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Thoreau and Disobedience

Ironically, even though popular culture now firmly associates Henry David Thoreau with the concept of “civil disobedience,” the truth is that the author never used this phrase in his famous essay. Nor can it be found in any of his other writings.

Thoreau first presented his opinions on the subject in two lectures that he read in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, in early 1848. The first was called “Relation of Individual to State,” and the second one was “Rights and Duties of Individual.” When his resulting essay was published by Elizabeth Peabody in her single issue of Aesthetic Papers in 1849, it was under the title of “Resistance to Civil Government.” By the time it was published in book form – as contained in the posthumous volume, A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers, in 1866 -- the title had been shortened and changed to “Civil Disobedience.” Henry Thoreau likely never considered using this phrase himself to describe the stand he took by spending one night in the Middlesex jail.

In fact, the only passage in the essay that includes the word “disobedience” appears in the twenty-third paragraph:

"No: until I want the protection of Massachusetts to be extended to me in some distant Southern port, where my liberty is endangered, or until I am bent solely on building up an estate at home by peaceful enterprise, I can afford to refuse allegiance to Massachusetts, and her right to my property and life. It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less in that case."

Here he says that in most instances, he’s willing to pay the financial or moral costs to disobey the laws he believes to be unjust. His personal price would be higher, to do otherwise.