Conscientious objection is the thing with feathers.

One of the very last things I accomplished in 2021 was draft a conclusion to that chapter I’ve been co-authoring for the upcoming Oxford Handbook of Peace History. It’s on what first drew me to my book’s topic, and what some people think Ain’t Marching is about: that knotty concept of conscientious objection to war. As the edits of the book proceeded, only some of what I’ve learned about that history and reflected on here has made it into the final draft, and I’m pretty sure the book’s editor will change what I sent him. Posted here because not a lot else I write will refer to Emily Dickinson, Tolstoy, and Israel and still make sense.

In 1848 Henry David Thoreau used the word “conscience 20 times in one speech. The speech made a case for war-tax resistance, a different kind of CO[1].  Conscience was in the air; 3 years earlier the term “conscientious objection” was coined by the British working-class Chartist movement, which had been co-founded by a Quaker.

Thoreau’s speech, now known as “On Civil Disobedience,” was cited by Russian author Tolstoy as he counseled conscientious objectors[2]; both authors then inspired organizer Mohandas Gandhi as he turned individual resistance into a tool for movements, satyagraha (soul-force),that eventually freed his country from the British Empire. While CO movements and individual COs have varied enormously over the years, most have shared Thoreau’s mix of individual conscience and a dream of a better world. That mix often catalyzes organizing for social change.

There are well-documented through-lines between:

  • Quaker COs and the end of slavery in Europe and the United States.
  • Persistent CO and antiwar organizing and the transition from away from conscription in the U.S. and Western Europe.
  • South Africa’s End Conscription Campaign and the end of apartheid.
  • The international movement that helped end the U.S. war in Vietnam.
  • Colombia’s massive CO movement and the 2016 peace agreement that ended decades of war there.
  • Israeli COs’ bonding with anti-occupation organizations to raise awareness.

Throughout, CO movements have created safe spaces for individual COs, from church sanctuaries (from Martin Luther to the Nine for Peace[3]) to organized service programs. They’ve adapted to changes on the ground, from including “all-volunteer” armies in their outreach to making often-unreliable alliances with politicians and armed liberation movements..

The one common denominator is hope. Whether one defines hope as an emotion, an action or a muscle, people embark on conscientious objection to create a better future. Three years after Thoreau’s speech in Concord, a poet from nearby Amherst—whose fifth cousin, Bronson Alcott, had been a war tax resister before Thoreau[4] — called hope “a little Bird” that “perches in the soul” and “kept so many warm…I’ve heard it in the chillest land – and on the strangest Sea…”[5] CO movements have kept up the song for centuries, and deserve our attention.

[1] Thoreau, Esq., H.D. (1849). “Resistance to Civil Government”Æsthetic Papers; Edited by Elizabeth P.Peabody. Boston and New York: The Editor and G.P. Putnam. pp. 189–211. 

[2] Letter to Eugen Henrich Schmitt, October 12, 1896. In The Complete Works of Leo Tolstoy (Colonial Press, 1904), p. 535.

[3] These nine AWOL personnel taking refuge in a California church in 1968 became icons of the anti-war movement, “9 GI FOES OF WAR ARRESTED IN CHURCH.” United Press International, July 16, 1968.

[4] Gwendolyn Brooks, “Orpheus at the Plough.” The New Yorker, January 2, 2005.

[5] Emily Dickinson, “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” 1861. MS source;

Published by chrislombardi

Journalist, novelist, educator.

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