Henry David Thoreau and 'Civil Disobedience'
by Wendy McElroy
David Thoreau (1817–1862) was an introspective man who wandered
the woods surrounding the small village of Concord, Massachusetts,
recording the daily growth of plants and the migration of birds
in his ever-present journal. How, then, did he profoundly influence
such political giants as Mohandas Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, and Martin
Luther King Jr.?
lies in a brief essay that has been variously titled but which is
often referred to simply as Civil
Disobedience (1849). Americans know Thoreau primarily as
the author of the book Walden,
or Life in the Woods (1854) but it is Civil Disobedience
that established his reputation in the wider political world. It
is one of the most influential political tracts ever written by
is an analysis of the individuals relationship to the state
that focuses on why men obey governmental law even when they believe
it to be unjust. But Civil Disobedience is not an essay of
abstract theory. It is Thoreaus extremely personal response
to being imprisoned for breaking the law. Because he detested slavery
and because tax revenues contributed to the support of it, Thoreau
decided to become a tax rebel. There were no income taxes and Thoreau
did not own enough land to worry about property taxes; but there
was the hated poll tax a capital tax levied equally on all
adults within a community.
to pay the tax and so, in July 1846, he was arrested and jailed.
He was supposed to remain in jail until a fine was paid which he
also declined to pay. Without his knowledge or consent, however,
relatives settled the debt and a disgruntled Thoreau
was released after only one night.
may have been brief but it has had enduring effects through Civil
Disobedience. To understand why the essay has exerted such powerful
force over time, it is necessary to examine both Thoreau the man
and the circumstances of his arrest.
Thoreau was born into the modest New England family of a pen-maker.
With a childhood surrounded by rivers, woods, and meadows, he became
an avid student of nature. His friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson,
offered the following psychological portrait:
He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone;
he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax
to the State; he ate no flesh; he drank no wine; he never knew the
use of tobacco; and though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor
gun. He chose, wisely no doubt for himself, to be the bachelor of
thought and Nature.... No truer American existed than Thoreau.
If it is possible
for one word to summarize a man, then that word would be the advice
he offered in Walden: Simplify, simplify, simplify.
Thoreau was a self-consciously simple man who organized his life
around basic truths. He listened to the inner voice of his conscience,
a voice all men possess but few men follow. As he explained in Walden,
To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even
to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to
its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and
trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically,
attempt to apply principles to his daily life is what led to his
imprisonment and to Civil Disobedience. Oddly enough, his
contemporaries did not see him as a theorist or as a radical, viewing
him instead as a naturalist. They either dismissed or ignored his
political essays, including Civil Disobedience. The only
two books published in his lifetime, Walden and A
Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), both dealt
with nature, in which he loved to wander.
He did not
have to wander far to find intellectual stimulation as well. During
the early 19th century, New England was the center of an intellectual
movement called Transcendentalism. In 1834, while Thoreau was a
student at Harvard, the leading Transcendentalist moved into a substantial
house at the outskirts of Concord, thus converting the village into
the heart of this influential movement. That man was Emerson.
never been rigorous agreement on the definition of Transcendentalism,
partly because Emerson refused to be systematic; but there are broad
areas of agreement among Transcendentalists. As a philosophy, it
emphasizes idealism rather than materialism; that is, it views the
world as an expression of spirit and every individual as an expression
of a common humanity. To be human is to be born with moral imperatives
that are not learned from experience but which are discovered through
introspection. Therefore, everyone must be free to act according
to his conscience in order to find the truth buried within.
focus on the individual must have appealed to Thoreau, there was
an inherent tension between Thoreaus practical, earthy ways
and the abstract quality of Transcendentalism. Thoreau wanted to
incorporate principles into daily life; he wanted to taste and feel
principles in the air around him. He wrote in Walden,
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front
only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what
it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I
had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living
is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was
quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow
of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout
all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to
drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and,
if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness
of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime,
to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account
differences, Thoreau was deeply influenced by Emerson, whom he met
in 1837 through a mutual friend. Four years later, Thoreau moved
into the Emerson home and assumed responsibility for many of the
practical details of Emersons life.
became Thoreaus intellectual training ground. His first appearance
in print was a poem entitled Sympathy published in the
first issue of The Dial, a Transcendentalist paper. As Transcendentalists
migrated to Concord, one by one, Thoreau was exposed to all facets
of the movement and took his place in its inner circle. At Emersons
suggestion, he kept a daily journal, from which most of Walden
was eventually culled.
still longed for a life both concrete and spiritual. He wanted to
translate his thoughts into action. While Transcendentalists praised
nature, Thoreau walked through it. Especially in his later years,
Emerson seemed distant from Thoreaus lusty approach to life,
which he described as the doctrine of activity. Given
this difference of approach, it is no wonder that Emerson did not
embrace the ideas within Civil Disobedience. Nor did he approve
of Thoreaus refusal to pay taxes.
for a night
was Thoreaus response to his 1846 imprisonment for refusing
to pay a poll tax that violated his conscience. He exclaimed in
Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign
his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience
then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.
It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much
as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume
is to do at any time what I think right.
was Thoreaus first direct experience with state power and,
in typical fashion, he analyzed it:
The State never intentionally confronts a mans sense, intellectual
or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior
wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born
to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who
is the strongest.
Prior to his
arrest, Thoreau had lived a quiet, solitary life at Walden, an isolated
pond in the woods about a mile and a half from Concord. He now returned
to Walden to mull over two questions: (1) Why do some men obey laws
without asking if the laws are just or unjust; and, (2) why do others
obey laws they think are wrong?
to answer these questions, Thoreaus view of the state did
not alter. It was that view, after all, which led him to prison
in the first place. Judging by the rather dry, journalistic account
of being in jail, his emotional reaction did not seem to alter significantly;
he was not embittered by the experience. The main criticism he expressed
was aimed at those who presumed to pay his fine, an act that the
jailer said made him mad as the devil.
men who were his jailers, Thoreau seems to have felt more disdain
than anger, stating,
They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons
who are under-bred. In every threat and in every compliment there
was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand
the other side of that stone wall.... I saw that the State was half-witted,
that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that
it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining
respect for it, and pitied it.
It was the
reaction of the townspeople of Concord, his neighbors, that distressed
Thoreau and made him dissect the experience so as to understand
their behavior. He ended his short, matter-of-fact account of his
night in prison with a commentary on the townsfolk, which expressed
how his eyes had been opened:
I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted
as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer
weather only; that they did not greatly propose to do right; that
they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions.
There is no
cynicism in Thoreaus description of his neighbors, whom he
admits he may be judging harshly, since many of
them are not aware that they have such an institution as the jail
in their village. Instead he was unsettled by the realization
that there was a wall between him and the townsfolk, a wall to which
Gandhi referred in an account of his second imprisonment in South
Africa. Gandhi wrote,
Placed in a similar position for refusing his poll tax, the American
citizen Thoreau expressed similar thought in 1849. Seeing the wall
of the cell in which he was confined, made of solid stone 2 or 3
feet thick, and the door of wood and iron a foot thick, he said
to himself, If there were a wall of stone between me and my
townsmen, there was still a more difficult one to climb or break
through before they could get to be as free as I was.
have also brooded over the reaction of Emerson, who criticized the
imprisonment as pointless. According to some accounts, Emerson visited
Thoreau in jail and asked, Henry, what are you doing in there?
Thoreau replied, Waldo, the question is what are you doing
out there? Emerson was out there because he believed
it was shortsighted to protest an isolated evil; society required
an entire rebirth of spirituality.
the point of Thoreaus protest, which was not intended to reform
society but was simply an act of conscience. If we do not distinguish
right from wrong, Thoreau argued that we will eventually lose the
capacity to make the distinction and become, instead, morally numb.
Near the end
of his life, Thoreau was asked, Have you made your peace with
God? He replied, I have never quarreled with him.
For Thoreau, that would have been the real cost of paying his poll
tax; it would have meant quarreling with his own conscience, which
was too close to quarreling with God.
ends on a happy note. After Thoreaus release and unpleasant
experience with his neighbors, the children of Concord had brightened
his mood by urging him to join a huckleberry hunt. Huckleberrying
was one of Thoreaus valued pastimes and his skill at locating
fruit-laden bushes made him a favorite with children. And, should
a child stumble, spilling berries, he would kneel by the weeping
child and explain that if children did not stumble, then berries
would never scatter and grow into new bushes.
He ended his
chronicle of prison,
[I] joined a huckleberry party, who were impatient to put themselves
under my conduct; and in half an hour ... was in the midst of a
huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off, and
then the State was nowhere to be seen.
shed the experience of prison, but he could not shed the insight
he had gained into his neighbors nor the questions that accompanied
his new perspective. The text of Civil Disobedience constitutes
the answer he discovered by listening to the quiet voice within.
Quaker writers had argued from conscience for civil disobedience
against war and slavery, Henry David Thoreaus Civil Disobedience
essay is not tied to a particular religion or to a specific issue.
It is a secular call for the inviolability of conscience on all
issues, and this aspect may account for some of the essays
enduring legacy. The personal quality of Civil Disobedience
also contributes to its impact, as the essay exudes sincerity more
commonly found in diaries and correspondence than in political tracts.
sentence of Civil Disobedience sets the tone by endorsing
Thomas Jeffersons much quoted sentiment on government
That government is best which governs least. Then Thoreau
carries Jeffersons logic one step further:
Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe,
That government is best which governs not at all; and
when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government
which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient....
appears to be a call for anarchism, Thoreau pulls back and dissociates
himself from no-government men. Speaking in practical
terms and as a citizen, he states, I ask for,
not at once no government, but at once a better government.
position on government, one point is clear: Thoreau denies the right
of any government to automatic and unthinking obedience. Obedience
should be earned and it should be withheld from an unjust government.
To drive this point home, Civil Disobedience dwells on how
the Founding Fathers rebelled against an unjust government, which
raises the question of when rebellion is justified.
Thoreau compares government to a machine and the problems of government
to friction. Friction is normal to a machine so that
its mere presence cannot justify revolution. But open rebellion
does become justified in two cases: first, when the friction comes
to have its own machine, that is, when the injustice is no longer
occasional but a major characteristic; and, second, when the machine
demands that people cooperate with injustice. Thoreau declared that,
if the government
requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say,
break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.
vs. the collective
This is the
key to Thoreaus political philosophy. The individual is the
final judge of right and wrong. More than this, since only individuals
act, only individuals can act unjustly. When the government knocks
on the door, it is an individual in the form of a postman or tax
collector whose hand hits the wood. Before Thoreaus imprisonment,
when a confused taxman had wondered aloud about how to handle his
refusal to pay, Thoreau had advised, Resign. If a man
chose to be an agent of injustice, then Thoreau insisted on confronting
him with the fact that he was making a choice. As Thoreau explained,
[It] is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel,
and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government.
But if government
is the voice of the people, as it is often called, shouldnt
that voice be heeded? Thoreau admits that government may express
the will of the majority but it may also express nothing more than
the will of elite politicians. Even a good form of government is
liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act
through it. Moreover, even if a government did express the
voice of the people, this fact would not compel the obedience of
individuals who disagree with what is being said. The majority may
be powerful but it is not necessarily right. What, then, is the
proper relationship between the individual and the government?
best description of Thoreaus ideal relationship occurs in
his description of a really free and enlightened State
that recognizes the individual as a higher and independent
power, from which all its own power and authority are derived.
It is a state that can afford to be just to all men, and to
treat the individual with respect as a neighbor, allowing
those who did not embrace it to live aloof.
War and slavery
to Thoreau, the government of his day did not come close to this
ideal for two basic reasons: slavery and the Mexican-American war.
It is important
to remember that, although Thoreaus imprisonment was a protest
against slavery, Civil Disobedience was written after the
outbreak of the Mexican-American war and protests both slavery and
war. In fact, the opening paragraph of the essay mentions the war
while saying nothing of slavery.
portrays the Mexican-American war as an evil comparable to slavery.
The 1840s expressed a spirit of expansion called Manifest
Destiny the idea that it was the destiny of Americans
to expand across the continent, civilizing the wilderness and the
natives as they went. Part of the expansion was an annexation of
Texas, which sparked a war with Mexico, which also claimed the area.
The annexation was doubly offensive to Thoreau because it permitted
slavery in the new territory.
the domestic consequences of the conflict deeply disturbed him.
Taxes soared; the country assumed a military air. Thoreau was horrified
to learn that some of his neighbors actively supported the war.
He was perplexed by those who did not support the war but who financed
it through the taxes they paid. After all, he considered the war
to be the work of comparatively a few individuals using the
standing government as their tool. Without cooperation from
the people, a few individuals would not succeed in wielding
to the state
In fact, the
cooperation of the tool itself the standing army is
required. Thoreau wonders about the psychology of men who would
fight a war and, perhaps, kill others out of obedience. He concludes
that soldiers, by virtue of their absolute obedience to the state,
become somewhat less than human. He writes, Now, what are
they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service
of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy-Yard, and behold
a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such
as it can make a man with its black arts a mere shadow and
reminiscence of humanity. This is how the mass of men
employed by the state render service to it, not as men mainly,
but as machines, with their bodies. In doing so, the men relinquish
the free exercise of their moral sense and, so put themselves
on a level with wood and earth and stones.
How does it become a man to behave toward the American government
today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with
But his well-meaning
neighbors even those who were opposed to slavery and the
Mexican-American war did associate with and obey the American
government. Thoreau ascribes their behavior to ignorance and concludes,
They would do better if they knew how.
remains, however, why do people like Emerson who cannot be
called ignorant render any obedience to laws with which they
is obvious: the people who believe they need a government are willing
to accept an imperfect one. Such people, Thoreau explains, accept
government as a necessary evil. Other people support
government out of self-interest; Thoreau specifically mentions merchants
and farmers in Massachusetts who profit from the war and from slavery.
obey because they fear the consequences of disobedience. This is
the neighbor who says, If I deny the authority of the State
when it presents its tax-bill, it will soon take and waste all my
property, and so harass me and my children without end. Thoreau
knows that his neighbor is correct in his assessment of what may
happen. When I converse with the freest of my neighbors,
I perceive that ... they dread the consequences to their property
and families of disobedience.... This is hard. This makes it impossible
for a man to live honestly, and at the same time comfortably, in
By his own
lights, Thoreau was fortunate in this respect. He had neither property
to be seized nor children to go hungry. Accordingly, he did not
criticize men who reluctantly obeyed an unjust law out of fear for
criticism is aimed at the form of obedience that springs from a
genuine respect for the authority of the state. This obedience says,
The law is the law and should be respected regardless of content.
Through such attitudes, otherwise good men become agents of injustice.
the notion that the law is the law and should be respected.
For one thing, not all laws are equal. Some laws exist for no other
reason than to protect the government for example, laws against
tax evasion or contempt of court. Such laws often have more severe
penalties than those that protect individuals against violence.
the proscribed penalties for denying governments authority
are often so vague and sweeping as to invite arbitrary sentences
from the court. Lawyers and the courts are part of the states
defensive machinery. Thoreau concludes,
The lawyers truth is not Truth, but consistency or a consistent
expediency…. He well deserves to be called ... the Defender of the
Constitution.... Still thinking of the sanction which the Constitution
gives to slavery, he says, Because it was part of the original
compact, let it stand. [He] is unable to take a fact
out of its merely political relations....
offer no protection to Thoreau, who refuses to respect their authority.
But he takes his refusal one step further. He not only rejects unjust
laws but also the men who enact them. He withdraws his support from
politicians who rarely make any moral distinctions [and] are
as likely to serve the Devil, without intending it, as God.
use of the word intending is significant. Even well-intentioned
politicians stand so completely within the institution of government
that they never distinctly and nakedly behold it. Whatever they
intend, they serve the governments ends.
disdain for politicians may seem a logical extension of his disrespect
for the law but many reformers disrespected the law
without holding lawmakers personally responsible. The viewpoint
of such people overlooked the role of choice, Thoreau
argues. Every politician who enacts a law chooses to do so; every
agent who enforces a law chooses to do so. If officials create or
enforce a law with which they disagree, then they have surrendered
their conscience to the state and should be held personally responsible
for that decision.
personally responsible is not the last step in Thoreaus withdrawal
of support. He denies the authority of government itself. Again,
rejecting politicians may logically seem to imply the rejection
of government; but, again, many reformers rejected politicians without
such reformers personally responsible as well.
Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of
a government, yield to it their allegiance and support are undoubtedly
its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious
obstacles to reform.
addresses fellow abolitionists who called for the immediate cessation
of slavery. Instead of petitioning the government to dissolve the
Union with slaveholders, Thoreau believed those reformers should
dissolve the union between themselves and the State
and refuse to pay their quota into its treasury. Petitions
only strengthened the authority of the government by recognizing
its authority and honoring the will of the majority. [Any]
man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one
already, he observes.
who petition government for permission love better to talk
about justice than to act on it. Thus, Thoreau concludes, Reform
keeps many scores of newspapers in its service, but not one man.
To men who prefer a safe strategy, voting becomes a substitute for
action and politics becomes a sort of game, like checkers or backgammon,
only with a slight moral tinge.
anyone willing to leave moral decisions to the will of the majority
is not really concerned that right should prevail. When resisting
the poll tax, he did not consult the majority; he acted. If he had
allowed the majority to decide whether or not he should pay, by
his own standards he would have shown no regard for what is right.
Thoreau considers voting to be a poor vehicle for reform because
voting follows real change; it does not precede or cause it. When
the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery,
he writes, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery,
or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their
vote. As for the other means that the state provides for changes
to itself, they are extraordinarily slow. Thoreau notes, They
take too much time, and a mans life will be gone.
A duty to resist?
mean men have a duty to pitch their life against an unjust state?
speaks to the individuals right to resist the state but Thoreau
does not consider disobedience to be an overriding duty. He understands
that men are involved in the business of living and he thinks this
is proper even for a dogged reformer like himself. He writes, 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. First and foremost,
he clearly stated, people should live their lives.
This is a
crucial distinction. If a man is fortunate enough to be in circumstances
that resemble Thoreaus huckleberry field, where the
state was nowhere to be seen, then he has no duty to seek
it out but should, instead, go about the business of living. Thoreau
defied the state only when it knocked on his door and demanded his
money in support of an institution he considered to be unjust
slavery. Thereafter, when the state ignored him, Thoreau ignored
it, even though his neighbors were taxed around him.
Civil Disobedience is sometimes entitled On the Duty
of Civil Disobedience, the latter is somewhat misleading.
Indeed, the word duty may have derived from the essays
critique and rejection of a chapter from William Paleys book
of Moral and Political Philosophy. That chapter is entitled
Duty of Submission to Civil Government.
to Thoreaus interpretation of the 18th-century philosopher,
Paley argues that all civil obligations derive from expediency.
Since Thoreau attempts to show the opposite that civil obedience
is morally grounded the title On the Duty of Civil
Disobedience may have played on Paleys title.
Civil Disobedience does not espouse a duty to seek out the
state for confrontation, to protest a wrong done to your neighbor,
or even to resist the state in matters that do not violate conscience,
such as buying a postage stamp.
The only political
duty of a man is to correct any injustice he directly causes and
to deny his cooperation to other injustice. This is the conclusion
at which Civil Disobedience arrives.
If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore
it to him though I drown myself....
... If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must
first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another
mans shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue
his contemplations too.
Thoreau believed the state should never rank above the individual
conscience or the business of living. But if the state demands a
persons first allegiance by asking him to violate his conscience
and participate in an injustice, the person should disobey
not through violence but by removing his cooperation.
political theories were not well known during his own time. They
were usually presented as lectures to small audiences or as articles
buried in small-circulation periodicals.
for example, was first rendered as a lecture at the Concord Meeting
Hall. In 1849, it was published under the title Resistance
to Civil Government in the first and only issue of Boston
death, his sister Sophia prepared his uncollected works for posthumous
publication in multiple volumes by Ticknor and Fields. The political
essays were held until last and, even then, they appeared to be
added on to the volume entitled A
Yankee in Canada with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers (1866).
It included Civil Disobedience, which had been retitled
On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.
Why were these
essays published last? Possibly because they were not considered
representative of Thoreau. Perhaps because many of them were written
in response to specific events and, so, seemed dated. Or perhaps
because their political slant was so unpopular that some reviewers
of the volume wished they had died with the man.
In 1890, Henry
Salt published a collection of Thoreaus political essays,
including Civil Disobedience. The book profoundly influenced
a young lawyer in South Africa who was protesting that governments
treatment of immigrant workers from India. The lawyer was Mohandas
K. Gandhi. Gandhi found in Thoreau the techniques he would use in
the subsequent struggle for Indian independence. Years later, he
thanked the American people for Thoreau, saying,
You have given me a teacher in Thoreau, who furnished me through
his essay on the Duty of Civil Disobedience scientific
confirmation of what I was doing in South Africa.
Thoreaus message and by expanding the strategy of civil disobedience,
Gandhi focused world attention on the shy Yankee philosopher who
lived without real fame in his own nation, in his own time.
death went relatively unnoticed. In November 1860, he caught a severe
cold that slowly deepened into consumption from which he never recovered.
On May 6, 1862, at the age of 44, Henry David Thoreau died.
Emerson published a eulogy that concluded,
The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son
it has lost. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in
a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever
there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is
beauty, he will find a home.
Thoreau said it more simply: For joy I could embrace the earth.
I shall delight to be buried in it.
McElroy [send her mail] is the editor
of ifeminists.com and a research fellow
for The Independent Institute in Oakland,
Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the
new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century
(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).
© 2005 Future of Freedom Foundation