Civil Disobedience Themes

The main themes in "Civil Disobedience" are individual conscience and action, just and unjust laws, and democracy in the United States.

  • Individual conscience and action: Thoreau emphasizes the importance of each citizen's discernment in assessing the correct course of action.
  • Just and unjust laws: Thoreau argues that a nation's laws do not necessarily represent the values and interests of all of its citizens.
  • Democracy in the United States: Thoreau suggests that, despite Democracy's benefits, the majority opinion may not always be correct.


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Last Updated on June 5, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910

Individual Conscience and Action

Throughout “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau expresses his strong concern with the weight of individual conscience. This is an especially important matter because of the ways in which it connects with each person’s civic responsibilities and decisions about their relationship with the government. Through rhetorical questions, Thoreau suggests that conscience is what decides right and wrong behaviors and that people should resist any “rule of expediency.” He apparently criticizes individual decisions by which any person to any degree would “resign his conscience to the legislator”; otherwise, he cannot see the point of having a conscience. He is convinced that there is a difference between the law and what is right, and the latter is more crucial to him:

The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right.

Each individual must assume a position within society—which Thoreau refers to as “a corporation”—in accordance with their most deeply held beliefs. The group as a whole does not have a conscience and can only act as though it has one because of the shared beliefs and perspectives of its members: “a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.” The individuals therefore impart their conscience to the group, which Thoreau strongly advocates, regardless of personal cost.

This line of questioning and criticism is closely connected to Thoreau’s views on the military and men’s participation in it. The very definition of humanity is at stake for him. He is alarmed by men who set aside their own conscience—as well as common sense—in order to obey “some unscrupulous man” who holds the power. The beings who simply follow along, exhibiting no doubts about the “damnable business” of war, challenge his very conception of humanity:

Now, what are they? Men at all?

This existential question leads Thoreau into a consideration of the kinds of decisions that men must make according to their conscience. He speculates about the conditions that require people to evaluate whether a law is just or not and considers how to best behave according to that evaluation.

Just and Unjust Laws

The government only represents the American people to a certain extent. Instead, governance is achieved by the administration of laws intended to control people’s actions. Not every law is equally valid, Thoreau argues, and decisions to follow and enforce laws must be selectively made. One fundamental basis for such decisions is the relative justice of each individual law, which must be considered on its own merits. Following his oft-repeated conscience argument, Thoreau further states that if any law demands that a person promote injustice or act as its “agent,” then people should not be required to follow that particular law. If any law “is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another,” Thoreau argues, “then, I say, break the law.”

The case of slavery is paramount in Thoreau’s arguments. In addition to opposing the perpetuation of laws allowing slavery in the United States, Thoreau recommends that people oppose the extension of those laws into any new territories that come under US jurisdiction. His interpretation is that opposing the injustice of slavery requires opposing the mechanisms of its expansion, which he does by not paying his taxes—and thus not funding war.

Democracy in the United States

Thoreau points out numerous negative features of the US democratic system. One of its key problems is that, through representative democracy, a few individuals (state and national legislators) make decisions on behalf of others. The government is “the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will.” The American people have thereby given up much of their rights and responsibilities in carrying out governance. This allows a few people to exercise their preferences without requesting further permission, as in the case of the Mexican War, which he sees as “the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool.” As he advocates for minimal government, he claims that American people would have accomplished even more than they have if the government did not get in the way of popular will.

The consequences of democratic government include the possibility—even the likelihood—that the majority of citizens will be wrong. This theme is closely related to the idea of injustice as perpetrated by laws, but Thoreau raises significantly different points. In contrast to his dissection of the merits of individual laws, here Thoreau argues against the underlying principle of majority rule. The fact that a large number of people supports an idea, he states, does not necessarily make that idea correct. For individuals to come together so that they constitute a majority is rendered more difficult when society blindly follows what any majority has already ordained.

Thoreau uses this line of argument to show how slavery might be overturned. His argument is not based in the existing constitutional right to petition the government, through which any individual could attempt to influence their representative (the person involved in making and changing the laws). Thoreau’s point is that a majority is composed of individuals who can practice direct democracy and thus have a combined, cumulative effect. One man, then ten, a hundred, and a thousand men could come together and give up slaveholding. Their individual actions, when taken together, could form a new majority and cause “the abolition of slavery in America.”

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