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Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau Essay

Henry David Thoreau was little known outside his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, where he was much admired for his passionate stance on social issues, his deep knowledge of natural history, and the originality of his lectures, essays, and books. He was also maligned as a crank and malingerer who never held a steady job and whose philosophy was but a pale imitation of Ralph Waldo Emerson ‘s. Thoreau was a man of ideas who struggled all his life to create a path that would refuse compromise. “All his activities–teaching, pencil-making, surveying, and, above all, writing–were grounded in his faith in a higher moral law that could be discovered and practiced through the unremitting discipline of living ever in the present moment” (Walls 1). For Thoreau this belief meant living “in each season as it passes,” fully attuned to the rhythms and phenomena of nature.

His art, as it matured, became a way both to keep his own perceptions alert to all the potential of the present and to incite his readers to discover their own mode of attentiveness to life beyond the “mud and slush of opinion.” “In the century after his death, the admiration of his few followers snowballed, and he is now recognized as one of the greatest writers in the United States” (Walls 1). After presentation at the Concord Lyceum on January 26, 1848, Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government” was published the following spring in Aesthetic Papers, edited by Elizabeth Peabody. “The title “Civil Disobedience” was first attached to a reprint of essay after Thoreau’s death, and although it is the more widely known title, it does not reflect the author’s intention” (crf-usa.org). That Thoreau’s text is an explicit refutation of William Paley’s essay on “The Duty of Submission to Civil Government” is emphasized not only by the original title but by the author’s citation of Paley in the text.

“Resistance to Civil Government” is a highly polemical piece, aiming to move the reader to more than mere aesthetic or moral appreciation: it contains a clear call to action in the service of principle, and indeed argues that mere conviction without action is worthless. The contemporary issues that engaged Thoreau’s moral outrage at the time were American military aggression in Mexico and the legality of slavery in the United States. In seeking a way for the conscientious individual to deal with such issues, Thoreau offers a meditation on timeless and absolute principles that, he feels, should guide the moral person. The substance of the author’s argument is that each person has a duty to follow conscience rather than law when the two are in conflict, and further has a duty to oppose unjust laws by taking action against them. This book, or rather pamphlet, thus had its decisive place in the greatest revolution of modern times, and in the mind of one of the half-dozen supreme historical figures of all times.

Gandhi extended and deepened Thoreau’s gospel into the potent weapon of soul-force, which achieved Indian independence. He made it not the lone protest against tyranny of the single individual, but the massed revolt of disciplined multitudes of men. But the seed was of Thoreau’s planting (Holmes 1). The argument is developed through a set of assertions describing the individual’s relation to the state in terms of mutually exclusive oppositions. One of the main sets of contrasting terms is principle or conscience opposed to expediency. “Thoreau repeatedly characterizes government as operating according to expediency, whereas the individual citizen is capable of acting according to a higher principle, that of morality or conscience” (Cain 14). In advising that the individual has not merely the right but the duty to resist unjust laws, Thoreau postulates a higher, spiritual, law that supersedes civil or constitutional law. “Conscience instructs the individual in this higher law, according to Thoreau, and must be obeyed even at the cost of sacrificing material possessions or liberty” (Jaskoski 1).

Underlying and supporting this abstract opposition of conscience versus expediency is a metaphor that repeatedly characterizes the individual as animate and the state as inanimate. Thoreau’s consistent figure for government or the state is a machine, while the citizen is always a living being. The trope supports the contention explicitly stated in Thoreau’s argument that the individual is superior to the state both in moral character and in actual strength. The individual who has the courage to act on principle can overcome the tyranny of the majority. At the heart of the essay is an anecdote Thoreau relates of his own experience in resisting the state. About two-thirds of the way through his discussion he narrates a brief account of his arrest and night spent in Concord jail because of his refusal to pay a poll tax. Thoreau felt that the tax supported armed aggression in Mexico and followed his conscience in refusing to pay it. “He was arrested but spent only a single night in jail, as another person (who has never been definitively identified) paid the tax for him and secured his release (Walls 1).

The anecdote does not dwell on the details of Thoreau’s arrest nor the actual refusal to the tax collector, but rather on the memorable night spent in the jail. The experience was not particularly unpleasant: his cellmate was affable and kind, the quarters were spartan but clean, and the ambience seems to have been that of a family visit almost as much as an incarceration (Jaskoski 1). During the night, Thoreau relates, his mind was given over to a rather extravagant flight of fancy, in which he imagined himself in a medieval lock-up, and the town of Concord a village on the Rhine peopled with knights and burghers. The experience also afforded him a paradoxical, unprecedented intimacy with the town, as he was made an involuntary eavesdropper on all the business in the kitchen of the inn next door to the jail.

This new view of his townspeople contrasts with the narrator’s attitude in the first part of the essay, in which Thoreau sets the conscientious person apart from the “mass of men” who share the inanimacy of the state they compliantly serve: the majority are “wooden men” who serve the state “as machines” with their bodies only, as contrasted with the man of character who lives a spiritual life. After his night in jail, Thoreau offers a mellower view of his neighbors, along with a more optimistic vision of the possibilities of government. “Whereas the opening paragraphs of the essay contain the famous dictums regarding the superiority of no government at all to an improved government, at the end of the essay, after telling the story of his night in jail, the author resumes his argument but allows for a vision of an ideal state, supportive of the highest aspirations of its citizens” (Holmes 1). “Resistance to Civil Government” draws on several sources in Thoreau’s reading and in turn has been influential on following thinkers. The Bible, of course, is an inspiration for this New England heir of the puritans.

There is also a suggestion that Thoreau developed the idea of a higher law with superior claims on conscience from his reading of Sophocles’ play Antigone, in which the heroine resists the law of the land and obeys the command of the gods to bury her traitorous brother in opposition to the authority of the state (Jaskoski 1). Thoreau also quotes Confucius in his essay and, like fellow transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, was influenced by the spirituality of Eastern thought. A series of important writers and activists have been influenced by “Resistance to Civil Government,” applying its principles to similar situations. Notable among these are Gandhi, who first read the essay while a young man in South Africa and who published an analysis of it early in his career, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who drew on both Thoreau and Gandhi in developing principles of nonviolent resistance to unjust laws. In the century that has passed since the publication of “Civil Disobedience,” conditions of life have vastly changed. Especially has government been transformed, or rather the relation of government to its citizens.

“Democracy at the start meant deliverance from the undue intrusion of society upon the individual” (Cain 11). This was freedom! Thoreau dramatized the idea in his retreat to Walden. But today we think of democracy in terms of cooperation–the joining together of many free men in some common enterprise for the common good. “Society enters into the lives of men in a way and to a degree which would horrify Thoreau were he still alive. We justify this change of relationship between man and the state by emphasizing that government in this new function is accepted not as a rod to subdue the people, but as an instrument to equip them for the work they have to do together (Holmes 1). Government in this sense is an indispensable tool to achieve for society as a whole what could be done by no one man or group of men. But in this very process, government takes on power, and is thus ever tempted to use this power at the expense of the people and in its own corporate interest.

Bureaucracy, red tape, rule from above rather than from below, dictatorship, tyranny–all these are perils in waiting for a socialized democracy. At the end of this dangerous road, in other words, if we take the wrong turn, lies totalitarianism of left or right (Jaskoski 1). In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation, which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty, are slaves, and a whole country [Mexico] is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. Thoreau argued that the government must end its unjust actions to earn the right to collect taxes from its citizens. As long as the government commits unjust actions, he continued, conscientious individuals must choose whether to pay their taxes or to refuse to pay them and defy the government (crf-usa.org).

Thoreau declared that if the government required people to participate in injustice by obeying “unjust laws,” then people should “break the laws” even if they ended up in prison. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” he asserted, “the true place for a just man is also a prison.” By not paying his taxes, Thoreau explained, he was refusing his allegiance to the government. “In fact,” he wrote, “I quietly declare war with the State….” Unlike some later advocates of civil disobedience like Martin Luther King, Thoreau did not rule out using violence against an unjust government. “In 1859, Thoreau defended John Brown’s bloody attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, during his failed attempt to spark a slave revolt” (Walls 1). It is this fact, now inwrought in a world situation, which makes the revival of Thoreau’s essay so timely. Woe to the society which forgets that the state was made for man, and not man for the state (Jaskoski 1).

And double and treble woe to the society which no longer breeds men to rise up, at the cost of their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, to resent and rebel against any attempt to subordinate them as individuals to the dominance of the state! The individual must at all times and in all places be the very core of social being. “This is the principle which is in such danger at the present hour. We thought that we had won the battle for liberty. But this ideal was never as firmly established in men’s minds as we had so fondly imagined. The blast of war has shaken it loose, and in some cases swept it away. We must build anew the rights of man. And in this task there can be no more useful aid than Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.”” (crf-usa.org).

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. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.

“Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure (crf-usa.org). This American government–what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will. It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves; and, if ever they should use it in earnest as a real one against each other, it will surely split. “But it is not the less necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have. Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed on, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage” (Cain 24).

It is excellent, we must all allow; 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. “For government is an expedient by which men would fain succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been said, when it is most expedient, the governed are most let alone by it (crf-usa.org). Trade and commerce, if they were not made of Indian 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.

To speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it. After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. “But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?–in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable?

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?” (Thoreau). I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice (Thoreau).

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