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Henry David Thoreau An Essay On Civil Disobedience

Thoreau and “Civil Disobedience”

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862). (Wikimedia Commons)

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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Henry David Thoreau: "Civil Disobedience"

Thoreau had some serious problems with the way the United States was run. He was an outspoken opponent of slavery and bitterly opposed the Mexican-American War, which he viewed as an act of American aggression. In protest, Thoreau refused to pay his poll taxes. He spent a night in jail for this offense in 1848, and was released the next morning when a friend (against his wishes) paid the tax for him. The following year his essay on the topic, "Civil Disobedience," was published.

Thoreau was not an anarchist; he did not believe that there should be no government, only a more just one than currently existed. If the government would not improve itself, he argued, it was a just man's duty to refuse to support it. "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," Thoreau wrote, "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."12 Thoreau continued to oppose slavery, and unjust laws. He hid escaping slaves in his Concord home in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it a crime to help slaves fleeing from slavery.

"Civil Disobedience" has become a manifesto of non-violent protest, read and used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Not all of Thoreau's books had as lasting an impact. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was also published in 1849. It was so unsuccessful that Thoreau was forced to buy back more than 700 unsold copies, out of 1,000 the publisher had printed. I now have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes," Thoreau quipped in his journal, "over seven hundred of which I wrote myself."13

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