What is the tone of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"?

The tone of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" is passionate and indignant as he protests being jailed for not paying his taxes. He is emotionally invested in the idea of a small, moral, and ethical government, and he writes vehemently against war and slavery.

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Tone in literature is the attitude or feelings a writer expresses towards the subject at hand. Tone is expressed primarily through word choice. For example, when Thoreau opens his essay with the words "heartily approve" in reference to small government, we know that he is invested emotionally in his topic, rather than simply recording facts as a neutral observer. We can, therefore, state from the start that Thoreau's tone is passionate rather than detached.

Thoreau, who has been put in jail for not paying his taxes, takes a negative and indignant tone towards government power. He makes it clear that he believes that the least influential and smallest government is the best as he lashes out first against government in general and then against what he believes are the government-sanctioned tyrannies of the Mexican American war and slavery. He states, for example, that, in general, "It [government] does not keep the country free." He states too that

I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

The two quotes above show another way through which Thoreau expresses tone; he does so by italicizing words to add emphasis to them. When he repeatedly italicizes that government is an "it"—a thing, an abstraction, not a person—he is signaling and emphasizing his disdain and indignation at it from a superior position. When he italicizes "at once," he is putting emotional urgency into the idea of installing a better government immediately.

Thoreau is trying to build a logical case for a small, moral, and ethical government in this essay. However, along with logic, he adopts a passionate tone that convinces his audience of his emotional investment in the subject.

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Additionally, the tone of Thoreau's work is persuasive, purposeful, and indignant. Thoreau argues that matters of justice should be decided by individual conscience rather than by majority consensus. He contends that all who become obsessed with the letter of the law will eventually discard common sense and conscience. Thoreau cites the example of soldiers who are given little latitude to exercise personal judgment in matters of war. These soldiers are compelled to obey, as if they are mere horses or dogs.

Thoreau's main argument is that every individual has a right to ignore "unjust laws." He is appalled that a government based on majority rule should have the authority to compel absolute obedience from individuals. Thoreau purposefully lays out his argument in support of individual rebellion in his essay. He fervently supports the motto "That government is best which governs least," and he invites all abolitionists to pull their support from the government of Massachusetts for its support of slavery.

Thoreau scoffs at the idea of "reform." He says that it's past time to talk about this. He contends that the only correct response (when one's government has overreached its authority) is to engage in outright rebellion or "civil disobedience." Thoreau maintains that "the true place for a just man is also a prison." In other words, individuals should be willing to risk imprisonment in order to bring about some substantive changes.

Thoreau resolutely argues that civil disobedience is necessary, even if it endangers the welfare of individual families and properties. He says that this is the only way to stop the government of Massachusetts from propagating slavery. Thoreau does acknowledge that it is difficult "for a man to live honestly, and at the same time comfortably." However, he purposefully encourages every individual who is serious about stopping the practice of slavery to make difficult choices. Thoreau maintains that this is the only way to live with integrity and honor.

So, we can see that the tone of Thoreau's essay is both purposeful and indignant. He is convicted of the rightness of his beliefs and firm in his support for civil disobedience.




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If "tone" can be seen as "the attitude an author takes towards the work," then I think that Thoreau hits a very defiant tone in Civil Disobedience. This level of defiance can be seen in how Thoreau saw his writing as a response to the clamor as to why he refused to pay taxes to a government advocating the Mexican- American War.  I think that this tone is evident in how Thoreau argues the need for individual action to heed to a higher law, at times, when there is obvious conflict with human law.  Thoreau is passionate about this more transcendent realm of justice and in doing so, his tone is firm and defiant in how individuals must aspire to this realm and not capitulate to what the Status Quo is.  This brings out a larger issue in the writing which is that individuals must appropriate a point of view that seeks to transform and change what is into what should be.  Such a task necessitates a tone of defiance and clarity in its call to action.  The advocacy of resistance demands a tone of defiance to what he writes and to the manner in which it is presented.  I think that this is the reason why this tone is so evident in Thoreau's work.

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