“Civil Disobedience”

Civil Disobedience (Thoreau)

Civil Disobedience (Resistance to Civil Government) is an essay by Henry David Thoreau that was first published in 1849. It argues that people should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that people have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. Thoreau was motivated in part by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War.

The essay’s title

In 1848, Thoreau gave lectures at the Concord Lyceum that he titled “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government.” This formed the basis for his essay, which was first published under the title Resistance to Civil Government in 1849 in a magazine called Æsthetic Papers.

That title was a way of distinguishing Thoreau’s program from that of the “non-resistants” (anarcho-pacifists) who were expressing similar views. “Resistance” also served as part of Thoreau’s metaphor which compared the government to a machine, and said that when the machine was working injustice it was the duty of conscientious citizens to be “a counter friction” — that is, a resistance — “to stop the machine.”

In 1866, four years after Thoreau’s death, the essay was reprinted in a collection of Thoreau’s work (A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers) under the title Civil Disobedience, by which it is most popularly known today.

Today, the essay is also frequently seen under the title On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, perhaps to contrast it with William Paley’s Of the Duty of Civil Obedience to which Thoreau was in part responding. For instance, the 1960 New American Library Signet Classics edition of Walden included a version with this title. On Civil Disobedience is another frequently-encountered title.

The word “civil” has several definitions (see: Wiktionary: “civil”). The one that is intended in this case is “relating to citizens and their interrelations with one another or with the state,” and so “civil disobedience” means “disobedience to the state.” Sometimes people assume that “civil” in this case means “observing accepted social forms; polite” which would make “civil disobedience” something like “polite, orderly disobedience.” Although this is an acceptable dictionary definition of the word “civil,” it is not what is intended here. This misinterpretation is one reason the essay is sometimes considered to be an argument for pacifism or for exclusively nonviolent resistance. For instance, Gandhi used this interpretation to suggest an equivalence between Thoreau’s civil disobedience and his own satyagraha.

“That government is best which governs least”

An aphorism attributed to either Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine — “That government is best which governs least” — actually was first found in this essay. Thoreau was paraphrasing the motto of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review: “The best government is that which governs least.”

Paraphrased synopsis

Governments are typically more harmful than helpful and therefore cannot be justified. Democracy is no cure for this, as majorities simply by virtue of being majorities do not also gain the virtues of wisdom and justice.

The judgment of an individual’s conscience is not necessarily or even likely inferior to the decisions of a political body or majority, and so “[i]t 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.… 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.”

Indeed, you serve your country poorly if you do so by suppressing your conscience in favor of the law — your country needs consciences more than it needs conscienceless robots.

It is disgraceful to be associated with the United States government in particular. “I cannot for an instant recognize as my government [that] which is the slave’s government also.”

The government is not just a little corrupt or unjust in the course of doing its otherwise-important work, but in fact, the government is primarily an agent of corruption and injustice. Because of this, it’s “not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.”

Political philosophers have counseled caution about revolution because the upheaval of revolution typically causes a lot of expense and suffering. However, such a cost/benefit analysis isn’t appropriate when the government is actively facilitating an injustice like slavery: Such a thing is fundamentally immoral and even if it would be difficult and expensive to stop it, it must be stopped because it is wrong. “This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.”

We can’t blame this problem solely on pro-slavery Southern politicians, but must put the blame on those here in Massachusetts, “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.… 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.” (See also: Thoreau’s “Slavery in Massachusetts” which also advances this argument.)

Don’t just wait passively for an opportunity to vote for justice. Voting for justice is as ineffective as wishing for justice; what you need to do is to actually be just. This is not to say that you have an obligation to devote your life to fighting for justice, but you do have an obligation not to commit injustice and not to give injustice your practical support.

Paying taxes is one way in which otherwise well-meaning people collaborate in injustice. People who proclaim that the war in Mexico is wrong and that it is wrong to enforce slavery contradict themselves if they fund both things by paying taxes. The same people who applaud soldiers for refusing to fight an unjust war are not themselves willing to refuse to fund the government that started the war.

In a republic like ours, people often think that the proper response to an unjust law is to try to use the political process to change the law, but to obey and respect the law until it is changed. But if the law is itself clearly unjust, and the lawmaking process is not designed to quickly obliterate such unjust laws, then the law deserves no respect — break the law. In our case, the lawmaking process is of no help, and in fact the Constitution itself — which enshrines the institution of slavery — is evil. Abolitionists should completely withdraw their support of the government and stop paying taxes, even if this means courting imprisonment.

“Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.… 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.… Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.”

The government will retaliate. I prefer living simply because I therefore have less to lose. “I can afford to refuse allegiance to Massachusetts…. It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less in that case.”

I was briefly imprisoned for refusing to pay the poll tax, but even in jail felt freer than the people outside. I considered it an interesting experience and came out of it with a new perspective on my relationship to the government and its citizens. (He was released the next day when "someone interfered, and paid that tax".)

I am willing to pay the highway tax, which goes to pay for something of benefit to my neighbors, but I am opposed to taxes that go to support the government itself — even if I can not tell if my particular contribution will eventually be spent on an unjust project or a beneficial one. “I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually.”

Government is a man-made disaster, not a natural one, and so I like to think that its makers can be reasoned with. As governments go, ours, with all its faults, is not the worst and even has some admirable qualities. But we can and should insist on better. “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.… 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.”

The influence of Civil Disobedience

Mohandas Gandhi

Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi was very impressed by Thoreau’s arguments. In 1907, about one year into his first satyagraha campaign in South Africa, he wrote a translated synopsis of Thoreau’s argument for Indian Opinion, credited Thoreau’s essay with being “the chief cause of the abolition of slavery in America”, and wrote that “Both his example and writings are at present exactly applicable to the Indians in the Transvaal.” He later concluded:
Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet, and withal a most practical man, that is, he taught nothing he was not prepared to practice in himself. He was one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced. At the time of the abolition of slavery movement, he wrote his famous essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”. He went to gaol for the sake of his principles and suffering humanity. His essay has, therefore, been sanctified by suffering. Moreover, it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was also influenced by this essay. In his autobiography, he wrote:

During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.

I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.

Martin Buber

Existentialist Martin Buber wrote, of Civil Disobedience

I read it with the strong feeling that here was something that concerned me directly.… It was the concrete, the personal element, the “here and now” of this work that won me over. Thoreau did not put forth a general proposition as such; he described and established his attitude in a specific historical-biographic situation. He addressed his reader within the very sphere of this situation common to both of them in such a way that the reader not only discovered why Thoreau acted as he did at that time but also that the reader — assuming him of course to be honest and dispassionate — would have to act in just such a way whenever the proper occasion arose, provided he was seriously engaged in fulfilling his existence as a human person.

The question here is not just about one of the numerous individual cases in the struggle between a truth powerless to act and a power that has become the enemy of truth. It is really a question of the absolutely concrete demonstration of the point at which this struggle at any moment becomes man’s duty as man.…

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