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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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 is clear:

I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also.

Extending this argument into a conscientious resistance to the overall function of the state, Thoreau says, “I quietly declare war with the State.” For him there is no shame in having been jailed. The government’s eagerness to jail him while the supporters of slavery and war remained free offered further evidence of its abuses of power. To his mind, Americans have the responsibility to defy unjust laws:

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.

Thoreau deliberately appeals to the past in justifying his approach to the present, and he speaks out against those who say such comparisons do not hold. The arguments he presents are founded in American historical precedents. Thoreau shows that even before the United States became a sovereign nation, those who supported independence based their support in similar issues of conscience.

All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now… But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of ‘75.

Instead, he urges the reader to see that the “right of revolution” still stands and to recall that shaking off the tyranny of unjust rule was how the United States secured it nationhood. Thoreau analyzes the writings of earlier patriots, such as William Paley, who spoke of the relationship between expediency and obedience. Paley advocated for basing one’s obedience to the established government on the requirements of “the interest of the whole society” and the limits of “public inconveniency” in changing or resisting the government. Digging deeper into Paley’s ideas, Thoreau explores cases when expediency is less important than loyalty. Here, Thoreau applies a vivid metaphor:

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

Another key rhetorical device Thoreau incorporates is allusions to other writings. For example, he calls his neighbors who, in his opinion, unthinkingly pay their taxes “summer weather” friends. The phrase alludes to the “summer soldiers” whom Thomas Paine criticized for inadequately backing the revolutionary war.

Another device the author employs to engage the reader are questions, many of which seem rhetorical but which he often answers in the negative. Examples occur in his discussion of presidential candidates, as he asks about their independent thinking:

[S]hall we not have the advantage of his wisdom and honesty, nevertheless? Can we not count upon some independent votes?

Answering “No,” he continues to catalogue the desirable qualities that not just politicians but all Americans should have: “How many men are there to a square thousand miles in this country? Hardly one.” The implication is clear: each reader should decide that they will be the “man who is a man,” who will “devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong”—that is, slavery.

Slavery was the most crucial issue Americans faced, in Thoreau’s view. The American political climate in 1849 shaped not only the content of this essay but influenced Thoreau’s thinking more generally. His opposition to the Mexican War represents an outspoken, though minor, current of alarm at the rapid pace of national expansion. In the face of such expansion, he asserts that the majority of the people agree with him, thus calling into question the idea of popular support: “[T]he present Mexican war [is] the work of comparatively a few individuals.”

The ongoing legacy of Thoreau’s essay has proved as significant as its immediate effect. The concept of civil disobedience has become central to numerous nonviolent resistance movements. Mohandas Gandhi incorporated the essay’s principles into programs that supported India’s independence from British rule. While living in South Africa, British authorities arrested and jailed him for refusing to cooperate with a discriminatory British law; in jail, Gandhi read “Civil Disobedience.” The concept of civil disobedience also played an important role in the nonviolent resistance of the US Civil Rights Movement. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was motivated by Thoreau’s work and by Gandhi’s interpretations of it.

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