Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience in response to questions about why he had gone to jail. As an abolitionist, he had objected to the Massachusetts poll tax and refused to pay it as a protest against slavery. When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, he protested against it, seeing it as an aggressive war of conquest aimed in part at adding new slave territories to the United States, and for this reason, as well, he refused to pay the tax. The opening statement, “I heartily accept the motto, ’that government is best which governs least,’” establishes Thoreau as someone who is highly skeptical of political authority.
He extends the criticisms of standing armies, which were often identified as instruments of tyranny in early American political thinking, to government itself, and argues that government is often an instrument of abuse against the people.
In the essay, Thoreau argues that laws, being human-made, are not infallible, that there is a higher divine law, and that when those laws conflict, one must obey the higher law.
Hence slavery, no matter how legal, was always unjust in its violation of the integrity and divine soul of the enslaved. So long as the American government upheld slavery, Thoreau said, one “cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I can not for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”
Carrying to extreme the logic of the Declaration of Independence, Thoreau argues, in effect, that each individual should declare independence from unjust laws, that citizens must never surrender their conscience to the legislators, and that “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.
” Thoreau did not find his identity in association with other people who shared his background. Rather, he believed his truest identity would be found in differentiating himself from the common herd of humanity, which he saw as mediocre, morally lazy, and cowardly. He was an individualist; he held that each person’s responsibility is to follow the highest leadings of personal conscience. Ultimate moral authority emanates from individual judgment, and getting “out of its way” is one of the most important things a just government can do. Civil law and the power of the democratic majority are secondary to the higher moral law as it is discerned by the individual. In cases in which civil government conflicts with personal conscience, Thoreau advocates withdrawing all support from that government immediately, without waiting to change the law or public opinion. Withdrawal of support such as the refusal to pay taxes or to serve in the military is likely to be met with punishment, and Thoreau advocates accepting the penalty imposed. Even if that penalty involves imprisonment, he claims that bodily confinement is trivial when compared to the spiritual liberty of thought and conscience that comes from following the higher law. Persons who obey a law or fight a war that they think is wrong become less than fully human they lose their identities, they become machines.
All abolitionists, members of the Underground Railroad, and those who refused to obey the Fugitive Slave Act were practicing civil disobedience. History and literature are full of examples and one of those is Huckleberry Finn which resolved to defy his upbringing in order to rescue his best friend, a runaway slave. In fact, the U.S. government’s system of checks and balances sometimes requires its citizens to break the law, for the only way to challenge the constitutionality of a law is to break it and try a test case. One problem with Thoreau’s doctrine is that it is not always easy to determine whether a law is just or unjust. Thoreau never advocated the indiscriminate breaking of laws; civil disobedience applies only in cases of fundamental moral principle. Not all individuals are necessarily right in defying the government. Thus the debate continues; through it all, Thoreau’s essay remains one of the most potent and influential ever written.