Skip over navigation

Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau

Section Three

Section Two

Study Questions

Summary

Thoreau now turns to his personal experiences with civil disobedience. He says that he hasn't paid a poll tax for six years and that he spent a night in jail once because of this. His experience in jail did not hurt his spirit: "I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to break through, before they could get to be as free as I was." Since the State couldn't reach his essential self, they decided to punish his body. This illustrated the State's ultimate weakness, and Thoreau says that he came to pity the State. The masses can't force him to do anything; he is subject only to those who obey a higher law. He says that he has to obey his own laws and try to flourish in this way.

The night in prison, he recounts, was "novel and interesting enough." His roommate had been accused of burning down a barn, though Thoreau speculated that the man had fallen asleep drunk in the barn while smoking a pipe. Thoreau was let in on the gossip and history of the jail and was shown several verses that were composed in the jail. The workings of the jail fascinated him, and staying in jail that night was like traveling in another country. He felt as if he was seeing his town through the light of the middle ages--as if he had never heard the sounds of his town before. After the first night, however, somebody interfered and paid his tax, and so he was released from prison the next day. Upon Thoreau's release, it seemed some kind of change had come over the town, the State and the country. He realized that the people he lived with were only friends in the good times. They were not interested in justice or in taking any risks. He soon left the town and was out of view of the State again.

Thoreau says that he always pays the highway tax because he wants to be a good neighbor, but, generally, he avoids all taxes. However, his refusal to pay taxes is not based on a desire to boycott one or two government practices in particular or the practices that a certain tax funds. Rather, he is refusing allegiance to the State as a whole. "In fact," he states, "I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases." Considering the anonymous person who paid his tax for him and let him out of jail, he says that if that person paid his tax out of sympathy with the State, then he or she was simply aiding injustice. If the person did it to help him, then he or she was letting his or her private feelings interfere with the public good. Thoreau says that he sometimes wants to respect his neighbors' desires, knowing that they mean well. However, he reminds himself that there are other people (e.g., the slaves) who would be much more hurt if he went along with his neighbors. He does not believe that he must accept men as they are and give up thinking of how they ought to be. In going against his fellow men, he believes that he can have some impact.

Thoreau says that he doesn't want conflicts with any other person or country. Rather, he wants to follow the law, and he looks for reasons to follow it. He quotes a verse: "We must affect [i.e., "treat"] our country as our parents, / And if at any time we alienate / Our love or industry from doing it honor, / We must respect effects and teach the soul / Matter of conscience and religion, / And not desire of rule or benefit." He says that seen from a "lower" point of view, the Constitution and other laws warrant respect, despite their faults. From higher points of view, however, they appear less and less virtuous. But then, he says, the government doesn't concern him very much, and he avoids thinking about it.

Thoreau then writes that he doesn't have patience for lawyers and legislators. Standing within political institutions, they never critically look at these institutions and, therefore, cannot reform them; "They are wont to forget that the world is not governed by policy and expediency." He speaks of Daniel Webster, saying that this politician fails to make fundamental reforms of government. However, compared with other politicians and reformers, Webster is the only sensible one. He is not a leader but a follower, and his actions are defensive, not aggressive. He supports slavery because it was in the original compact of the U.S. Thus, he doesn't have wisdom but only prudence.

Thoreau concludes by saying that no one with legislative genius has yet appeared in America--such people are rare in the world's history. He writes that government's authority is "impure." To be just, authority must be based on the consent of the governed; its only rights are the rights that the individual gives it. The movement toward democracy constitutes progress toward true respect for the individual. However, democracy is not the last step that can be made. He says that he dreams of a State that respects the individual, a State that would not mind if a few individuals even chose to live independent of it altogether. This kind of State would prepare the way for an even more "perfect and glorious State."

Commentary

In addition to its arguments about political theory, Civil Disobedience is an interesting historical source. Consider what issues consume his writing and the historical figures he mentions. How has the world changed since Thoreau's times, and do these changes affect the relevancy of his overall message? For example, one such change has been to the size of government in America: In our time, government programs have become much more all-pervasive than they were during Thoreau's life, affecting many more aspects of our life; might it no longer be possible to remove oneself from such an omnipresent force? It is also worth considering the degree to which Thoreau's arguments gain rhetorical power because he was opposing true injustices. All modern readers would agree with Thoreau about the evils of slavery, and, thus, we are more easily convinced of the good of a practice that protests such an evil. However, would we agree about the good of civil disobedience if Thoreau were using it to support slavery or war? Moreover, some issues are less clear-cut than these. For example, not all people believe that all wars are necessarily bad--one might support a war against a tyrannical regime. When this tyrannical regime was Nazi Germany, nearly all Americans supported going to war (once we were attacked by Germany's ally Japan, at least). But, when this regime was the Communist regime in Vietnam, the American support was less unilateral. Indeed, many American citizens practiced some form of civil disobedience in protest of the Vietnam War; was this warranted? Think about whether you find Thoreau's principles convincing when separated from his particular examples.

Thoreau also provides an important message about the value of non-conformity. Not only is he concerned about the injustices practiced by the American government; he is also concerned about the government's intolerance toward non-conformity and dissent. He argues that many of the world's problems come from the fact that entrenched majorities make it impossible for other people to pursue justice as they see it. He also presents his idea for a utopian world in which the government would allow people to choose to live independently of the government itself. Note that this idea depends on the assumption that citizenship is a matter of choice. Some thinkers have questioned this assumption, arguing that people are born into connections with others that they cannot control or change. These thinkers argue that people cannot simply disassociate with their world or even their government; they have obligations not only to their own thoughts and feelings but also to the thoughts and feelings of others and to the needs of those around them. Thoreau, however, contends that, regardless of other connections, a person is ultimately responsible to himself alone and can and should see himself as independent of his society and government. Do you agree with this extreme individualism?

More Help

Previous Next
Biased Summary

by d3412, August 02, 2014

Readers, don't be as critical and opinionated such as the author of this article when reading the actual essay.

Follow Us