Henry David Thoreau and 'Civil Disobedience'

Henry 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.?

The answer 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 an American.

Civil Disobedience is an analysis of the individual’s 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 Thoreau’s 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.

Thoreau declined 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.

The incarceration 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 the man

Henry David 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, but practically.

Thoreau’s 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.

There has 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.

Although Emerson’s focus on the individual must have appealed to Thoreau, there was an inherent tension between Thoreau’s 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 of it.

Despite their 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 Emerson’s life.

Transcendentalism became Thoreau’s 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 Emerson’s suggestion, he kept a daily journal, from which most of Walden was eventually culled.

But Thoreau 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 Thoreau’s 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 Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes.

Imprisoned for a night

Civil Disobedience was Thoreau’s response to his 1846 imprisonment for refusing to pay a poll tax that violated his conscience. He exclaimed in Civil Disobedience,

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.

Imprisonment was Thoreau’s first direct experience with state power and, in typical fashion, he analyzed it:

The State never intentionally confronts a man’s 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?

In attempting to answer these questions, Thoreau’s 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.”

Toward the 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 Thoreau’s 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.”

Thoreau may 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.

Emerson missed the point of Thoreau’s 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.

Civil Disobedience ends on a happy note. After Thoreau’s 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 Thoreau’s 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.

Thus, Thoreau 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.”

Although many Quaker writers had argued from conscience for civil disobedience against war and slavery, Henry David Thoreau’s 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 essay’s 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.

The opening sentence of Civil Disobedience sets the tone by endorsing Thomas Jefferson’s much quoted sentiment on government – “That government is best which governs least.” Then Thoreau carries Jefferson’s 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….

After what 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.”

Whatever his 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.

To answer, 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. Conscience vs. the collective

This is the key to Thoreau’s 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 Thoreau’s 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, shouldn’t 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?

Perhaps the best description of Thoreau’s 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

According 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 Thoreau’s 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.

Civil Disobedience 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.

Moreover, 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 that tool.

Blind obedience 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.”

Thoreau asks,

How does it become a man to behave toward the American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.

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.”

The problem remains, however, why do people like Emerson – who cannot be called ignorant – render any obedience to laws with which they disagree?

One reason 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.

Still others 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,” he writes,

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 outward respects.

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 their families.

Thoreau’s 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.

Thoreau dissects 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.

Moreover, the proscribed penalties for denying government’s authority are often so vague and sweeping as to invite arbitrary sentences from the court. Lawyers and the courts are part of the state’s defensive machinery. Thoreau concludes,

The lawyer’s 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….

Such courts 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.”

Thoreau’s 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 government’s ends.

Thoreau’s 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.

Holding politicians personally responsible is not the last step in Thoreau’s 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 rejecting politics.

Thoreau holds 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. The problem with reformers

Thoreau specifically 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.

The reformers 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.

To Thoreau, 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.

Moreover, 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 man’s life will be gone.”

A duty to resist?

Does this mean men have a duty to pitch their life against an unjust state?

Civil Disobedience speaks to the individual’s 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 Thoreau’s 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.

Thus, although 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 essay’s critique and rejection of a chapter from William Paley’s book Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. That chapter is entitled “Duty of Submission to Civil Government.”

According to Thoreau’s 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 Paley’s title.

Nevertheless, 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 man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.

In short, Thoreau believed the state should never rank above the individual conscience or the business of living. But if the state demands a person’s 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.

Thoreau’s legacy

Thoreau’s 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.

Civil Disobedience, 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 Aesthetic Papers.

After Thoreau’s 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 Thoreau’s political essays, including “Civil Disobedience.” The book profoundly influenced a young lawyer in South Africa who was protesting that government’s 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.

By embracing Thoreau’s 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.

Thoreau’s 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.

Months later, 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.

As always, Thoreau said it more simply: “For joy I could embrace the earth. I shall delight to be buried in it.”

July 30, 2005