person to start with is writer, thinker and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who was born on July 12, 1817.

Here was a man who believed in living according to his principles. For instance, rather than pay taxes to support a foreign war that he believed to be unjust, Thoreau opted to go to jail. According to one account, the renowned author Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” In response, Thoreau retorted, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”

Thoreau’s writing teems with a love of freedom that cannot be contained by chains or prisons. His essay Civil Disobedience, written in 1849, is a must read for anyone who wants to exercise their right of responsible citizenship by speaking truth to power. It has inspired countless freedom-fighters over the years. Indeed, it was read by Leo Tolstoy, whose writings influenced Mahatma Gandhi. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr. read Gandhi’s writings, and in turn inspired millions to take action during the civil rights movement.

Thoreau could well be considered the father of modern civil disobedience, yet he was so much more than a political philosopher. He was an activist who embodied the revolutionary, freedom-loving, independent-minded spirit that was once the hallmark of every American. Indeed, he considered himself freer than those individuals who had never been inside a jail cell.

To Thoreau’s way of thinking, government exists to serve him, the citizen, and not the other way around. “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think is right,” he wrote. To this end, he was not willing to take any abuse from the government, whether it be the taxman, the policeman or the politician. And like all great dissidents, Thoreau believed that there were few, if any, political solutions. The answer to better government was not to be found at the ballot box.

Ultimately, according to Thoreau, it is up to each person to resist unjust government laws and actions — even when there is a price to be paid for doing so. If a law requires you to be an “agent of injustice,” as Thoreau opined, “then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.” And how exactly does one go about doing so? Thoreau proposes a revolution — but a peaceable one, what Gandhi and King would later call nonviolent resistance:

If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, “But what shall I do?” my answer is, “If you really wish to do anything, resign your office.” When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.