For purposes of clarity and readability, the essay has been divided into three sections in this Summary & Analysis, though Thoreau himself made no such divisions.


Thoreau begins Civil Disobedience by saying that he agrees with the motto, "That government is best which governs least." Indeed, he says, men will someday be able to have a government that does not govern at all. As it is, government rarely proves useful or efficient. It is often "abused and perverted" so that it no longer represents the will of the people. The Mexican-American War illustrates this phenomenon.

The American government is necessary because "the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have." However, the only times when government has been useful has been when it has stood aside. Thoreau says that government does not, in fact, achieve that with which we credit it: it does not keep the country free, settle the West, or educate. Rather, these achievements come from the character of the American people, and they would have been even more successful in these endeavors had government been even less involved. Thoreau also complains about restrictions on trade and commerce. However, Thoreau then says that speaking "practically and as a citizen," he is not asking for the immediate elimination of government. Rather, for the moment, he is asking for a better government.

Thoreau argues that by answering to the majority, democracies answer the desires of the strongest group, not the most virtuous or thoughtful. A government founded on this principle cannot be based on justice. Why can't there be a government where right and wrong are not decided by the majority but by conscience? Thoreau writes, "Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think we should be men first, and subjects afterward." He asserts that it is more important to develop a respect for the right, rather than a respect for law, for people's obligations are to do what is right.

Too much respect for law leads people to do many unjust things, as war illustrates: Soldiers become only a shadow of their humanity; the government shapes them into machines. Soldiers have no opportunity to exercise moral sense, reduced to the existence comparable to that of a horse or dog. Yet these men are often called good citizens. Similarly, most legislators and politicians do not put moral sense first, and those few who do are persecuted as enemies.

The question then becomes how to behave toward the American government. Thoreau's answer is to avoid associating with it altogether. He declares, "I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also." Thoreau says that while everyone recognizes the right to revolution when faced with an intolerably tyrannical or inefficient government, most people say that such a revolution would not be warranted under current conditions. However, Thoreau argues that we have not only the right, but indeed the duty, to rebel. The enslavement of one sixth of the population and the invasion of Mexico represent tremendous injustices that we must not allow to continue.

Thoreau criticizes the attitude that civil obligation should be maintained for the sake of expediency and that government should be obeyed simply to preserve the services we enjoy. Expediency does not take precedence over justice; people must do what justice requires regardless of cost—indeed, even if the cost is one's own life. Thus, Thoreau writes, "If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself." The people of the United States must stop slavery and the war with Mexico, even if it costs them their existence as a people.

In practice, the opponents to reform in Massachusetts are not the Southern politicians everyone blames for extreme conservativism. Rather, they are the people who passively tolerate the status quo: merchants and farmers in Massachusetts who are not will ing to fight for justice at any cost. Many argue that the majority of U.S. citizens would be unprepared for the societal changes that slavery would bring about. Thoreau responds to this by saying that we need only a few wise people to educate the majority and, thus, prepare them for these changes. There are thousands of people who oppose slavery and war with Mexico and yet do nothing, waiting for others to take action. It is this passive waiting that Thoreau condemns.


Thoreau's essay is both an abstract work of political theory and a practical and topical work addressing the issues of the day. Both aspects appear in this first section. On the one hand, Thoreau is making several theoretical claims about the nature of democracy and the relationship between citizen and government. For example, Thoreau argues that government should be based on conscience and that citizens should cease associating with an unjust government. Thus, Thoreau's work must be considered as a work of political philosophy, invoking ideals and making claims about the way government and society should be structured. However, Thoreau writes not only about theory; his essay is also very much an appeal to his fellow Massachusetts residents about the current issues of the day. He discusses slavery and the war with Mexico as very real issues in their lives, and he impels his readers to action. Thus, he uses theory to posit how people should behave generally, and then applies this to current events. One's duties are inextricable from the world one lives in, and Thoreau is deeply concerned with the injustices of his own time.

One of the most important themes throughout Thoreau's work is the notion of individualism. Deeply skeptical of government, Thoreau rejects the view that a person must sacrifice or marginalize her values out of loyalty to her government. Furthermore, he argues that if an individual supports the government in any way—even by simply respecting its authority as a government—then that person is complicit in injustices forwarded by the government. This lays an extremely heavy responsibility on the individual: to compromise, negotiate, or passively accept is to betray one's integrity and commit a crime. But, consider how unstable a community would be if it followed this viewpoint: Can a society function if everybody is a "man first and a subject afterwards"? But, even if Thoreau's principle does become implausible when universalized, does this mean that it cannot pertain to a particular person's actions? Thoreau would say "no." Indeed, Thoreau knew that not everybody was going to follow his individualistic values; he argued that his duty was to set a standard for himself.

This attitude can be understood as either imprudent or brave. It is worth noting, though, that a strong sense of individualism and skepticism toward government has served as the basis for many important reform movements; they are particularly American values and have allowed America to become a nation of relative freedom.

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