Introduction to Civil Disobedience

“Civil Disobedience” is an essay by transcendentalist writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau. It was originally published in the Æsthetic Papers anthology under the title of “Resistance to Civil Government.” The main arguments of the essay originated from lectures that Thoreau gave regarding the relationship between individuals and the government. 

“Civil Disobedience” is a quintessentially transcendental work, and it emphasizes the importance of adhering to one’s own conscience and sense of morality over laws and government mandates. His belief was that civil institutions corrupted otherwise good people and led them to excuse or support practices and measures that they normally would have found reprehensible. The essay specifically notes slavery and the Mexican-American war as state-sanctioned evils. The government, in Thoreau’s eyes, is more interested in maintaining order than it is in doing what is right. As such, it is up to individuals to resist the corrosive influences of societal and political institutions and instead think for themselves. 

One of the enduring legacies of Thoreau’s essay is its endorsement of active disobedience and resistance to unjust laws. He advocated for abolitionists to stop paying taxes, since the United States government continued to support slave ownership. Major figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were inspired by Thoreau’s writing when organizing their own campaigns for justice, and they practiced nonviolent but nonetheless illegal acts as a form of protest.

A Brief Biography of Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was born and raised in Concord, Massachusetts. After graduating from Harvard College, he tried his hand in various endeavors: teaching, working in his father’s pencil factory, and, at the encouragement of Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing poetry. Emerson and Thoreau published their writings in the Dial, a journal they founded for the purpose of promoting transcendentalist ideas. Thoreau’s contributions included verse, criticism, and nature writing.

In 1845, Thoreau, motivated by a broken engagement and his brother’s death, decided to retreat from society and build a cabin by Walden pond. Thus began a two-year experiment in simple, self-reliant living, during which Thoreau immersed himself in reading, journaling, and observing his natural environment. The result was Walden (1854), a work of nonfiction that blends memoir, philosophy, and nature writing. Walden was largely ignored during Thoreau’s life, but it has since become a classic, studied as a key transcendentalist text and praised for its lyrical yet direct prose style. Thoreau is also known for his essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849), a call for conscious resistance to government that was inspired by a night he spent in jail. The essay underscores the fierce independence Thoreau cultivated in himself and encouraged in others.

Frequently Asked Questions about Civil Disobedience

Civil Disobedience

Thoreau learns in jail that imprisonment is, paradoxically, a form of freedom. He writes of how much more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 1:34 pm (UTC)

2 educator answers

Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau was a famous American philosopher who wrote essays providing a social commentary that promoted pastoral and reclusive living. Thoreau isolated himself in a cabin on Walden Pond...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 4:01 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

Thoreau found his brief imprisonment interesting for a number of reasons. First, he discovered that the jail was quite a clean and civilized place. He describes his cell, which was whitewashed once...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 3:56 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

An act of civil disobedience occurs when a person decides to peacefully protest their government by refusing to follow specific laws. In Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 2:18 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

In Henry David Thoreau's treatise "Civil Disobedience," he discusses the advantages of limited government. To Thoreau, governments may be expedient or convenient, but they seldom honor the rights...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 1:57 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

Thoreau responds to being jailed by treating it almost as if it were research preparation to do for an essay he intended to write. In fact, he does write the essay “Civil Disobediance,” in which he...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 12:15 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau writes that his one obligation is to follow his conscience. He is not bound to obey the law, since laws are often unjust. This is the problem that leads to their so...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 12:29 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau adheres to Transcendentalism, which is an extension of sorts of Romanticism. There are various key characteristics of Romanticism, but for the purpose of this question, a key...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 12:39 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

Regarding injustice, Thoreau says, a person would do well to actively fight against it, but, at the very least, the individual must be sure that he or she does nothing which would support or...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 1:45 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

Thoreau justifies civil disobedience by saying that laws are often unjust, and that people should be guided by their consciences rather than the law. He points out that everyone recognizes the...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 12:58 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

A metaphor is a figure of speech. It is a figure of speech that makes a comparison between two things that are seemingly unrelated; however, the comparison helps point out common characteristics...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 1:01 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

Thoreau is willing to accept his punishment of being jailed and perceives it as a badge of honor. He states in his essay that Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 12:05 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

During his writing of "Civil Disobedience," Henry David Thoreau's biggest criticisms of government policy were of the institution of slavery and the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). He believed...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 12:06 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

The thrust of Thoreau's main argument in Civil Disobedience is that when citizens disapprove of the actions of the government, they have the right to resist it. Thoreau's view of government, in...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 11:32 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

Thoreau considers civil disobedience one of the most effective ways of expressing his displeasure with the government. Civil disobedience, as the name suggests, is the active disregard and breaking...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 11:44 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

In the conflict between majority rule and the individual conscience, Thoreau is firmly on the side of the latter. Thoreau is skeptical of government in general, believing such institutions tend to...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 11:46 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

Thoreau says that a good citizen is one who serves the state with his conscience. In "Civil Disobedience," he refers to three levels of public service. Soldiers serve the state with their bodies,...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 11:47 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

Thoreau compares the government to a machine to explain how governments dehumanize individuals. Thoreau claims that the "mass of men" serve the state as machines "with their bodies"; they "put...

Latest answer posted September 4, 2020, 1:45 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

In 1846, Thoreau was briefly jailed for refusing to pay taxes. While in jail, he penned his essay "Civil Disobedience" to explain his actions. Thoreau was upset that the U.S. government was using...

Latest answer posted September 3, 2020, 8:26 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau’s audience in “Civil Disobedience” is the American public. He wrote this essay in 1847, while Black people were still enslaved on plantations in the American South, and his...

Latest answer posted September 3, 2020, 1:26 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer
Next

Summary