Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"
Summary and Analysis
Having spent one night in jail in July of 1846 for refusal to pay his poll tax in protest against slavery and the Mexican War, Thoreau lectured before the Concord Lyceum in January of 1848 on the subject "On the Relation of the Individual to the State." The lecture was published under the title "Resistance to Civil Government" in Elizabeth Peabody's Aesthetic Papers, in May 1849. It was included (as "Civil Disobedience") in Thoreau's A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers, published in Boston in 1866 by Ticknor and Fields, and reprinted many times. The essay formed part of Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers as edited by British Thoreau biographer Henry S. Salt and issued in London in 1890. "Civil Disobedience" was included in the Riverside Edition of 1894 (in Miscellanies, the tenth volume), in the Walden and Manuscript Editions of 1906 (in Cape Cod and Miscellanies, the fourth volume), and in the Princeton Edition (in Reform Papers, the third volume) in 1973. One of Thoreau's most influential writings, it has been published separately many times (Walter Harding's The Variorum Civil Disobedience, for example, appeared in 1967), included in volumes of selections from Thoreau (among them the 1937 Modern Library Edition of Walden and Other Writings of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Brooks Atkinson), and translated into European and Asian languages.
Thoreau opens Civil Disobedience with the maxim "That government is best which governs least," and he speaks in favor of government that does not intrude upon men's lives. Government is only an expedient — a means of attaining an end. It exists because the people have chosen it to execute their will, but it is susceptible to misuse. The Mexican War is an example of a few people using the government as their tool. Thoreau asserts that government as an institution hinders the accomplishment of the work for which it was created. It exists for the sole purpose of ensuring individual freedom. Denying an interest in abolishing government, he states that he simply wants a better government. Majority rule is based on physical strength, not right and justice. Individual conscience should rule instead, and civil government should confine itself to those matters suited to decision by majority rule. He deplores the lack of judgment, moral sense, and conscience in the way men serve the state. A man cannot bow unquestioningly to the state's authority without disregarding himself.
Thoreau introduces the right of revolution, which all men recognize, and reflects on the American Revolution, the origins of which he finds less morally compelling than the issues at hand. Having developed the image of the government as a machine that may or may not do enough good to counterbalance what evil it commits, he urges rebellion. The opponents of reform, he recognizes, are not faraway politicians but ordinary people who cooperate with the system. The expression of opposition to slavery is meaningless. Only action — what you do about your objection — matters. Wrong will be redressed only by the individual, not through the mechanism of government. Although Thoreau asserts that a man has other, higher duties than eradicating institutional wrong, he must at least not be guilty through compliance. The individual must not support the structure of government, must act with principle, must break the law if necessary.
Abolition can be achieved by withdrawing support from the government, which may be accomplished practically through the nonpayment of taxes. If imprisonment is the result, there is no shame in it — prison is the best place for a just man in an unjust society. In the current state of affairs, payment of taxes is violent and bloody. Nonpayment constitutes a "peaceable revolution." Thoreau comments on the corrupting influence of money and property, and urges a simple, self-reliant lifestyle as a means of maintaining individual freedom. He describes his experience in the Concord Jail in some detail, commenting upon the folly of the state's treatment of a man as if he were a physical entity only, rather than an intellectual and moral one. A man can be compelled only by one who possesses greater morality. In Civil Disobedience as throughout his other writings, Thoreau focuses on the individual's ultimate responsibility to live deliberately and to extract meaning from his own life; overseeing the machinery of society is secondary.
Thoreau asserts that he does not want to quarrel or to feel superior to others. He wants to conform to the laws of the land, but current laws are not honorable from a higher point of view. Politics and politicians act as though the universe were ruled by expediency. In the progression from absolute monarchy to limited monarchy to democracy, Thoreau observes an evolution in government toward greater expression of the consent of the governed. He notes that democracy may not be the final stage in the process. His emphasis at the end of the essay is firmly on respect for the individual. There will never be a "really free and enlightened State" until the state recognizes the preeminence of the individual.