The Historical Significance of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience



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The Historical Significance of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience

In 1849, Henry David Thoreau published an article originally entitled “Resistance to Civil Government.” Thoreau refused to pay a poll tax in support of the Mexican American war and was jailed. Through his publication, many people including Gandhi and the independence of India from Britain, Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for racial equality, and college campuses across America during the Vietnam War. It has shaped our world and shaped our society. Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience is one of the most significant writings in American literature.

The intrinsic value of Henry David Thoreau’s article (much like the Declaration of Independence) unpacks the purpose of government and (like the Constitution) casts vision for a better one. He began his essay by saying “Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient” (Thoreau 1343). Government is designed with the purpose of achieving a particular goal, and as Thoreau mentions, most governments inhibit and none ever get there. “The Government itself,” says Thoreau, “is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it” (Thoreau 1343). This is the basis for Thoreau’s entire argument. The problem with the government is that it will never truly be able to express the will of the entire public. Therefore, “That government is best which governs not at all” (Thoreau 1342). It was Thoreau’s desire to have a public that is not drawn under the will of a “government” but placed over the will of itself. Thoreau concludes Civil Disobedience with a thought from Confucius saying, “The individual is the basis of the empire” (Thoreau 1358). What is government but the conglomeration of individuals and minorities? Without a strong emphasis on the individual, the government can become a tyrant to the minority. The thoughts expounded in Thoreau’s work have offered people a fresh look at the means of a government and will remain a timeless document.

The historical significance of Henry David Thoreau’s Civil disobedience litters the fabric of politics. In 1896, Mahatma Gandhi started a large, non-violent political campaign for Indian rights. In the 50 years that followed, Gandhi had fought for and won civil equalities for Indians and achieved independence from British rule. One of the works that attributed to Gandhi’s inspiration was Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. In 1944, Martin Luther King Jr. was a freshman at Morehouse College. During his studies, he read Civil Disobedience and later became one of the United States most renowned civil rights activists. Thoreau’s essay was an encouragement to King and even provided some inspiration for his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail in which King wrote, “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty” (nobelprizes.com). Which has striking similarities from Thoreau’s own essay, “I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor…not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all duties of neighbors and fellow-men” (Thoreau 1358).



Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience is undoubtedly one of the most important works ever published in the United States. It embodies the spirit of American individualism and encourages people to fight injustice. It has toppled governments and inspired millions to action. Without it, history would be lacking in its numerous plights for the poor and oppressed.


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