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 legislators, and that “[i]t is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” Most people, he feared, served the state as soldiers do, like unthinking machines.
He does not, however, argue for violent revolution; he advocates nonviolent resistance. (Later, Thoreau would contradict such a philosophy in three essays championing John Brown, who endorsed and practiced violence.) The disobedient must be prepared to accept punishment, if necessary: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Thoreau concludes:The authority of government . . . must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I conceded to it. There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.
This doctrine has always been repellent to authoritarians of the far Right and Left, who tolerate no dissent and have had protesters beaten, imprisoned, and even killed. In the seventeenth century, Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony reproved his constituents for daring to criticize him, calling them naturally depraved and maintaining that the authorities are instituted by God and that to criticize them constitutes treason and atheism.
In Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924), Herman Melville satirically presented the authoritarian military point of view when Captain Vere insists that those in uniform must obey without question: “We fight at command. If our judgments approve the war, that is but coincidence. . . . For that law and the rigour of it, we are not responsible. Our vowed responsibility is in this: That however pitilessly that law may operate, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it.” Vere’s is the defense of all war criminals—that they were only carrying out orders and cannot be expected to disobey. The rationale behind war crimes trials, however, is that even the military are subject to a higher law.
Civil disobedience is at least as old as Socrates, who preferred to die rather than yield to an order to stop asking questions that embarrassed the authorities, to whom he said, “I shall obey God, rather than you.” The Christian martyrs who refused to deny their God and worship Caligula, Nero, or some other depraved Roman emperor were practicing civil disobedience. All abolitionists, members of the Underground Railroad, and those who refused to obey the Fugitive Slave Act were practicing civil disobedience. History and literature are full of examples. Huckleberry Finn resolved to defy his upbringing and “go to hell” in order to rescue his best friend, a runaway slave. Mahatma Gandhi was an admirer of Thoreau and adopted his policy of nonviolent resistance to oppose racism in Africa and imperialism in India. American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., patterned nonviolent resistance after Gandhi.
In fact, the U.S. government’s system of checks and balances sometimes requires its citizens to break the law, for the only way to challenge the constitutionality of a law is to break it and try a test case, as Dr. King and his followers repeatedly did. Dr. King was frequently imprisoned and called a criminal for violating local statutes that instituted racial discrimination, but he believed in the higher law of the Constitution and wrote, “Words cannot express the exultation felt by the individual as he finds himself, with hundreds of his fellows, behind prison bars for a cause he knows is just.” During the Vietnam War, an increasingly large number of people protested that the war was unjust, and many of draft age refused to serve in the armed forces and went to prison or into exile rather than be forced to kill or be killed in Vietnam. The government’s position was that they were cowards or traitors, but a majority of the U.S. population came to agree with the protesters.
One problem with Thoreau’s doctrine is that it is not always easy to determine whether a law is just or unjust. Thoreau never advocated the indiscriminate breaking of laws; civil disobedience applies only in cases of fundamental moral principle. Not all individuals are necessarily right in defying the government. For example, during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, some southern governors defied court orders to desegregate schools and other institutions, arguing that segregation was the will of God.
Frequently it is liberals who endorse civil disobedience, but in the late 1980’s, members of the conservative Iran-Contra conspiracy defended their breaking of laws and lying to Congress on the grounds that they were serving a higher law. Similarly, opponents of abortion rights have argued that a higher law requires them to break laws that prohibit them from harassing those who sanction abortion rights. Thus the debate continues; through it all, Thoreau’s essay remains one of the most potent and influential ever written.
“Resistance to Civil Government” is Henry David Thoreau’s literary effort at grappling with the limitation and control that the government, and occasionally, the people themselves, impose. But what Thoreau is trying to do is illustrate that the government can and should be better than it is. His argument stresses that the state should be controlled less by the ideals of a select few that have found themselves at the top spots and more as the average man, insignificant in himself, but the veritable backbone of the state, would have it run.
We, as a human species, have moved through tribal hierarchies to monarchies to communism to what is now perceived as the ultimate in governmental evolution, the supposed ideal, the democracy. But Thoreau does not see the democracy as conducting itself in any sort of idyllic fashion. He argues that we are dependent on the government for nothing. “It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in the way.“ It seems, therefore, that the government is dependent upon the American people to function properly. The American people should be allowed to let it be known what type of government they would be happy with and those wishes should be quickly granted.
Thoreau says, “I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, ‘til one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to its own nature, it dies; and so a man.”
Therein lies the only basis of the governments power, the basic argument that the strong survive. Thoreau maintains that we should not bend over backwards to accommodate a government that puts itself first and its subjects second. He says “government is at best an expedient”. But those who come into power, as we have seen many times in the American democracy, the current administration being a very pertinent example, are not necessarily the most just, they are simply the strongest. Justice plays a very small role in the matter so we are left to the expedience of the strong and that, according to Thoreau, is far from ideal.
How can the current system be idealistic for liberty seeking Americans when, for example, one realizes the governments criminal control of the army. The armies are of men that have been subjected to a stripping of their conscience. They know that they are engaged in terrible events for men are not inherently prone to fight. As Thoreau describes them, “Men at all? Or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man of power”. By joining the armed forces, they “have the same sort of worth only of cats and dogs” but they are regarded as respectable members of society. At the same time, the revolutionaries of the day, those, such as Thoreau, that are real respectable men, that have, in Thoreau’s case, written things such as the “Resistance” or have given %110 in other ways to improve the conditions and awareness of every man, are called self interested, “useless” members of society.
In the same vain, Thoreau’s life span fell in the midst of those tumultuous years of the 19th century when American was engaged in both slavery and a Mexican invasion. He argues how the government can endorse enslavement of a large majority of people that are in the same pursuit of freedom that we founded this country on just 100 years earlier and simultaneously invade and impose a control very similar to that control we were under, again just 100 years ago.
Then there is the issue of taxes as being the primary motive, as it is the one motive that Thoreau is most familiar, to “resist” the civil government. He asks how we, the conscientious, independent Americans that we claim to be, can let ourselves be coerced out of our hard earned dollars by a government that maintains it is our duty? Do we owe the government anything? Do we owe financial backing to a system that, as Thoreau says, and was mentioned earlier, “never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way”? By simply living, we owe money. By simply living we are responsible when that government needs monetary funding to bail itself out. Do we owe it that much? We are to help them when they cannot help themselves? Every man works hard to make his money. Should we reward those that do not?
There they are. The injustices that are perpetrated regularly by the current state system. It practically begs for a change. But to resist the civil government? To make that change? Ay, therein lies the rub. Resistance is difficult for any man. And against such overwhelming power? Still, Thoreau questions how one can see the injustices being committed and have such an opinion for change but simply do nothing to change them. How can they be happy with themselves knowing that they are obeying unjust laws? By not acting, they are simply accepting their fates and resigning themselves to the control.
It is, according to Thoreau, our duty as Americans to embrace that inherent character that has accomplished all for it is the same one that conquered the English and won the American people their freedom. They knew then that men were not born to be forced or controlled, that to be so is a denial of their very humanity. Just 100 years ago it was perceived as such and a revolution occurred. This opposition to unjust rule was led by strong, independent individuals who were an asset to the fight for ideal government. But since then, the American people have conformed to that ideal power and, in doing so, have relinquished some of their individuality. They have forgotten what it is to have independent minds and independent spirits. Although they still claim them, they set themselves up to take advantage of any and all hand outs that the government makes. Thoreau argues it to be their civil duty that “if you proclaim yourself independent, live the independent life.” In conforming and so failing to fulfill their civil duty, Americans let themselves be controlled.
Those that think it is the right thing to do, those that can not live without fulfilling their duty as citizens of this country, are urged by Thoreau to speak out. He urges every realized individual to set the example for others to sculpt the government that they have now into what they want to see as the government, “letting their lives be the resistance to the machine“. It is important not to wait for the majority or the popular support to govern their actions. Too many people see what is happening, know what is happening, but they sit and decide that they do not know what actions to take and do nothing.
If it is a worry concerning the repercussions that might occur, to lose government aid, how much are they dependent on the government really? If they think that to lose its support would be worse than having it, the reason is because the government does not want to relinquish its power. It does not ask us what we think would help it to improve, it stifles the intelligent and wise reformers, it does not even examine itself and admit its faults. It is the superior power and does not want to let itself be questioned.
Another key to resistance is to not spend much time gaining wealth. Those that do are conforming to an unjust system by realizing their dreams “from the shoulders of others” for one does not become rich without stepping on someone else’s toes, by regularly paying their taxes, and letting themselves be tainted in favor of the group that gave them so much. If a person should become rich, it is only right that he pursue those same ideas for change that he inevitably thought about when he was poor.
In such ways, a move away from the views of the selected few that have found themselves on top and towards the right and just treatment of the common man, without which the people at the top would be out of a job and basically out of a country. After all, democracy is just the latest in government evolution. It is simply regarded as the ideal because a better idea has not yet been put into action. Why should we content ourselves with living in such a system when others, such as Thoreau’s near utopian society, in which the government treats every man with respect and is persistent in getting their every need fulfilled, have never been tried? We have only seen the proverbial peak of the glacier. There is much wonderment that lies hidden below the surface, waiting for us to find it.