Launchpad: Henry David Thoreau's Essay "Civil Disobedience"

Henry David Thoreau“Government is at best an expedient”  |  “Government never of itself furthered any enterprise”  |  “Why has every man a conscience?”  |  The right to revolution  |  “Justice to the slave and to Mexico: Reform and its Opponents”  |  Unjust Laws  |  “Break the law”  |  “The true place for a just man is also a prison”  |  “Quietly declare war with the State”  |  “A really free and enlightened State”

Begin by reading about Henry David Thoreau in the short introduction to Thoreau and His Circle: Who’s Who in Transcendentalism.

  • Thoreau is much better known as the author of Walden and other nature writings than as a political writer. In fact as this this passage from his essay “Walking” (1862) shows,  his attitude toward  politics was very different from his appreciation of the natural world:

“Man and his affairs, church and state—and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture—even politics, the most alarming of them all—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape.Politics is but a narrow field, and that still narrower highway yonder leads to it. I sometimes direct the traveler thither. If you would go to the political world, follow the great road—follow that market man, keep his dust in your eyes, and it will lead you straight to it—for it too has its place merely, and does not occupy all space. I pass from it as from a bean field into the forest, and it is forgotten. In one half hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth’s surface where a man does not stand from one year’s end to another and there consequently politics are not, for they are but as the cigar smoke of a man.”

How would you characterize Thoreau’s attitude toward  politics, toward nature? Why does he find politics to be the most “alarming” of all human affairs? What does it mean to compare politics to “cigar smoke”? Consider that this essay was published during the second year of the Civil War. Does that fact change the way you view the passage. Why?

  • However much Thoreau wished to avoid politics and government, they both impacted his life.  Like many Americans in the North before the Civil War, Thoreau was morally opposed to slavery. Further, he viewed the U.S.Mexican War (184648) as an unjust aggression against a neighboring country and also as a means by which the southern states would acquire more territory for slavery.
  • Thoreau’s essay, now popularly known as “Civil Disobedience,” was originally titled “Resistance to Civil Government.” He delivered it as  a lecture in 1848 and published it 1849. The impetus for the essay was Thoreau’s refusal to pay the poll tax and his subsequent stay in jail overnight.  He was protesting both the Mexican war and the U.S. government’s support for slavery. He was not alone in his protest as this page from Digital History makes clear.
  • The essay makes the case for the right to break the law under certain circumstances. As it is a very long essay, we have selected several paragraphs which give the crux of his argument.  The questions after each paragraph are designed to help you understand his argument. The tiles in brackets are not in the original but have been supplied by the editor.

“Government is at best an expedient”

I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto—"That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe—"That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.

  • What is Thoreau’s position concerning the purpose of government? The quote with which he begins is sometimes attributed, incorrectly, to Thomas Jefferson. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson stated the purpose of government this way: “ To secure these rights [to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness] governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”
  • What is the difference between this statement and Thoreau’s view?
  • Provide a definition for “expedient” as it is used in context. In what sense are all governments “expedient”? In what sense are they not?
  • How does Thoreau believe the government has been “abused and perverted?”
  • Thoreau asserts that the Mexican War is an example of a few men in the government acting without the consent of the people. A young Whig congressman Abraham Lincoln voted for a resolution that declared the war unnecessary and accused President Polk of violating the Constitution in commencing it. How does this help Thoreau’s case?


“Government never of itself furthered any enterprise”

This American government—what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will. It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves. But it is not the less necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have. Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed on, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage. It is excellent, we must all allow. Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. 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 its way. For government is an expedient by which men would fain succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been said, when it is most expedient, the governed are most let alone by it. Trade and commerce, if they were not made of India rubber, would never manage to bounce over the obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way; and, if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of their actions, and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railroads

  • What is the point of saying that government is “but a tradition … at each instant losing some of its integrity”? How might this related to the philosophy of Transcendentalism?
  • What does Thoreau mean when he says, “the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have?”
  • “Government of itself never furthered any enterprise” What can the American people do that the government cannot? Does this view seem familiar from current political debates? What is this view called?
  • In this paragraph, Thoreau argues that government is an unnecessary evil. What do you think of this argument? Is Thoreau an anarchist?
  • How does this compare with other understandings of government, such as that of Jefferson in the Declaration or in the Preamble to the Constitution?

“Why has every man a conscience?”

Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined.

  • In this paragraph, Thoreau attacks the idea of majority rule. How and why does he do this?
  • Why does Thoreau use the rhetorical question about conscience in the middle of the paragraph? What is the place of conscience in relation to obeying the law?
  • What description of the American soldier does Thoreau offer? Why does he see this role as problematic?
  • What role does conscience play under the American political system according to Thoreau? Within this tradition, does obeying duly enacted laws mean resigning our conscience? Why or why not? What would Congressman Lincoln say?

The right of revolution

All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of '75. If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should not make an ado about it, for I can do without them. All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counterbalance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it.

But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer. In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.

  • What is the right of revolution?
  • Why does Thoreau evoke the “Revolution of ’75?”Compare this with the discussion of the right of revolution in the Declaration. Are there any differences?
  • Why does Thoreau believe that citizens should rebel against the government now? What kind of a rebellion does he contemplate?
  • Thoreau compares government to a machine. What does Thoreau mean when he uses the term “friction?”

Justice to the slave and to Mexico: Reform and its Opponents

Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may. I quarrel not with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home, co-operate with, and do the bidding of those far away, and without whom the latter would be harmless. We are accustomed to say, that the mass of men are unprepared; but improvement is slow, because the few are not materially wiser or better than the many. It is not so important that many should be as good as you, as that there be some absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump.

There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free-trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both. What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot to-day? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man; but it is easier to deal with the real possessor of a thing than with the temporary guardian of it.

  • Who is Thoreau’s foe in this paragraph?
  • Why does Thoreau believe that moral progress is made slowly?
  • What conditions are necessary for moral progress to take place?

Unjust laws

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?

  • What would Thoreau consider an “unjust law?” What standard would he use to prove the law is unjust?
  • Why shouldn’t citizens wait to take action against them?
  • Why does Thoreau use the rhetorical question here?
  • What effect does the author achieve by using the allusions at the end of the paragraph?

“Break the law”

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

  • Under what circumstance should a citizen break the law?

“The true place for a just man is also a prison”

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race, should find them; on that separate, but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her, but against her—the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.

“Quietly declare war with the State”

I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject; and as for supporting schools, I am doing my part to educate my fellow-countrymen now. It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with—the dollar is innocent—but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance. In fact, 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.

  • What taxes is Thoreau willing to pay? Why?

“A really free and enlightened State”

The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to—for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well—is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?

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. I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.

  • What is Thoreau’s vision of “a really free and enlightened State” as detailed in his final paragraph?
  • How do the principles of this state differ from the principles set forth in Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?

What might be problematic with this type of government? Will there still be a right not to obey the law when it violates one’s conscience in this “still more perfect and glorious State”? If not, why not?


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