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 law, and that when those laws conflict, one must obey the higher law. Hence slavery, no matter how legal (and it remained legal until 1865), 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 cannot 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 “[i]t is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” Most people, he feared, served the state as soldiers do, like unthinking machines.
He does not, however, argue for violent revolution; he advocates nonviolent resistance. (Later, Thoreau would contradict such a philosophy in three essays championing John Brown, who endorsed and practiced violence.) The disobedient must be prepared to accept punishment, if necessary: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Thoreau concludes:The authority of government . . . must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person...
(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 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.
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 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. Still, although Thoreau may be a philosophical anarchist, he specifically states that having no government at all will be practicable only when the people are prepared for such a situation, and he implies that, in his own day, they are not prepared. Nevertheless, he maintains that government is only an instrument through which people act, and that it should leave people alone as much as possible.
The laws passed by government, according to Thoreau, are only reflections of people, and he expresses no regard for law simply because it expresses the will or acceptance of a majority. Laws and government may be improved when they come from conscience, not when conscience follows laws or government. He asserts that the U.S. government does not merit his support because of the war on Mexico and the existence of slavery in the South. Given Thoreau’s view of government, he does not believe that these injustices can be righted by the democratic means of voting, since voting simply expresses the acceptance of the will of a majority, not a dedication to the dictates of one’s own conscience.
The commitment to justice does not mean that Thoreau believes he has an obligation to right the wrongs of the world. In fact, he explicitly states that no one has the duty to eradicate even the greatest of wrongs. He says that he was born to live in the world, not to make it a better place...
(The entire section is 1234 words.)