Study Guide

Civil Disobedience

by Henry David Thoreau

Civil Disobedience Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 and property but what I conceded to it. There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.

This doctrine has always been repellent to authoritarians of the far Right and Left, who tolerate no dissent and have had protesters beaten, imprisoned, and even killed. In the seventeenth century, Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony reproved his constituents for daring to criticize him, calling them naturally depraved and maintaining that the authorities are instituted by God and that to criticize them constitutes treason and atheism.

In Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924), Herman Melville satirically presented the authoritarian military point of view when Captain Vere insists that those in uniform must obey without question: “We fight at command. If our judgments approve the war, that is but coincidence. . . . For that law and the rigour of it, we are not responsible. Our vowed responsibility is in this: That however pitilessly that law may operate, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it.” Vere’s is the defense of all war criminals—that they were only carrying out orders and cannot be expected to disobey. The rationale behind war crimes trials, however, is that even the military are subject to a higher law.

Civil disobedience is at least as old as Socrates, who preferred to die rather than yield to an order to stop asking questions that embarrassed the authorities, to whom he said, “I shall obey God, rather than you.” The Christian martyrs who refused to deny their God and worship Caligula, Nero, or some other depraved Roman emperor were practicing civil disobedience. 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. Huckleberry Finn resolved to defy his upbringing and “go to hell” in order to rescue his best friend, a runaway slave. Mahatma Gandhi was an admirer of Thoreau and adopted his policy of nonviolent resistance to oppose racism in Africa and imperialism in India. American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., patterned nonviolent resistance after Gandhi.

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, as Dr. King and his followers repeatedly did. Dr. King was frequently imprisoned and called a criminal for violating local statutes that instituted racial discrimination, but he believed in the higher law of the Constitution and wrote, “Words cannot express the exultation felt by the individual as he finds himself, with hundreds of his fellows, behind prison bars for a cause he knows is just.” During the Vietnam War, an increasingly large number of people protested that the war was unjust, and many of draft age refused to serve in the armed forces and went to prison or into exile rather than be forced to kill or be killed in Vietnam. The government’s position was that they were cowards or traitors, but a majority of the U.S. population came to agree with the protesters.

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. For example, during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, some southern governors defied court orders to desegregate schools and other institutions, arguing that segregation was the will of God.

Frequently it is liberals who endorse civil disobedience, but in the late 1980’s, members of the conservative Iran-Contra conspiracy defended their breaking of laws and lying to Congress on the grounds that they were serving a higher law. Similarly, opponents of abortion rights have argued that a higher law requires them to break laws that prohibit them from harassing those who sanction abortion rights. Thus the debate continues; through it all, Thoreau’s essay remains one of the most potent and influential ever written.

Civil Disobedience Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations 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.

Civil Disobedience Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 to live. However, he also claims that the wrongs of the world continue to exist because people are willing to support them. His obligation is to refuse to be a party to the wrongdoing, and not to participate in political procedures for change. Thoreau’s essay, then, argues not for disobedience as a strategy of political engagement, but as an act of moral disengagement from politics.

Thoreau’s disengagement should not be confused with inaction, though. Instead, it is a type of face-to-face action. When the conscientious person meets the agent of the state, in the form of the tax collector, that person can refuse to be a party to wrongdoing by refusing to pay taxes. Furthermore, the objector should recommend that the tax collector resign the official position and also refuse allegiance to the state. If the government imprisons the objector or confiscates property as a response, then that government, which is engaged in immoral actions, simply reaffirms the moral position of the objector outside the state. According to Thoreau, because money itself is issued by the state, a truly virtuous person would be likely to have little money or property and therefore will show little concern over any confiscation. Each act of refusal undermines governmental power, since this power exists only in obedience.

After the theoretical discussion of his views on the relationship between the individual and the state, Thoreau describes his own experiences directly. He discusses first how he had previously refused to pay taxes to support his family’s church, which he himself did not attend. After someone else first paid that tax for him, he resolved the situation by giving local officials a written statement that he was not a member of the church and that he did not want to support any organization he had not voluntarily joined. He goes on to recount that he has paid no poll tax for six years.

He explains that his refusal to pay the poll tax led to his detention in jail for a night. In his mind, the walls between himself and his townspeople simply make him freer than the others, since he is acting in accord with his own thoughts. Thoreau’s description of his time in jail reads more like an account of a vacation than a punishment. He describes arriving at the jail and finding the prisoners chatting in the doorway until the jailer announces that it is lockup time. His cell-mate had been accused of burning a barn, but Thoreau says that the man had probably just fallen asleep in the barn while drunk and accidentally set fire to it with his pipe.

Thoreau compares being in jail to traveling to a far country, both because it is a new place to him and because it gives him a new perspective on his own town. From the windows of the jail, he says that Concord, Massachusetts, seems as strange as a medieval land. When he leaves the jail, he sees his neighbors as foreigners, guided by odd prejudices rather than by reason.

Thoreau ends the essay by returning to his political philosophy. His refusal to pay the tax, he explains, is a refusal of allegiance to the government. In this way, he quietly declares war on the state. In the end, he returns to the beginning of the essay with remarks on the future of government. The progress from absolute to limited monarchy and from limited monarchy to democracy, can be carried further by moving toward the individual as an independent source from which all power and authority are derived.

The government of the United States arguably did not evolve in the direction Thoreau wished; it emerged from the American Civil War with a larger and more centralized political authority. The decades following Thoreau’s essay also saw the rise of the modern corporation, which challenged his style of individualism, even if it eventually produced great material abundance. Slavery, one of the two provocations for Thoreau’s act of refusal, did not end as a consequence of individual civil disobedience but as a result of the Civil War, which was led by officers of the Union and Confederacy who had learned military tactics in the war with Mexico. Still, Thoreau’s ideal of principled refusal continues to inspire thinkers and activists, and his version of individual autonomy remains a part of the self-image and values of many Americans.