(1)Henry David Thoreau’s classical political essay Civil Disobedience was written in 1849 in Concord, Massachusetts, in response to an evening spent in jail for Thoreau’s refusal to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes, as a non-violent protest against slavery and the ongoing offensive war against Mexico. Thoreau’s purpose in penning his famed essay was not to eradicate these grievous deeds, but to demonstrate how and why every true patriot must wash his hands of the organization that perpetuates them.
(2)In the work Thoreau heartily endorses a policy of limited government, and exhorts the necessity of acting according to one’s conscience. No societal structure has a conscience, except that which it attains by virtue of being populated by conscientious men. Thus, it is the duty of an individual to resist laws that perpetuate injustice, or become nothing more than an inanimate tool, to be used as the government sees fit. Thoreau next addresses the means of effecting change. While he does not believe it is one’s duty to go about ridding the world of wrongs, regardless of the magnitude of the offenses, it is one’s responsibility to forego material support of those wrongs. Thoreau claims that hypocrisy and apathy have largely defined American’s interests in slavery and the war, and calls on his fellow citizens (abolitionists in particular) to immediately withdraw their financial support from the government. Since there is no other practical manner in which to rebut the government’s authority, refusal to pay taxes, and the probability of large numbers of virtuous men being jailed in response, would quickly exhaust the State’s resources and force compliance.
(3)Thoreau then ruminates on his night in jail. Particularly, he contemplates the manner of reproval, and concludes that it is ineffectual. Thoreau’s thoughts are the true danger to the State, and no amount of brick and mortar can confine them. He loses his little remaining respect for the State, at being treated as a creature of blood and bone merely, and declares his intention to live in accordance with his own nature, regardless of the consequences.
(4)Next, Thoreau begins a careful dissection of his beliefs, and those of his neighbors. While he cannot quietly submit for the sake of facilitating comfort (his own, or his country men) he struggles with the reality of injuring the well-meaning, though ignorant. It is not his intention to quibble with his country or his neighbors, but to live in harmony with his principles. He sees the value of the governing structures and implements, and claims an instinct to conform, but conversely believes that it is only from without that a clear understanding of these affectations (and how best to reform them) can be fashioned. Lastly, Thoreau recognizes the wisdom of drinking at such sources of truth as the Constitution and the Bible, yet infers that within the truly wise there is a striving toward the source of even these. This brings him full circle, reiterating his recognition of the individual as the source of the power and authority ascribed to government. Democracy is seen as only a stage in the evolution of the rights of the individual, and Thoreau concludes with the utopic imaginings of a State that would allow full exercise of all individual rights.
(5)Thoreau uses a variety of rhetorical strategies to support his claims and to resonate with his fellow Americans. He begins by appealing to the particularly American ideology of limited government with the statement, “That government is best which governs least” (par. 1). Thoreau is suspicious of government; a tool created to express the will of the people, but often manipulated by a ruling oligarchy that are corrupt and self-interested. “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” (par. 1). He is of the opinion that government is most expedient, both morally and practically, when it refrains from interfering, and that the accomplishments of the country are directly attributable to the collective character of the American people, who have “done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more if the government had not sometimes got in its way” (par. 2). Thoreau is establishing common ground with his compatriots: he deeply values liberty from oppressive government, and recognizes the inherent rights of the individual.
(6)Thoreau then switches gears, employing a question and answer method to lead his readers down the path of his logic. “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?” (par. 4). His answer is that, due to the amorality of political structures “the only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right” (par. 4). He goes on to underscore that “a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest” (par. 4). This naturally leads to the question “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day?” (par. 7) and the rather severe reply: “I answer that he 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” (par. 7). This Socratic method of reasoning earns the respect of his readers by demonstrating a deep understanding of the complicated personal and political issues, and presenting his knowledge in a thorough and logical manner. Thoreau then positions himself in congruence with the American forefathers; “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” (par. 8). This statements inference to the American War for Independence (and the obligation of resistance) resounds with every man who considers himself a patriot, pushing readers to acquiesce to Thoreau’s argument, or risk becoming the tool of an unjust government.
(7)Continuing in the vein of a question and answer method to maintain the credibility of his logic, Thoreau adds the emotional and ethical appeals of citing great thinkers and religious leaders. “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, or shall we transgress them at once?” (par. 16). Thoreau answers “Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? …Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?” (par. 16) With these comparisons, Thoreau attempts to establish the excellent company that is to be kept when one obligates himself to resisting the status quo, though at the risk of sounding manipulative and patronizing. Thoreau is hardly conciliatory toward either his audience or his target, which jeopardizes the empathy he has built thus far. The possible perception of condescension may cause no small disconnect to Thoreau’s cause in the minds of some of his readers, but it is merely a strategic error, and hardly one to negate the greater power of Thoreau’s logic.
(8)While Thoreau’s logic is impeccable, he still faces an uphill battle in convincing his fellow American’s that “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison” (par. 22). Certainly, many people found the practice of slavery utterly abhorrent, and were at odds with the government in concern with the Mexican war, but found the price of upholding their principles in such personally incorporeal matters to be difficult, or impossible. Thoreau simultaneously encourages and incriminates in paragraph 13. “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders.” With this, Thoreau illuminates the hypocrisy inherent in the American people, and proposes a very straightforward solution: stop paying taxes. Therein lies the truest power of Thoreau’s argument. While the issues are broad, his underlying themes (individual rights, the obligation of resistance, and limited government) intricate and his methods complicated, the solution is so simple that even a caveman could do it.
Thoreau, Henry David. “On Resistance to Civil Government.” Aesthetic Papers. 1949.