In his 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau struggles with ethical questions surrounding his personal decision not to pay the poll tax, which he has refused to pay for several years. Initially titled “Resistance to Civil Government,” it appeared three years after he had been jailed overnight for this refusal. He not only criticizes the government but also asks others to consider for themselves what governance means. The essay begins with his assertion that no government at all would be ideal but that such an arrangement would be impractical. Taking a more moderate course, he supports minimal government: “That government is best which governs least.” As he works through his argument, Thoreau presents reasons for his political philosophy and discusses relevant current events in which readers have both moral and financial stakes.
In addition to its argumentation, the essay is significant for the historical context of its production and its lasting effect. Thoreau engages the reader with numerous rhetorical strategies and literary techniques, including metaphorical comparisons and vivid imagery. Using first-person perspective, he appeals to readers by invoking the issues that weigh heavily on his conscience and that bear broad social significance. By including analysis of earlier political philosophers, he adds credibility to his sometimes extreme statements. Thoreau’s combination of message and method has contributed to the ongoing impact of his essay, which has influenced social justice movements both in the United States and abroad.
Beyond sharing his personal experiences and meditations, he encourages others to contemplate the bases of their decisions. One central question he poses is: “Must the citizen resign his conscience to the legislator?” His own answer is negative. Instead, he asserts that conscience must remain in the realm of personal choice:
The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right.
Thoreau anticipates that many readers will disagree with him. Therefore, he lays out a set of logically based arguments that support his claim. More than hoping to convince readers that he is right, he aims to persuade them that they will inevitably come to the same conclusion.
Thoreau evokes the image of a line of men, from the top general through the humblest “powder-monkey,” and asserts that all must decide for themselves. Otherwise, he suggests, some magic is at hand. Those who follow without thinking are the products of an “unscrupulous” government that “can make a man with its black arts, a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity.” He then traces another metaphor, lamenting that what remains are “wooden men” or “men of straw,” reducible to “a lump of dirt.” He encourages readers to aim higher and apply their wisdom:
A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be “clay.”
Thoreau presents his view that each citizen must act according to her own conscience in accordance with their understanding of the laws of God. The decision to base one’s actions on what is right becomes especially important when one’s individual conscience clashes with the “laws of man.” Thoreau is emphatic that such decisions are not taken lightly. Instead, he insists that taking a stand against human-made laws or other government policies reflects one’s discernment and conviction:
Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect.
Thoreau cannot feel such respect for his own government’s policies. His objection to paying the poll tax was directly to the unjust uses of the revenue raised through it. In particular, he was among those who condemned the United States for the war it began with Mexico in 1846. Thoreau’s objection concerned the expansion of slavery, which he completely opposed, into the newly conquered territories. Thus, one’s attitude towards slavery dictates whether one condones the government. His stance...
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