What happens in Civil Disobedience?

In "Civil Disobedience," philosopher Henry David Thoreau argues that citizens must disobey the rule of law if those laws prove to be unjust. He draws on his own experiences and explains why he refused to pay taxes in protest of slavery and the Mexican War. Thoreau this becomes a model for civil disobedience.

  • For years, the United States government chooses to ignore Thoreau's failure to pay taxes. Then he's arrested and thrown in jail, where he refuses to pay his back taxes.

  • Someone pays the taxes for Thoreau, who is set free the next morning. Supposedly, the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him in jail and asked why he was there.

  • Thoreau then 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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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience,” first titled “Resistance to Civil Government” when it was published in the periodical Aesthetic Papers, in response to questions about why he had gone to jail. As an abolitionist, he had objected to the Massachusetts poll tax and refused to pay it as a protest against slavery. When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, he protested against it as an aggressive war of conquest aimed in part at adding new slave territories to the United States, and for this reason as well, he refused to pay the tax.

For several years, the authorities ignored Thoreau’s nonpayment, but in July of 1846, Concord constable Sam Staples ordered Thoreau to pay up. When Thoreau still failed to comply, Staples arrested him on July 23 or 24 and imprisoned him in the Middlesex County jail. That evening some unknown person paid Thoreau’s fine, but Staples kept Thoreau in jail until after breakfast before releasing him. Emerson called Thoreau’s action “mean and skulking, and in bad taste,” and there is an apocryphal story that Emerson, visiting Thoreau in prison, asked, “Henry David, what are you doing in there?” to which he replied, “Ralph Waldo, what are you doing out there?” Bronson Alcott, however, called Thoreau a good example of “dignified noncompliance with the injunction of civil powers.”

In the essay, Thoreau argues that laws, being human-made, are not infallible, that there is a higher divine law, and that when those laws conflict, one must obey the higher law. Hence slavery, no matter how legal (and it remained legal until 1865), was always unjust in its violation of the integrity and divine soul of the enslaved. So long as the American government upheld slavery, Thoreau said, one “cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”

Carrying to extreme the logic of the Declaration of Independence, Thoreau argues, in effect, that each individual should declare independence from unjust laws, that citizens must never surrender their conscience to the...

(The entire section is 1,573 words.)