Compare Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (now known as “Civil Disobedience”) with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” While Emerson speaks in more general terms about the unique value of the words and deeds of the individual, Thoreau applies the concept to the individual’s rights and responsibilities where government is concerned. He especially focuses on the approaches to take when one disagrees with a law designed and assumed to be followed by the majority of the population.
In “Self-Reliance,” we find,
Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.
No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.
Your genuine action will explain itself and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.
His concluding statement:
Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.
Emerson even uses prison and jail references to describe conformity:
The man is as it were clapped into jail by his consciousness.
Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere. We come to wear one cut of face and figure, and acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine expression.
Ironically, Emerson equates following the status quo by being in a sort of self-made prison. Thoreau, on the other hand, is put into jail for one night because he breaks away from conformity, because he stands up for his right to refuse to pay the annual state poll tax.
Look through “Civil Disobedience” and you will find these statements, complementing those quoted from Emerson above:
I think we should be men first, and subjects afterward.
The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.
A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.
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.
The bottom line is that Emerson spoke and wrote about self-reliance and nonconformity. Thoreau spoke and wrote on the same subjects and also proved to be a living example of them.