What Is “The Resistance to Civil Government” by Thoreau?

“Resistance to Civil Government” was an essay written by Henry David Thoreau in 1849. It was first published in an anthology called “Aesthetic Papers,” but gained more attention when it was published again in 1866 under the title “Civil Disobedience.”

The essay “The Resistance to Civil Government” was based on a series of lectures Thoreau gave in 1848 on the shared responsibilities and duties of citizens and their governments. The writing was informed a great deal by the debate over slavery in the United States, and the country’s actions in the Mexican-American War. In “The Resistance to Civil Government” Thoreau argues that governments are inherently inclined to corruption and injustice, and when injustice becomes extreme (as in the case of allowing slavery) individuals have an intrinsic right and duty to actively revolt. Such demonstrations may be conducted through a variety of means such as refusing to pay taxes.

While the essay had an audience when it was published, it would not rise to literary prominence until after Thoreau’s death in 1862. It was included in a posthumous compilation of Thoreau’s works and more widely distributed under the title “Civil Disobedience.” Under this title, it would go on to be read by and influence a number of later prominent public figures, such as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Martin Buber, Leo Tolstoy and John F. Kennedy Jr. among countless others.