In his essay “Civil Disobedience," Henry David Thoreau opens by saying, “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’" ( ), and then clarifies that his true belief is “‘That government is best which governs not at all’" ( ). In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau evaluates the federal government critically, contending that it is an artificial institution created by the powerful while acknowledging that it is believed to serve a purpose and is likely to remain a feature of American life. Given these circumstances, in his essay on civil disobedience Thoreau encourages, in one of the important quotes from “Civil Disobedience” by Thoreau that, “every man make known what kind of government would command his respect [as] one step toward obtaining it" ( ). Civil disobedience is the strategy for articulating one’s beliefs. As this thesis statement for “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau suggests, the author defines the act of civil disobedience by explaining the thoughts and emotions that should guide it, and these include having a sense of rightness and moral conscience.A number of social as well as historical conditions provoked Thoreau’s thought and resulting essay on the subject of civil disobedience. One of the factors that influenced Thoreau to consider civil disobedience as a method of resistance was the poor treatment of Mexico by the United States. In ”Civil Disobedience” Thoreau is also disturbed by the way that the United States fails to take care of vulnerable people and why it embraces Christian ideals of sacrifice but “excommunicates Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce[s] Washington and Franklin rebels" ( ). Still more alarming to Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau, however, was the institution of slavery in the South; Thoreau declared in one of the important quotes from “Civil Disobedience" “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also" ( ). In fact, the practice of slavery in the United States is the single most hypocritical aspect of the government as far as Thoreau is concerned. He remarks in one of these particularly succinct quotes from “Civil Disobedience”: “[W]hen a sixth of the population…has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves… I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize" ( ). Thoreau considers civil disobedience a moral and social duty of American citizens. He defines civil disobedience as an act of willful resistance, achieved by not obeying laws he considers to be hypocritical. One act of civil disobedience may be not paying taxes. Another act, and one he deems more important still, is to avoid colluding with the government by refusing to play an active role in it. It is important to point out, though, that civil disobedience is, as its name suggests, peaceful. It does not involve taking up arms or using any other methods of violence to achieve its ends. Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience is a seminal work in the American literary canon, and it is clear that his treatise on concentrated, thoughtful resistance has been influential in subsequent social and political movements which themselves have been recorded by writers. One of the movements that was marked by its insistence on civil disobedience is the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The man who was considered the leader of this movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated the kind of peaceful but assertive resistance defined by Thoreau as civil disobedience. Dr. King’s strategy for political change was to plan, facilitate, and implement as many acts of resistance as possible while avoiding violence at all costs. Even more than Thoreau, it seems, King wanted the actions of civil rights activists to provoke thought, critical evaluation of the government and of society at large, and a radical change in government’s and society’s processes and treatment of marginalized minorities. While Thoreau seems to have been more of an individualist in his essay “Civil Disobedience”, calling upon each citizen who felt so compelled to determine and implement his own act of resistance, which need not necessarily be coordinated with someone else, King mastered the power of civil disobedience by creating a critical mass of individuals to band together as a show of solidarity. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King
Thoreau's Civil Disobedience espouses the need to prioritize one's conscience over the dictates of laws. It criticizes American social institutions and policies, most prominently slavery and the Mexican-American War.
Thoreau begins his essay by arguing that government rarely proves itself useful and that it derives its power from the majority because they are the strongest group, not because they hold the most legitimate viewpoint. He contends that people's first obligation is to do what they believe is right and not to follow the law dictated by the majority. When a government is unjust, people should refuse to follow the law and distance themselves from the government in general. A person is not obligated to devote his life to eliminating evils from the world, but he is obligated not to participate in such evils. This includes not being a member of an unjust institution (like the government). Thoreau further argues that the United States fits his criteria for an unjust government, given its support of slavery and its practice of aggressive war.
Thoreau doubts the effectiveness of reform within the government, and he argues that voting and petitioning for change achieves little. He presents his own experiences as a model for how to relate to an unjust government: In protest of slavery, Thoreau refused to pay taxes and spent a night in jail. But, more generally, he ideologically dissociated himself from the government, "washing his hands" of it and refusing to participate in his institutions. According to Thoreau, this form of protest was preferable to advocating for reform from within government; he asserts that one cannot see government for what it is when one is working within it.
Civil Disobedience covers several topics, and Thoreau intersperses poetry and social commentary throughout. For purposes of clarity and readability, the essay has been divided into three sections here, though Thoreau himself made no such divisions.