Identify a major point in Thoreau's essay, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience."

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One of the most significant points that Thoreau makes in "Civil Disobedience" is that individuals have to respect a transcendent notion of the good that might supersede temporal laws.  One of the primary points that Thoreau wishes to make is that individuals have to recognize this higher calling:  "[i]t is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”  The point that Thoreau makes is that individuals should not conform to a respect for laws when individuals recognize that laws, themselves, are unjust:  “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” For example, if Thoreau recognizes that slavery is morally and ethically wrong, any government that would allow it to exist must be rejected.  

Thoreau suggests that laws are made by human beings and thus are not infallible. Thoreau's primary point is to ensure that individuals speak out against the injustice present in such situations where the laws collide with the individual's duty of right and wrong.  The individual's sense of justice is what gives government its power:  "The authority of government . . . must have the sanction and consent of the governed."  Thoreau makes it clear that government might possess authority and power, but it does not possess the ability to change how people feel about an enlightened moral sense of right and justice. This appeal to the subjective notion of justice, honor, and individual conscience against a conformist reality is one of Thoreau's major points in the essay.

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