Thoreau opens his essay with the motto "That government is best which governs least." His distrust of government stems from the tendency of the latter to be "perverted and abused" before the people can actually express their will through it. A case in point is the Mexican war (1846-1848, which extended slavery into new US territories), orchestrated by a small élite of individuals who have manipulated government to their advantage against popular will. Government inherently lends itself to oppressive and corrupt uses since it enables a few men to impose their moral will on the majority and to profit economically from their own position of authority. Thoreau views government as a fundamental hindrance to the creative enterprise of the people it purports to represent. He cites as a prime example the regulation of trade and commerce, and its negative effect on the forces of the free market.
A man has an obligation to act according to the dictates of his conscience, even if the latter goes against majority opinion, the presiding leadership, or the laws of society. In cases where the government supports unjust or immoral laws, Thoreau's notion of service to one's country paradoxically takes the form of resistance against it. Resistance is the highest form of patriotism because it demonstrates a desire not to subvert government but to build a better one in the long term. Along these lines, Thoreau does not advocate a wholesale rejection of government, but resistance to those specific features deemed to be unjust or immoral.
In the American tradition, men have a recognized and cherished right of revolution, from which Thoreau derives the concept of civil disobedience. A man disgraces himself by associating with a government that treats even some of its citizens unjustly, even if he is not the direct victim of its injustice. Thoreau takes issue with William Paley, an English theologian and philosopher, who argues that any movement of resistance to government must balance the enormity of the grievance to be redressed and the "probability and expense" of redressing it. It may not be convenient to resist, and the personal costs may be greater than the injustice to be remedied; however, Thoreau firmly asserts the primacy of individual conscience over collective pragmatism.
Thoreau turns to the issue of effecting change through democratic means. The position of the majority, however legitimate in the context of a democracy, is not tantamount to a moral position. Thoreau believes that the real obstacle to reform lies with those who disapprove of the measures of government while tacitly lending it their practical allegiance. At the very least, if an unjust government is not to be directly resisted, a man of true conviction should cease to lend it his indirect support in the form of taxes. Thoreau acknowledges that it is realistically impossible to deprive the government of tax dollars for the specific policies that one wishes to oppose. Still, complete payment of his taxes would be tantamount to expressing complete allegiance to the State. Thoreau calls on his fellow citizens to withdraw their support from the government of Massachusetts and risk being thrown in prison for their resistance. Forced to keep all men in prison or abolish slavery, the State would quickly exhaust its resources and choose the latter course of action. For Thoreau, out of these acts of conscience flow "a man's real manhood and immortality."
Money is a generally corrupting force because it binds men to the institutions and the government responsible for unjust practices and policies, such as the enslavement of black Americans and the pursuit of war with Mexico. Thoreau sees a paradoxically inverse relationship between money and freedom. The poor man has the greatest liberty to resist because he depends the least on the government for his own welfare and protection.
After refusing to pay the poll tax for six years, Thoreau is thrown into jail for one night. While in prison, Thoreau realizes that the only advantage of the State is "superior physical strength." Otherwise, it is completely devoid of moral or intellectual authority, and even with its brute force, cannot compel him to think a certain way.
Why submit other people to one's own moral standard? Thoreau meditates at length on this question. While seeing his neighbors as essentially well-intentioned and in some respects undeserving of any moral contempt for their apparent indifference to the State's injustice, Thoreau nonetheless concludes that he has a human relation to his neighbors, and through them, millions of other men. He does not expect his neighbors to conform to his own beliefs, nor does he endeavor to change the nature of men. On the other hand, he refuses to tolerate the status quo.
Despite his stance of civil disobedience on the questions of slavery and the Mexican war, Thoreau claims to have great respect and admiration for the ideals of American government and its institutions. Thoreau goes so far as to state that his first instinct has always been conformity. Statesmen, legislators, politicians--in short, any part of the machinery of state bureaucracy--are unable to scrutinize the government that lends them their authority. Thoreau values their contributions to society, their pragmatism and their diplomacy, but feels that only someone outside of government can speak the Truth about it.
The purest sources of truth are, in Thoreau's view, the Constitution and the Bible. Not surprisingly, Thoreau holds in low esteem the entire political class, which he considers incapable of devising the most basic forms of legislation. In his last paragraph, Thoreau comes full circle to discussing the authority and reach of government, which derives from the "sanction and consent of the governed." Democracy is not the last step in the evolution of government, as there is still greater room for the State to recognize the freedom and rights of the individual. Thoreau concludes on an utopic note, saying such a State is one he has imagined "but not yet anywhere seen."
Civil Disobedience Summary
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Civil Disobedience (1849), by Henry David Thoreau, is an essay in which Thoreau examined the responsibilities—especially the moral responsibilities—of the democratic citizen. In this essay, Thoreau relates his experience of being imprisoned for not paying tax. His decision to avoid tax was not because he missed the deadline or couldn’t afford it, but rather because he held a moral objection to the actions of the government, and considered it his civil responsibility to refuse his support. Since taxes are the main avenue through which citizens support their government, he refused to pay. Civil Disobedience looks at the circumstances that merit removal of such support.
Thoreau begins by challenging what the role of government really is. He believes that government that doesn’t govern is the best kind. He considers government to be a hurdle for society as well as the individual because its main concerns—trade and commerce, and politics—don’t help anyone, but instead get in the way of societal function and progress.
Though he decries government, he does not propose anarchy as an alternative. He stresses in his essay that he doesn’t want to get rid of government, but rather, to make it better. He wants a government that is most concerned with justice. From this claim, Thoreau must lay out his ideas on what justice is, and why it should be the government’s main focus.
For Thoreau, democracy—true democracy, not a democratic republic—means that the majority rules. The people voice their opinions, and that is how the government determines its actions and laws. True democracy is inefficient, which is why most governments that claim to be democratic are really democratic republics—that is, the people elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. Still, many of those decisions are made by a majority of those representatives. Justice, according to Thoreau, does not and should not rely on the ruling majority. The reason for this, particularly in America, is that the American government leaves no room for conscience. He references, for example, the machine-like soldiers who carry out the government’s will without consideration for whether or not their actions are just.
The fuel lighting the fire in Thoreau’s essay is slavery, and his hope that it will be abolished. He takes some of the responsibility away from the slave owner and transfers it to those who don’t want slaves, but are too concerned with trade, commerce, and politics to fight for what they claim to know is an unjust practice. He points out that the American government is governing slaves and slavery, and that a man who prized justice above all things would not be content to allow such a practice to continue.
How can such a man, asks Thoreau, act on the behalf of justice? By withdrawing his financial support. He does this by refusing to pay his taxes. Thoreau believes in practicing what he preaches, and writes about how he himself refused to pay his taxes and for this civil disobedience spent a night in the town jail.
Of his stay in jail, he has nothing unpleasant to say. His cell and cellmate, he writes, were clean and friendly, respectively. Furthermore, he points out that while the state—the government—has the right to control his body by way of putting him in jail for failure to pay his taxes, it cannot control his mind. It cannot control his moral sense, which is to say, his sense of justice.
A government for the people, according to Thoreau, requires the consent of the people in order to utilize authority. He writes that not only do citizens have the right to withdraw and withhold that consent—by refusing to financially support the government—but they also have the responsibility to do so as active members of society. He stipulates that financial support in the form of tax should be refused until the government turns its focus first to justice—only then is the call to civil disobedience met.
Thoreau’s essay has influenced shifts in policy more than once. While he focuses on not paying taxes as a form of refusing to support the government, the term “civil disobedience” has since become associated with any form of non-violent protest. Such protests are given as a right to American citizens by the rights to freedom of assembly, association, and speech. These rights have been used numerous times to gain attention and change laws. The women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights movement are two such examples, but history is full of peaceful protesters using civil disobedience to show the government their disapproval. Since it was originally published in 1849, this essay has influenced such figures as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Martin Buber, Leo Tolstoy, John F. Kennedy, William O. Douglas, and others.