Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" Major Themes


Civil Government and Higher Law

In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau's basic premise is that a higher law than civil law demands the obedience of the individual. Human law and government are subordinate. In cases where the two are at odds with one another, the individual must follow his conscience and, if necessary, disregard human law.

Thoreau prepared his lecture and essay on resistance to civil government in response to a specific event — the Mexican War, which was declared in May of 1846, and which was expected to result in the expansion of slave territory. He was not particularly inclined to devote much thought to political theory and reform. He writes in Civil Disobedience:

. . . the government does not concern me much, and I shall bestow the fewest possible thoughts on it. It is not many moments that I live under a government, even in this world. If a man is thought-free [free in his thinking], fancy-free, imagination-free, that which is not never for a long time appearing to be to him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally interrupt him.

The search for understanding of universal laws forms the proper use of a man's time, energy, and intellect. Thoreau writes dismissively of conscious reform: "I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad." However, circumstances make it impossible to live life as usual without damage to morality and conscience:

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. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.

Thoreau's antislavery and reform pieces do not diminish the significance of Transcendental exploration and discovery. They are specific reactions to what he sees as extreme events. They form an acknowledgment that inner exploration loses meaning if matters of conscience are overlooked in the process.

Government enforces civil law by physical means, which are ineffectual in relation to moral issues. When the man of conscience is at variance with the state, he is punished by physical confinement, a type of force, which accomplishes nothing. Thoreau comments, "They only can force me who obey a higher law than I do. They force me to become like themselves. I do not hear of men being forced to live this way or that by masses of men." The laws that apply in matters of conscience belong to a different sphere than those (like the building of roads) that can be decided by majority rule. In fact, government oversteps its authority when it becomes involved in moral issues.

Government and the Individual

Thoreau writes of government as "an expedient by which men would fain succeed in letting one another alone." It exists by consent of the governed to ensure the individual freedom that allows the pursuit of deep living and high thinking. Although it is liable to abuse, Thoreau nevertheless concedes that it is necessary: "But it is not the less necessary for [its shortcomings]; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other . . . to satisfy that idea of government which they have." Powerful statement though it is, Civil Disobedience is written in a relatively measured tone. Despite popular misinterpretation, Thoreau does not advocate the dissolution of government in it. He asks "not at once for no government, but at once a better government."

However, Thoreau does call for a government limited to decide those issues that it is fitted to consider:

. . . a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? — in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?

Moral issues must be decided by the individual and his conscience, not by the majority through government. The Mexican War, which Thoreau believes must be stopped, may be halted by individual action, but not through the political process. Civil Disobedience is a call for limited government. Through nonpayment of taxes (the withholding of support from a government that commits immoral acts), the individual protests the government's involvement in issues over which it has no proper jurisdiction. This constitutes a "peaceable revolution," not a violent one. Thoreau is still able to accept that government has its place: "In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can. . . ."

Throughout Civil Disobedience, Thoreau presents government as useless in relation to moral issues. Voting is but an expression of majority sentiment, and lacks the power of timely action possessed by the individual. The political process results in the election of those who hold office — available men, who accept the process but are not necessarily guided by principle. Thus, the system perpetuates itself and degenerates over time.

Thoreau underscores the power of the individual to effect reform. He says of the government at the beginning of the Civil Disobedience, "It has not the vitality and force of a single living man. . . ." Later, he urges individuals to fulfill their moral responsibility by taking the action that most would prefer to relegate to external forces:

Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the Union, to disregard the requisitions of the President. Why do they not dissolve it themselves, — the union between themselves and the State, — and refuse to pay their quota into its treasury? Do they not stand in the same relation to the State, that the State does to the Union? And have not the same reasons prevented the State from resisting the Union, which have prevented them from resisting the State?

Reform will come only through the individual. Moral issues are the individual's concern. The individual's obligation is "to do at any time what [he thinks] right."

Thoreau expresses qualified optimism at the end of the essay, in his presentation of the evolution of government from absolute to limited monarchy to democracy, and in his suggestion that there may yet be a better form of government:

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. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor. . . . A State which bore this fruit . . . would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.

Although non-government may constitute this "more perfect and glorious State," Thoreau recognizes that the time has not come for its realization.

On July 4, 1854, in the wake of the failure of an attempt to prevent the return of fugitive slave Anthony Burns to his master in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Thoreau delivered "Slavery in Massachusetts" before an abolitionist audience in Framingham, Massachusetts. Although based upon the ideas expressed in Civil Disobedience about the nature and authority of government and about the individual's obligations in relation to both civil and higher law, "Slavery in Massachusetts" is a far more impassioned statement. As the abolitionist struggle became more desperate, Thoreau's willingness to demand radical and violent measures grew, and was more forcefully expressed. In "Slavery in Massachusetts," he calls for the government of Massachusetts to resist federal might through military means. His "Plea for Captain John Brown," delivered in Concord on October 30, 1859, following Brown's arrest for attempting to incite a slave rebellion through his attack on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, is also based on the ideology presented in Civil Disobedience, and goes even farther in advocating whatever steps are necessary to stop government injustice. Thoreau writes in "A Plea": "I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable." Thoreau's vision of the relationship between man, God, and the state did not change, but his sense of the way in which individuals must resist institutionalized injustice evolved in response to specific national and local events.

Materialism and the Simple Life

Thoreau writes in Civil Disobedience of corrupting materialism and of the simple life as its antidote. He states that those who "assert the purest right, and consequently are most dangerous to a corrupt State, commonly have not spent much time in accumulating property." The upright man is thus typically untainted by money. Thoreau presents the level of a man's virtue as proportionate to how much money he possesses — "the more money, the less virtue." Money makes difficult choices and the consideration of priorities unnecessary. It takes the "moral ground . . . from under [a man's] feet." As means increase, the opportunity to live meaningfully decreases. The rich man, Thoreau writes, "is always sold to the institution which makes him rich." There is a close connection between the rich and the government that their taxes support.

Thoreau comments on the difficulty of trying to live "honestly and at the same time comfortably in outward respects." It is pointless to accumulate property. He suggests that it is better "to hire or squat somewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon. You must live within yourself, and depend upon yourself, always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs." In this emphasis on shunning materialism and living self-sufficiently, he foreshadows a major theme of Walden (1854).