Why Does Thoreau Refer To Civil Disobedience As A Duty

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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When Henry David Thoreau chose to go to jail rather than pay a poll tax for the war in Mexico, Bronson Alcott called Thoreau a good example of “dignified noncompliance with the injunction of civil powers.”  Thoreau felt it necessary to demonstrate that the government must have the consent of the governed, not force itself upon its citizenry.  He contended that the government is merely "a wooden gun"; there is a higher power to which men should answer, a divine power.  Whenever the civil laws conflict with this divine law, it is the duty of men to obey the divine law.  But, Thoreau stated, the "mass of men" serve the government, now as men, but as "machines."  

Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

 Civil disobedience is essential, therefore, if men are to remain men and not machines.  Only in this way can a man keep his conscience clear.

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chsmith1957 | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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As a Transcendentalist, Henry Thoreau believed in the power of the individual, and that people hold their own “higher laws” in their hearts and minds and souls, independent of any man-made government. Individuals know automatically the differences between right and wrong. He rejected the practice of majority rule. He refers to this idea in the fourth paragraph of “Civil Disobedience:”

Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? … I think that 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.

In paragraphs 16-17-18, he returns to this topic. He thinks that individuals should have a right to protest unjust laws on their own, and that the government should have some procedure in place for doing so. No one should be automatically put in jail just because he/she disagrees with a particular tax or law. Somehow, the government should have to hear the person out and consider the request. And he/she shouldn’t have to rally numbers of like-minded folks to make a stand, either. “Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them,” he says. He sees this as a flaw in the process. It doesn’t honor the intrinsic right of the individual to think, speak, or act.

He uses the metaphor of a machine to describe the government. One specific injustice may create a natural friction within the machine, and it may resolve itself and smooth itself out on its own. But if it doesn’t, and if it has some kind of handle that you can use to accelerate the process, you should use it to solve the problem. Going further:

If it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

By not acting, or by merely waiting for a majority of people to join in before acting, you would only be perpetuating the problem and allowing it to continue. This is wrong, in Thoreau’s mind.

In the final paragraph of the essay, Thoreau questions the viability and practicality of democracy. Is it the best way to run a country? He doesn’t believe it is, especially since it doesn’t consider the intrinsic rights of the individual.

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.

He doesn’t see this happening anytime soon, without prodding or without decent examples to follow.

For the record: Thoreau never used the term “civil disobedience.” His essay was re-titled with this phrase when it was re-printed after his death in 1862. Its original title was “Resistance to Civil Government.”

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