Why does Thoreau think that voting is merely a sort of gaming?

What is Thoreau’s opinion about selecting a candidate for presidency in the democratic system of election?


Does the election system in democracy ensure good governance and welfare of a state? Give reasons following Thoreau.


Thoreau has reservations about the voting system in democracy. Discuss.


josBd (2)Answer: To Thoreau, voting is merely a sort of gaming in the sense that people are not vitally concerned that right should prevail. An individual leaves it to chance, because the majority may not try to establish the right.

In Thoreau’s language,

“All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers and backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions, and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never, exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.”

But a wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it prevail through the power of the majority. There is little virtue in the action of the masses of men. Thoreau says—

“There is but little virtue in the action of the masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to it, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished, by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.”

I Selection of a candidate for Presidency through a convention do not ensure that a good man is set up for election for doing well to the country. A good candidate for presidency may exist, but he is not selected through a convention. If there is such a man, he leaves things to the majority of the people, and merely casts his vote for the selected candidate. In such a case, his vote is not more valuable than that of an unprincipled foreigner. The author here talks about a convention at Baltimore for the selection of a candidate for the presidency.


He heard of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for the selection of a candidate for the Presidency, made up chiefly of editors, and men who were politicians by profession. The author questioned what it was to any independent, intelligent and respectable man? What decision they might come to? Should the people not have the advantage of his wisdom and honesty, nevertheless? Could they not count upon some independent votes? Were there not many individuals in the country who did not attend conventions? But no, he found that the respectable man, so called, has immediately drifted from his position, and despaired of his country, when his country had more reason to despair of him. He forthwith adopted one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving that he was himself available for any purpose of the demagogue. His vote was of no more worth than that of any unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who might have been bought.

Thoreau brings the issue of effective change through democratic means. Voting for politicians opposed to slavery does not in itself qualify as a moral commitment to the abolition of an unjust practice; it simply registers the will of the people that one policy should prevail over another. The position of the majority, however legitimate in democratic terms, is not tantamount to a moral position. Thoreau in that case proceeds to attack those in his native state of Massachusetts who profess to be against slavery in the south while participating in the commerce and agricultural trade that supports it. The opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the south, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity. They are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico at any cost on their part. There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to war, but they do nothing in effect, to do away with or put an end to them. They esteem themselves as children of Washington and Franklin, but merely sit down with their hands in their pockets and say that they do not know what to do and actually they do nothing. They even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free trade. They read the price-current along with latest advice from Mexico after dinner and fall asleep over them. They do not evaluate an honest man and a patriot.

“They hesitate and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and God-speed to the right, as it goes by them.”