Please summarize Henry David Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" (also known as "Resistance to Civil Government").

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Henry David Thoreau's belief in "non-conformity," is seen in, "Civil Disobedience"—standing up to the government if necessary.

Thoreau was arrested for not paying a tax—on principle. "…some one interfered, and paid the tax…" and he was released, and so wrote "Resistance to Civil Government" initially to "argue the moral necessity of resisting the institution of slavery."

Thoreau makes his stance clear from the very beginning of the essay:

I HEARTILY ACCEPT THE MOTTO, “That government is best which governs least”…[moreover] “That government is best which governs not at all...”

The government was needed to an extent, but should not be an entity that controlled the will of the people, but rather served the people. People created the government, but often did not have the opportunity to use it for their good:

...[it] is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.

Thoreau argues that often times the government becomes a tool of the few rather than the "arm" of the population as a whole. Special interest groups rob the people of their power, which is counter to the principles of those who created government in the first place. In this way, the government which was conceived for the best of all purposes has lost its "integrity."

Thoreau insists that the accomplishments of the country have been achieved by the efforts of its people, its individuals—keeping the country's people free, educating, settling the West, etc.—and might have done more had the government been used as it should have been.

Thoreau sees the hand of government too heavily put to use where it should not be. He does not press for the absence of government, but change:

I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.

Arguing again for the right of the individual, Thoreau asks:

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?

Thoreau calls for the conscience of men to act, as not seen in government, specifically regarding slavery:

I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also.

And while a man may argue against what the government does, he must be sure his actions support those words:

...I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue [these wrongs] sitting upon another man's shoulders.


The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war...

Thoreau calls upon the people to stop the "machine" of the unjust government. The single act is powerful:

For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done for ever.

Thoreau reflects upon his own imprisonment brought on because he would not pay a tax, insisting that jail only controlled his body—not his mind or will.

As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body…

He simply refused to pay a tax he did not believe in. In the scheme of things, government rules him a short time before he dies.

It is not many moments that I live under a government, even in this world. If a man is thought-free...unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally interrupt him.

He will be ruled by his conscience:

...even such as I am willing to submit to,— for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I...

Thoreau calls for men to submit to conscience first, and government second.

Read the study guide:
Civil Disobedience

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