Read this article to know about the summary of Civil Disobedience by David K. Thoreau.
The essay Civil Disobedience or Resistance to Civil Government was a speech delivered by David Thoreau in response to a particular event-the Mexican War, which occurred in May 1846. This war was probably expected to result in the expansion of slave territory.
Thoreau examining the consequences of the rule of the state was satisfied with the fact that too much intervention and interference of laws of a government and silence of its subjects can be very dangerous as it will make the people follow even those rules of the government, which its makers have made for their own sake and profit.
This is why, he begins his speech as, and “I heartily accept the motto-‘That government is best which governs least’.” But he considers the motto to be lacking something and goes on to the extent saying-“That government is best which governs not at all.” Thus Thoreau is highly critical of the extent to which a government interferes in the life of commoners.
Civil Disobedience by Thoreau Summary
Thoreau, in order to justify the rightness of Civil Disobedience and the need for the rule of supreme individualism or transcendentalism, explains the inherent problems with the government. According to Thoreau, the American Government “has not the vitality and force of a single man can bend it to his will.” Further, he says, “Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed on even impose on themselves, for their own advantages.”
Thoreau wants to show that the government does not have the power to maintain justice in the country because the makers of the government have made the justness of the government towards its subjects obsolete.
A single man, who is ruling the country can mold the laws framed by the government to meet his own ends. The government which is supposed to do better for its subject has forgotten its duty. “It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the west. It does not educate.”
Thoreau explains that all the duties of the government that it was supposed to do, it has neglected and thus he comes to the conclusion that one should resist government though he may be arrested. And “under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Here Thoreau used the term “just man” that means a person who distinguishes between just and unjust laws using his conscious.
Hence, it is quite clear that his essay does not focus on individualism (i.e. one’s personal interests) but on the “supreme individualism” i.e. the collective conscious of a person over the rules and laws of the unjust government. Thoreau believes that there is a higher law than the laws of one’s land, which is the law of conscious, the “inner voice”, the “over-soul”, or in other words, he believes in Transcendentalism.
But it does not mean that he believes in anarchy. In his words, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” Thoreau also resists Democracy, “when the power is in the hands of people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to be minority, but because they are physically the strongest.”
Here he criticises “individualism” of the majority because, for him, the democracy which is popularly known as “the government of people” is in reality “the government of majority.” Hence, whether the majority is fair or foul, the minority is supposed to accept and adopt the decision. Thoreau doesn’t consider the minority to be powerless.
“A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority.” Here again Thoreau, through these lines, wants to say that if the minority does not put some resistance to the unjust laws made by the majority, it is powerless.
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In the next lines, he says, “it is not even the minority then, but it is irresistible when it clogs its whole weight.” “Whole weight” here depicts the power of resistance of the minority. The minority, if, is willing and determined, can make serious changes. And “when the subject has refused allegiance and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.”
Thoreau believes that revolution is not accomplished by gathering ample of masses but requires firm determination and thus even ten men can change the system with their stern will.
In his words, “if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name-if ten honest men only-aye, if one honest man, in this state of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves were actually to withdraw from this co-partnership, and be locked up in the country jail, therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery America. For it matters now how small the beginning may seem to be, what is once well done is done forever.”
It signifies his belief in strong determination for resistance against the state. For Thoreau, under a rule of an unjust government, prison is a better place for a person believing in supreme individualism. In his words, “under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Thoreau gave this statement probably because he also resisted the policies of the government.
He narrates his own story of spending a night in jail in his speech as he did not pay the poll tax that was meant for army funding. However, “the night in prison was novel and interesting enough.” It does not mean that he did this like a miser. He did pay other taxes that in his opinion were just.
For him, thus, a state is not good at superiority but at the strength and so decisions based on supreme individualism is better than the laws forced upon by the state and so in his words, “I was not born to be forced, I will breathe after my own fashion.” He challenges the makers of government asking them to judge who is stronger, their forced unjust laws or his firm determination to resist them.
He desires that every citizen of America should have the courage, like him, to live his own life and do whatever he likes. He should follow what conscious says him to do. In the conflict between conscious and state laws, he should follow his conscious. If a state uses force, he should resist it and go to jail. Hence supreme individualism guides the whole text of Thoreau that is based on resistance.
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At a Glance
In “Civil Disobedience,” philosopher Henry David Thoreau argues that citizens must disobey the rule of law if those laws prove to be unjust. He draws on his own experiences and explains why he refused to pay taxes in protest of slavery and the Mexican War. Thoreau this becomes a model for civil disobedience.
For years, the United States government chooses to ignore Thoreau’s failure to pay taxes. Then he’s arrested and thrown in jail, where he refuses to pay his back taxes.
Someone pays the taxes for Thoreau, who is set free the next morning. Supposedly, the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him in jail and asked why he was there.
- Thoreau then argues that there are two laws: the laws of men, and the higher laws of God and humanity. If the laws of men are unjust, then one has every right to disobey them.
(Masterpieces of American Literature)
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Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience,” first titled “Resistance to Civil Government” when it was published in the periodical Aesthetic Papers, in response to questions about why he had gone to jail. As an abolitionist, he had objected to the Massachusetts poll tax and refused to pay it as a protest against slavery. When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, he protested against it as an aggressive war of conquest aimed in part at adding new slave territories to the United States, and for this reason as well, he refused to pay the tax.
For several years, the authorities ignored Thoreau’s nonpayment, but in July of 1846, Concord constable Sam Staples ordered Thoreau to pay up. When Thoreau still failed to comply, Staples arrested him on July 23 or 24 and imprisoned him in the Middlesex County jail. That evening some unknown person paid Thoreau’s fine, but Staples kept Thoreau in jail until after breakfast before releasing him. Emerson called Thoreau’s action “mean and skulking, and in bad taste,” and there is an apocryphal story that Emerson, visiting Thoreau in prison, asked, “Henry David, what are you doing in there?” to which he replied, “Ralph Waldo, what are you doing out there?” Bronson Alcott, however, called Thoreau a good example of “dignified noncompliance with the injunction of civil powers.”
In the essay, Thoreau argues that laws, being human-made, are not infallible, that there is a higher divine law, and that when those laws conflict, one must obey the higher law. Hence slavery, no matter how legal (and it remained legal until 1865), was always unjust in its violation of the integrity and divine soul of the enslaved. So long as the American government upheld slavery, Thoreau said, one “cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”
Carrying to extreme the logic of the Declaration of Independence, Thoreau argues, in effect, that each individual should declare independence from unjust laws, that citizens must never surrender their conscience to the legislators, and that “[i]t is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” Most people, he feared, served the state as soldiers do, like unthinking machines.
He does not, however, argue for violent revolution; he advocates nonviolent resistance. (Later, Thoreau would contradict such a philosophy in three essays championing John Brown, who endorsed and practiced violence.) The disobedient must be prepared to accept punishment, if necessary: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Thoreau concludes:The authority of government . . . must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I conceded to it. 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.
This doctrine has always been repellent to authoritarians of the far Right and Left, who tolerate no dissent and have had protesters beaten, imprisoned, and even killed. In the seventeenth century, Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony reproved his constituents for daring to criticize him, calling them naturally depraved and maintaining that the authorities are instituted by God and that to criticize them constitutes treason and atheism.
In Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924), Herman Melville satirically presented the authoritarian military point of view when Captain Vere insists that those in uniform must obey without question: “We fight at command. If our judgments approve the war, that is but coincidence. . . . For that law and the rigour of it, we are not responsible. Our vowed responsibility is in this: That however pitilessly that law may operate, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it.” Vere’s is the defense of all war criminals—that they were only carrying out orders and cannot be expected to disobey. The rationale behind war crimes trials, however, is that even the military are subject to a higher law.
Civil disobedience is at least as old as Socrates, who preferred to die rather than yield to an order to stop asking questions that embarrassed the authorities, to whom he said, “I shall obey God, rather than you.” The Christian martyrs who refused to deny their God and worship Caligula, Nero, or some other depraved Roman emperor were practicing civil disobedience. All abolitionists, members of the Underground Railroad, and those who refused to obey the Fugitive Slave Act were practicing civil disobedience. History and literature are full of examples. Huckleberry Finn resolved to defy his upbringing and “go to hell” in order to rescue his best friend, a runaway slave. Mahatma Gandhi was an admirer of Thoreau and adopted his policy of nonviolent resistance to oppose racism in Africa and imperialism in India. American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., patterned nonviolent resistance after Gandhi.
In fact, the U.S. government’s system of checks and balances sometimes requires its citizens to break the law, for the only way to challenge the constitutionality of a law is to break it and try a test case, as Dr. King and his followers repeatedly did. Dr. King was frequently imprisoned and called a criminal for violating local statutes that instituted racial discrimination, but he believed in the higher law of the Constitution and wrote, “Words cannot express the exultation felt by the individual as he finds himself, with hundreds of his fellows, behind prison bars for a cause he knows is just.” During the Vietnam War, an increasingly large number of people protested that the war was unjust, and many of draft age refused to serve in the armed forces and went to prison or into exile rather than be forced to kill or be killed in Vietnam. The government’s position was that they were cowards or traitors, but a majority of the U.S. population came to agree with the protesters.
One problem with Thoreau’s doctrine is that it is not always easy to determine whether a law is just or unjust. Thoreau never advocated the indiscriminate breaking of laws; civil disobedience applies only in cases of fundamental moral principle. Not all individuals are necessarily right in defying the government. For example, during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, some southern governors defied court orders to desegregate schools and other institutions, arguing that segregation was the will of God.
Frequently it is liberals who endorse civil disobedience, but in the late 1980’s, members of the conservative Iran-Contra conspiracy defended their breaking of laws and lying to Congress on the grounds that they were serving a higher law. Similarly, opponents of abortion rights have argued that a higher law requires them to break laws that prohibit them from harassing those who sanction abortion rights. Thus the debate continues; through it all, Thoreau’s essay remains one of the most potent and influential ever written.
(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)
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One night in July, 1846, while Henry David Thoreau was living a quiet life on the shores of Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, he was jailed for failing to pay his taxes. He was released the next day because someone, probably his aunt, paid the tax. He gave a public lecture in 1848 at the Concord Lyceum to explain to his community his reasons for refusing to pay the tax. The text of that lecture was first published in 1849, under the title “Resistance to Civil Government.” The essay, now known as “Civil Disobedience,” was written to argue the moral necessity of resisting the institution of slavery, which the United States’ war against Mexico sought to extend. “Civil Disobedience” has become one of the ethical cornerstones of nonviolent resistance movements. It is known to have been an inspiration to Mohandas Gandhi, who led the passive resistance movement for the liberation of India from British colonial rule. Thoreau’s ideas also influenced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Civil Rights movement and the American struggle to end the Vietnam War.
Thoreau did not find his identity in association with other people who shared his background. Rather, he believed his truest identity would be found in differentiating himself from the common herd of humanity, which he saw as mediocre, morally lazy, and cowardly. He was an individualist; he held that each person’s responsibility is to follow the highest leadings of personal conscience. Ultimate moral authority emanates from individual judgment, and getting “out of its way” is one of the most important things a just government can do. Civil law and the power of the democratic majority are secondary to the higher moral law as it is discerned by the individual. In cases in which civil government conflicts with personal conscience, Thoreau advocates withdrawing all support from that government immediately, without waiting to change the law or public opinion. Withdrawal of support—such as the refusal to pay taxes or to serve in the military—is likely to be met with punishment, and Thoreau advocates accepting the penalty imposed. Even if that penalty involves imprisonment, he claims that bodily confinement is trivial when compared to the spiritual liberty of thought and conscience that comes from following the higher law. Persons who obey a law or fight a war that they think is wrong become less than fully human—they lose their identities, they become machines.
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|Thoreau and “Civil Disobedience”|
Thoreau and “Civil Disobedience”
Henry David Thoreau, the son of a Concord pencil-maker, graduated from Harvard in 1837. He worked a short while as a schoolmaster, but then began writing poetry. He soon joined a religious, philosophical, and literary movement called Transcendentalism. The leader of the movement was Ralph Waldo Emerson, a writer and lecturer.
At first, Thoreau agreed with Emerson’s teaching that social reform begins with the individual. In 1845, he built a hut at Walden Pond on property owned by Emerson. For the next few years, Thoreau lived simply off the land, meditated, and wrote about nature.
In 1846, the United States declared war against Mexico. Thoreau and other Northern critics of the war viewed it as a plot by Southerners to expand slavery into the Southwest. Thoreau had already stopped paying his taxes in protest against slavery. The local tax collector had ignored his tax evasion, but decided to act when Thoreau publicly condemned the U.S. invasion and occupation of Mexico.
In July 1846, the sheriff arrested and jailed Thoreau for his tax delinquency. Someone, probably a relative, anonymously paid Thoreau’s taxes after he had spent one night in jail. This incident prompted Thoreau to write his famous essay, “Civil Disobedience” (originally published in 1849 as “Resistance to Civil Government”).
Thoreau’s minor act of defiance caused him to conclude that it was not enough to be simply against slavery and the war. A person of conscience had to act. In “Civil Disobedience,” he proclaimed an activist manifesto:
In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation, which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty, are slaves, and a whole country [Mexico] is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.
Thoreau argued that the government must end its unjust actions to earn the right to collect taxes from its citizens. As long as the government commits unjust actions, he continued, conscientious individuals must choose whether to pay their taxes or to refuse to pay them and defy the government.
Thoreau declared that if the government required people to participate in injustice by obeying “unjust laws,” then people should “break the laws” even if they ended up in prison. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” he asserted, “the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
By not paying his taxes, Thoreau explained, he was refusing his allegiance to the government. “In fact,” he wrote, “I quietly declare war with the State….”
Unlike some later advocates of civil disobedience like Martin Luther King, Thoreau did not rule out using violence against an unjust government. In 1859, Thoreau defended John Brown’s bloody attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, during his failed attempt to spark a slave revolt.
For Further Reading
The Thoreau Reader The annotated works of Henry David Thoreau.
Thoreau, Henry D. The Portable Thoreau. New York: Penguin Books. 1964.
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