Why Does Thoreau Refer To Civil Disobedience As A Duty

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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When Henry David Thoreau chose to go to jail rather than pay a poll tax for the war in Mexico, Bronson Alcott called Thoreau a good example of “dignified noncompliance with the injunction of civil powers.”  Thoreau felt it necessary to demonstrate that the government must have the consent of the governed, not force itself upon its citizenry.  He contended that the government is merely "a wooden gun"; there is a higher power to which men should answer, a divine power.  Whenever the civil laws conflict with this divine law, it is the duty of men to obey the divine law.  But, Thoreau stated, the "mass of men" serve the government, now as men, but as "machines."  

Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

 Civil disobedience is essential, therefore, if men are to remain men and not machines.  Only in this way can a man keep his conscience clear.


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