Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience,” first titled “Resistance to Civil Government” when it was published in the periodical Aesthetic Papers, 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 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.
For several years, the authorities ignored Thoreau’s nonpayment, but in July of 1846, Concord constable Sam Staples ordered Thoreau to pay up. When Thoreau still failed to comply, Staples arrested him on July 23 or 24 and imprisoned him in the Middlesex County jail. That evening some unknown person paid Thoreau’s fine, but Staples kept Thoreau in jail until after breakfast before releasing him. Emerson called Thoreau’s action “mean and skulking, and in bad taste,” and there is an apocryphal story that Emerson, visiting Thoreau in prison, asked, “Henry David, what are you doing in there?” to which he replied, “Ralph Waldo, what are you doing out there?” Bronson Alcott, however, called Thoreau a good example of “dignified noncompliance with the injunction of civil powers.”
In the essay, Thoreau argues that laws, being human-made, are not infallible, that there is a higher divine...
(The entire section is 1174 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
One night in July, 1846, while Henry David Thoreau was living a quiet life on the shores of Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, he was jailed for failing to pay his taxes. He was released the next day because someone, probably his aunt, paid the tax. He gave a public lecture in 1848 at the Concord Lyceum to explain to his community his reasons for refusing to pay the tax. The text of that lecture was first published in 1849, under the title “Resistance to Civil Government.” The essay, now known as “Civil Disobedience,” was written to argue the moral necessity of resisting the institution of slavery, which the United States’ war against Mexico sought to extend. “Civil Disobedience” has become one of the ethical cornerstones of nonviolent resistance movements. It is known to have been an inspiration to Mohandas Gandhi, who led the passive resistance movement for the liberation of India from British colonial rule. Thoreau’s ideas also influenced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Civil Rights movement and the American struggle to end the Vietnam War.
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...
(The entire section is 399 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The long autobiographical essay most commonly known as “Civil Disobedience” was first published as “Resistance to Civil Government” in the magazine Æsthetic Papers in 1849. The essay appeared under its common title in A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-slavery and Reform Papers (1866), a collection of his works. The essay grew out of a series of lectures, “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government,” which Thoreau delivered to the Concord Lyceum in 1848.
Two years before the Lyceum lectures, in midsummer 1846, Thoreau spent a night in jail because he had refused to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes. He argued that he could not pay funds that helped to support the U.S. government’s war with Mexico, nor could he pay a government that still accepted slavery in its Southern states. Thoreau regarded the war as unjust and staunchly opposed slavery. Over his protests, one of his relatives paid his taxes, and Thoreau was released.
Thoreau’s short stay behind bars helped inspire his great political essay. In it, he begins with an assertion of the desirability of limited government, subject to not only democratic will but also the conscience of the individual. The opening statement, “I heartily accept the motto, ’that government is best which governs least,’” establishes Thoreau as highly skeptical of political authority. He extends the criticisms of standing armies, which were often...
(The entire section is 1234 words.)