What was Thoreau talking about in Civil Disobedience?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Thoreau's essay may be even more relevant today than it was in his time as his opening statement points to the intrusion of big government.  For instance, Thoreau felt that the war with Mexico waged in his time was provoked by the United States in order to expand its slaveholding territory; an unconscionable act. Thoreau refused to pay the tax that went toward this war, contending that he did not wish to support the immoral actions of government.  He stated that it is not the duty of a citizen to "devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong"; however, this citizen should not support such actions.

This essay is an argument for civil disobedience, the deliberate and responsible refusal to obey laws that violate personal conscience. Thoreau uses several arguments to support this contention:

  1. Government is only a means to an end, it should not make laws to serve unethical ends.
  2. Rule by the majority can be harmful and unjust if this majority is simply the strongest and not in the right.
  3. People have an obligation not to support what they feel is unjust or wrong.
  4. The "free and enlightened state" is one that will "recognize the individual as a higher power."

When Thoreau exercises his right to disobey an unjust law, he is put into jail for the night. There physical confinement does not disturb him because his thoughts are yet free. And, he reflects that if just ten men would to withdraw their support of slavery, as well, there would be abolition.


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