Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau.

“No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America. They are rare in the history of the world. There are orators, politicians, and eloquent men, by the thousand; but the speaker has not yet opened his mouth to speak who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day. We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire. Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of free-trade and of freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation.”

Thoreau writes a political treatise on government and individual rights. His major argument is that we have a moral obligation not to follow laws or give our support to governments that violate our moral conscience.

In his mind, governments, even democratic and representative ones, are by their very nature coercive. They force us to follow rules and laws that others create for us and usually legislate these rules based on the will of the majority. The problem is that the minority might have the morally correct view on an issue or an individual might find a law morally repugnant based on the dictates of their own conscience, but still be forced to abide by the laws created by the majority even if they strongly disagree with them. All governments, even the most democratic, by necessity protect their own interests and the views of the current majority. Governments make laws not because they are virtuous and wise or ruled by those who are virtuous and wise, but simply because they have the power to do so. For this reason, Thoreau argues that the best government is the one that interferes the least; indeed, Thoreau even argues that the best governments would allow people to choose not to participate in them or be ruled by them as long as they lived peaceably beside them as ideal neighbors.

As Thoreau notes, though, too often the justification for government is expediency; it allows us to get things accomplished that can be difficult to achieve easily on our own and so even when governments enact laws we find immoral or violate our most fundamental values we mindlessly accept them to get on with business and fulfill our own needs.

Laws try to legislate behavior, but laws don’t actually make citizens more moral. Thoreau recognizes that you cannot legislate morality. Often governments and the laws they create can even make us do many immoral things in the name of the law.

“Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”

Soldiers serving the state often fight wars against their wills and natural inclinations, robbing them of their conscientiousness and individuality as if they were nothing more than machines to be programmed in the state’s interest.

“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, &c. 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 by it as enemies.”

Serving the government or blindly following laws transforms men into automatons. We cannot be virtuous and true to ourselves living so blindly and thoughtlessly. Thoreau argues citizens ought to seriously consider each law and dictate if the state and must do what they consider morally right rather than obey a law or policy that violates their conscience.

“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.”

Likewise, he argues that all men have the right to refuse allegiance to a government they find immoral or inadequate for their needs.

“All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.”

It doesn’t help anyone simply to hold an opinion against something. We must be willing to act on our deeply held principles.

“There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing;”

Many people think they can convince others to change their minds and thus change society from the inside out by convincing others through speeches and voting in elections or petitioning government representatives. People who do these things often feel they are doing their part, which usually involves transforming the opinions and pushing the views of the minority to become that of the majority. This method can take a long time to produce any real change though. Likewise, it is easy to blame politicians in South Carolina for supporting slavery, while doing nothing in places like Massachusetts where the people may claim to hate slavery and be against it, but will not legislate or take concrete actions against slavery if it requires them to sacrifice financial deals with the south. Basically people are willing to protest things they find unfair or unjust so long as it doesn’t cost them anything.

Voting against or for something doesn’t represent a principled stand as it requires the majority to agree with us and costs us nothing. It’s an ineffectual method of social change as the majority must align with us and finish the task; if they don’t, then we can shrug and claim we did our part, while affecting no real social change against the immoral action, while in many instances still supporting the government and its policy indirectly through our taxes.

“The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men.

We can only make real change by following up our principles with action. With that said, Thoreau isn’t saying we have a moral obligation to fight for every cause.

“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; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; 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. 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.”

The causes that matter to us will depend on our own guiding principles. Likewise, we do have the right to spend our time pursuing our own interests. We don’t have to fight against every injustice, but we also shouldn’t support indirectly those who perpetuate them. We do have a moral obligation to do no harm and not pursue our own interests at the expense of others. In other words, we don’t have to actively fight every injustice, but we also should do our best not to give any support to it either. Given all this, how should we battle injustice and not give it our support?

Instead of trying to convince others or use our vote as an ineffectual way of enacting social change, Thoreau advocates that we should withhold our tax money in protest of policies we disagree with. He points out that even if we refuse to serve in a military expedition ourselves because we find the war immoral, if that same person continues to pay taxes to the government who is funding the expedition, then we are still supporting it and merely paying for someone else to take our place. In Thoreau’s view this is no real protest at all!

For this reason, Thoreau thinks it disgraceful to accept the American government as his own because it supports slavery and the Mexican War, which he finds morally abhorrent.

Governments tend to punish disobedience like not paying taxes in protest that they support immoral laws. The goal of such punishment is to make men fear disobeying the laws and government policies. Unable to change the spirit, your actual thoughts, feelings, and idea on a topic, they usually try to control you through your body by incarcerating someone in jail.

Thoreau follows his own advice by putting his principles in action. He tells us about a time he allowed himself to be jailed rather than pay a poll tax to the government whose policies he found immoral.

“When I came out of prison,—for some one interfered, and paid the tax,—I did not perceive that great changes had taken place on the common, such as he observed who went in a youth, and emerged a gray-headed man; and yet a change had to my eyes come over the scene,—the town, and State, and country,—greater than any that mere time could effect. I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived. 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 purpose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions, as the Chinamen and Malays are; that, in their sacrifices to humanity they ran no risks, not even to their property; that, after all, they were not so noble but they treated the thief as he had treated them, and hoped, by a certain outward observance and a few prayers, and by walking in a particular straight though useless path from time to time, to save their souls. This may be to judge my neighbors harshly; for I believe that most of them are not aware that they have such an institution as the jail in their village.”

Eventually he is let out of jail because one of his neighbors paid the tax for him. Thoreau points out that the person who paid the tax did so from the mistaken belief that their private sentiments and feelings outweigh the public good. He would be glad to pay taxes and obey the laws of the state if he found them reasonable, but he won’t pay taxes if it supports action and policies that go against his conscience. It is the individual that gives justification for the existence of a state and individual rights should be enshrined at the heart of any just government.

2 thoughts on “Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau.

  1. Excellent commentary on this profound essay by Thoreau. It is as valuable and timely now as it was when he chose not to pay a poll tax. While he was not a perfect man, his integrity and courage was greater than most.

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