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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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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 right thing happen. He calls casting a vote a “feeble” expression of one’s desire to do right, and he expresses little faith in the judgment of the majority. Thoreau feels that one should do nothing that contributes in any way to an institution or practice that is unjust. To this end, he says,

If I devote myself to . . . pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.

One should not support anything that exists at the cost of other people’s freedom. Thus, for example, one cannot support or attempt to sustain a government that upholds slavery. One can resist by refusing to pay one’s taxes, as those taxes go to support a government that supports slavery and an unjust war. Thoreau argues that “Action from principle . . . divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.” We do a difficult thing when we break unjust laws, but it is the right thing nonetheless.

Rather than wait to change an unjust law through the workings of the majority, which is nothing if not unreliable, Thoreau argues that we must break the law rather than be the “agent of injustice” to another person. We cannot inadvertently participate in the wrongs that we oppose in opinion. He declares that any abolitionist has a duty to withdraw support, financial and otherwise, from the state government for this very reason. Moreover, when the government imprisons any person unjustly, “the true place for a just man is also prison.” If the laws are unjust, then we have a moral obligation to break those laws and risk jail. It is far less bloody and violent to have jails full of just individuals who oppose slavery than it is to pay one’s taxes to a government which will use that money to fund violent conflicts and keep people enslaved.

Thoreau describes how he has refused to pay his poll tax for six years, and how he was jailed once for his refusal. He finds it amusing that the state should punish him by locking up his body rather than putting him to some kind of use. When he emerges from his night in jail—for someone paid his tax—he is changed: he feels that his neighbors and friends are “for summer weather only” and that they do not care about doing right, as he does. He will not “trace the course” of his dollar to see whether it buys a man or a musket, and so he has “declare[d] war” on the state instead. Those who paid his tax “abet injustice” by funding whatever it is that the state chooses to do with their money.

Ultimately, Thoreau says that he is not looking for reasons to be disobedient; in fact, he would prefer to conform to the laws of the land, because this would mean that those laws are just. However, he claims that a free state cannot exist until it recognizes that its power is derived from the individual and so treats every individual justly.

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