Civil Disobedience

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Henry David Thoreau – “Civil Disobedience”libertymaniacs › portfolio › henry david thoreau

civil disobedience- the refusal to comply with certain laws or to pay taxes and fines, as a peaceful form of political protest.
“An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”~Martin Luther King Jr.

“One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” ~Martin Luther King Jr.Letter from the Birmingham Jail

“Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.” ~Howard Zinn

What is the context (historical background)?

  • Mexican War

  • Slavery is the law

  • Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax because the money supported slavery.


What is he saying? What do I think or what questions do I have?

(1) I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, — "That government is best which governs least";and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. 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; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which 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. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.

I like Thoreau’s topic sentences. He uses topic sentences to state his ideas very clearly up front.

Thoreau takes this motto a step beyond its original intent.

We are not ready to lack a government/govern ourselves –not realistic to ask people to govern themselves

Expedient – a means of obtaining an end; a practical approach that isn’t necessarily moral, means to an end
Standing army – permanent army, composed of full-time soldiers
The phrase standing army comes up in the The Declaration of Independence. Who else brought a complaint against a standing army?

Colonists rebelled
How does the allusion to the Declaration of Independence help Thoreau here?

Prevail-be widespread at a particular time

Liable-likely, inclined
Army was used as a tool to benefit a few.

People wouldn’t agree if they knew that it would just benefit a few.

(2) But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no government men. I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it. ….

Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? 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.
A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?

What does Thoreau want from his government?
He wants a better government now
From his fellow citizens?
He wants people to say what they want in their government.

Democracy enables majorities to “decide right and wrong.” How is this dangerous? What does Thoreau say the majority can then do?

The majority can have too much power. Their decisions impact your conscience (like slavery).
What does Thoreau say we are obligated to respect?

You are obligated to respect what you think is right (not necessarily the law).

What does Thoreau use as an example of “undue respect for law” here?

Soldiers follow ordersobeying commanding officer, not necessarily the law

Undue-unwarranted or inappropriate because excessive

Unscrupulous-lacking concern for doing the right thing

(3) The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.

Notice here how Thoreau frames this paragraph.

Posse comitatus-those who enforce the law

Wooden men-followers

What does Thoreau say about followers?

They should not be esteemed which means


What is the danger Thoreau identifies in those who serve with their heads?

They do not make moral decisions

Thoreau wants to be identified with this group. You will see why in a little bit.

What does Thoreau suggest leaders need to be guided by?
Their conscience

(4) Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform?
Why does it not cherish its wise minority? …
Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? 
Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?

Another great topic sentence (and famous quote).
What 3 options does Thoreau suggest that we have to respond to unjust laws?

Transgress- infringe or go beyond the bounds of (a moral principle or other established standard of behavior

Obey, amend, change, or transgress (break) the law
Thoreau blames the government for making things worse by not valuing rebels.
Look at Thoreau’s rhetorical questions here: How does he imply the government should handle its “wise minority”?

The government SHOULD cherish the minority, encourage its citizens. Most governments do not like minority rebellion (they crucify, excommunicate, call them rebels).
Government doesn’t want rebellion

Excommunicate – officially exclude from participation in the church

(5) If the law is of such a nature that it 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. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

When does Thoreau suggest that we need to break the law?
If the law forces you to oppress (harm) someone else, disobey it. Slaves at this time were being oppressed.

(6)I meet this American government, or its representative, the State government, directly, and face to face, once a year — no more — in the person of its tax-gatherer. … I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name — if ten honest men only — ay, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever. But we love better to talk about it: that we say is our mission. 

What does Thoreau call for here?

People to not hold slaves

People to break the law

People should stop holding slaves and be willing to go to jail to abolish slavery.

(7) Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is … the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor….

Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.

If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.

Where does Thoreau say is the only house in which a free man can live in a slave state?

What does he say about minorities and majorities?

A minority is powerless if it conforms to the majority. It needs to “clog” up the system and get noticed.

*Connect to Occupy Wall Street

How might minority interests prompt change?

If they don’t conform and be powerless to the state

(8) I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way.
I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. ….

Why does Thoreau go to jail?
He did not pay poll tax for 6 years

How does he feel about being incarcerated?

Feels it is ridiculous since they can’t lock up his spirit—he could be used for a better service—he is wasting his time in jail
Thoreau again questions why the state doesn’t put him to better use or “avail itself of [his] services.”

Why does Thoreau feel free?

His conscious is free—he’s free to make his own decisions and not be obedient to the state

Why does he feel as if he paid his tax?

He served time in jail and followed his conscience

    (9)Thus 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. What force has a multitude? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I. They force me to become like themselves.

Thoreau comes full circle here by talking about how a majority maintains power.

Call to action here!

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