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Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau

Section Two

Summary Section Two


After having presented his view of man's individualistic duties as a citizen, Thoreau turns to how citizens should respond to their government's injustices. He says that he does not believe that voting is the proper solution. Voting for justice is not really acting for it. Rather, it is "feebly" expressing your desire that the right prevail. A wise man will not leave justice to the chance of a majority vote. The majority will end up voting their interest, voting for what will benefit them. A principled person must follow his conscience. Furthermore, nowadays, there are no people who vote independently of what their political parties tell them to do. There are almost no men in America, according to Thoreau. He complains of people's lack of intellect and self-reliance, as well as their complacency.

Thoreau writes that a person does not have a duty actually to eliminate wrongs-- even the most serious wrongs. A person may legitimately have other goals and pursuits. However, at the very least, a person must "wash his hands" of injustice and not be associated with something that is wrong. He asserts, "If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting on another man's shoulders." Thus, it is hypocritical for a person to commend a soldier for refusing to fight in an unjust war while that same person continues to sustain the unjust government that is pursuing the war.

Everyone agrees that unjust laws exist. The question is whether we should be content to obey them, whether we should try to change them but obey until they're changed, or whether we should disobey them at once. Most people in a democracy believe that the second course is best. They believe that if they resist, the revolution would be worse than the injustice. However, it is the government's fault that this is the case: The government doesn't encourage reform and dissent. Thoreau asks, "Why does [the majority-led government] always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?"

Thoreau then returns to the metaphor of the government-as-machine. He says that if an injustice is part of the "necessary friction" of the "machine of government," then it should be left alone. Perhaps the machine will wear smooth; in any case, it will eventually wear out. If the injustice has its own spring, rope or pulley, then one must consider whether the remedy is worse than the injustice. However, if the government requires one to be an agent of injustice toward another, then Thoreau says one must break the law. He urges the reader to be a "counter-friction" to the machine and not to participate in the wrong.

Thoreau then argues that working for change through government takes too much time and requires a person to waste his life. He is in the world simply to live in it and can't devote all of his time to making it a good place to live. A person doesn't have time to do everything good yet, this doesn't mean he must do anything wrong. In the case of the United States, the government doesn't provide room for remedy anyway; the very Constitution is evil.

All Abolitionists should immediately stop lending either their persons or their property to support the government of Massachusetts. Thoreau says that he only interacts directly with the American government once a year when the tax collector comes. And then he makes a point to quarrel with this person to make sure he understands what it means to be an officer of the government. These small protests are very important: "For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once done well is done for ever." However, the majority of people, rather than protesting, simply talk emptily. If people were to risk action, to risk imprisonment, then change would actually occur.

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