Civil Disobedience Summary
by Henry David Thoreau

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Civil Disobedience Summary

“Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau is an 1849 essay that argues that citizens must disobey the rule of law when the law proves to be unjust.

  • Thoreau draws on his own experiences and explains why he refused to pay taxes in protest of slavery and the Mexican War.
  • Thoreau argues that there are two laws: the laws of men and the higher laws of God and humanity. If the laws of men are unjust, then one has every right to disobey them.

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In this essay, published in 1849, Thoreau expresses his support of the idea that the smallest government is the best kind of government. He believes that, when we are ready, we will govern ourselves and require no formal government at all. In his view, the government only exists because people have chosen it to “execute their will,” and it is very likely to be abused or corrupted before people can actually put it to this purpose. For example, he describes the Mexican War as being favored only by a few in power and not by the populace at large.

Thoreau claims that the government imposes itself on individuals who are attempting to accomplish things. In fact, Thoreau feels that the government gets in the way of the ingenuity and fortitude displayed in the American character. He knows that it is impractical to ask for no government, and so he asks instead for a “better government,” one in which the majority does not rule but, rather, each person’s conscience rules each person. “Must the citizen,” he asks, “resign his conscience to the legislator?” After all, why should each of us be gifted with a conscience if we are simply going to be guided by laws rather than our own moral compasses? Thoreau claims,

It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.

Each person must only do, in each moment, what they think is right. Instead, though, we resign our minds and bodies to “serve the State” and act not as individuals but as machines. We fail to exercise our judgment or morality when we do this and become no better than animals. Often, community leaders are liable to become corrupted, though a few of them do serve by exercising their consciences; however, these are often seen as enemies by the majority.

Thoreau declares that he cannot allow himself to recognize a government that supports the institution of slavery. He describes the American Revolution: how the colonists refused to abide by the laws of a corrupt British government, and so they broke those laws and declared their political independence. However, once the friction that disrupted that machine creates a new machine of its own, we have an obligation to create a new friction to disrupt its “oppression and robbery.”

Thoreau mentions William Paley, an eighteenth-century minister who argued that citizens have to obey their rulers in order for society to continue to run. Paley said that each man has to “judge for himself” whether it is worth it to resist and create discord. Though Paley opposed the slave trade, Thoreau feels that his resistance did not extend far enough. Thoreau writes,

If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself.

Paley, he says, would have called this “inconvenient”; Thoreau does not care about inconvenience but about injustice. He feels that Americans, even in Massachusetts, are unwilling to “do justice” to enslaved peoples or to Mexico, simply because the financial cost would be too great. Though many may hold the opinion that slavery and the war are immoral choices, most do not actually do anything to disrupt them. They wait for other people to find solutions, and perhaps they vote, but that is all. Thoreau claims,

There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man.

Thoreau likens voting to gambling or playing a game. The majority rules, regardless of one’s vote, and so voting for the thing or person one thinks is right is not actually doing anything to make...

(The entire section is 1,134 words.)