CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE BY THOREAU
Civil Disobedience is a disobedience and protest against the civil government and not to agree with certain laws and rules which are considered either unjust or unnecessary. Civil Disobedience by Thoreau is an essay, an argument against obedience to an unjust government. Thoreau advises people not to allow their government to overrule their conscience. By doing so, an individual be an agent of injustice.
Civil Disobedience was first published in 1849 under the title, “Resistance to Civil Government.” In 1866, it was collected into Thoreau’s A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers under the present title, Civil Disobedience. It is also known as ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’.
In 1846, Thoreau had to spend a night in jail for denying to pay poll tax. In 1848, he gave a lecture in Concord Lyceum on the “Relation of the Individual to the State,” and this lecture formed the basis for Civil Disobedience.
Thoreau was imprisoned for a night as a result of his disobedience to civil government to pay his head tax in his protest against the Mexican war. He was released after someone paid his tax. This incident prompted him to write Civil Disobedience. He presented it first as a lecture at the Concord Lyceum in 1848 as “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government” and the following year it was published under the title “Resistance to Civil Government”. Later it was re-named and published in 1866 under the present title when it was collected into his A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers.
CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE SUMMARY
AGENTS OF INJUSTICE
Civil Disobedience by Thoreau opens with the saying, “That government is best which governs least.” and “That government is best which governs not at all.” Thoreau starts his argument that most governments are basically harmful, people rarely benefit from this body, in which people become victims for the corruption and injustice, for the governments are the agents of corruption and injustice. A good government stands aside and does not intrude upon the people’s lives unnecessarily. The war between America and Mexico is a witness, an example of ‘comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool.’
According to Thoreau, the government is not just corrupt and unjust, but it is the primary agent of corruption and injustice. So, it is not too soon for honest men to rebel against the government, it is not necessary for an individual to abide by law when it is unjust. Thoreau gives utmost importance to conscience, an individual’s conscience can better judge things than a government. An individual doesn’t need to dedicate his life for eliminating evils. It is enough to make sure that he/she does not participate in such evils.
GOVERNMENTS ARE INEXPEDIENT
The American government is unnecessarily credited with what it has not done. It does not keep the country free. It does not educate. These are merely achievements of the people of the country, not of the government. If the government had less involved, the people would have done more. A government is at its best when it is expedient. But most governments are usually inexpedient.
An extreme injustice is as worse as slavery. In such a situation, a revolution is necessary, although it may cause suffering and expense. Necessarily the people must revolutionise against an unjust government and try to take back their ability to act for themselves. Thoreau invites people to come forward to fight against the government to stop the Mexican war.
“This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.” -Civil Disobedience by Thoreau Civil Disobedience by Thoreau
DEMAND FOR BETTER GOVERNANCE
However, Thoreau does not demand to eliminate the government, but he demands a better government, ‘not at once no government, but at once a better government.’ Thoreau directly attacks the imperialistic attitude of America, particularly the American-Mexican war from 1846 to 1848. He questions if is impossible to build a government which decides anything by conscience. If it’s so, then, why every man has a conscience. He quotes, ‘a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience’. Civil Disobedience by Thoreau
BREAKING LAW FOR JUSTICE
Men must always be careful and aware of law, its ability to promote injustice and the citizens may risk breaking law to acquire justice. As this is a government which enforces slavery, the people in good conscience may be branded as enemies as a result of breaking law for justice. People have rights to revolt against any government which practices abuse of power and slavery. The people have to fight against the American government at any cost to end slavery and war against Mexico.
Thoreau says that there are people who have funded the government for the start of the war against Mexico and then appreciate the soldiers who refuse to fight an unjust war. Such people never refuse to sustain the unjust government. The right way to behave towards the unjust American government is not, as some people think, to abide by the law and wait until it changes, but to dissociate with it altogether. It is not only the right of citizens, but it is also their duty to revolutionize for justice and ensure that the misery does not continue.
The people of the United States should fight to stop the war against Mexico at once even if it costs the lives themselves. Thoreau says, ‘If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself.’ It is not enough to think that it is unjust to enslave people by making a war against them, as thousands of the United States citizens do. Instead of passively waiting for a change to occur, it will be helpful to join those who fight for the cause. It just needs a few wise men to educate thousands of people to come forward to actively fight against the unjust government. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man.
“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; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advice from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both.” -Civil Disobedience
VOTING IS A BACKGAMMON
Then Thoreau goes on to talk about the effectiveness of voting. He compares voting to backgammon or checkers, old board games. Like these games, voting is also a play with right and wrong, uncertain and risky. Simply voting for justice not really acting for it. If sometime votes, it just shows that his/her voting right prevails. Civil Disobedience by Thoreau
People’s voting right should seek remedy for the social issues they witness. But people vote and wait in the hope that their problems will be resolved by the government. Voting is tantamount to prayer. One may or may not get what he/she wants.
Thoreau advises the abolitionists to avoid paying taxes, though it may lead to imprisonment and bloodshed. Such revolution is necessary against such an imperial government. By paying taxes, even well-meaning people acting for injustice. Civil Disobedience by Thoreau Civil Disobedience by Thoreau
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. If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, “But what shall I do?” my answer is, “If you really wish to do anything, resign your office.” -Civil Disobedience
When he was imprisoned for not paying poll taxes, Thoreau says, he was very happy in prison than the people outside. The government is for people, should be for people, as it is a body chosen by people, the government should recognize this and take a resolution not to be against the wishes of the common citizens. When people demand a better government, Thoreau hopes, the American government still has qualities to be so, to better itself.
RECOGNISING THE INDIVIDUAL POWER
Thoreau says if the government progresses from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, it is a welcome progress and a respect to an individual. He quotes a Chinese philosopher who says that the individual is the basis of the empire. An enlightened State is a state which recognizes ‘the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived.’ Democracy is not an ultimate improvement possible in government. Civil Disobedience by Thoreau
Recognizing the individual power and authority and authorizing the individuals as the ultimate deciding authority is what the last improvement possible in a government. Thoreau imagines ‘a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men.’ Civil Disobedience by Thoreau
“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.” Civil Disobedience by Thoreau
“Our life is frittered away by detail… Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let our affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand…Simplify, simplify!”
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things..”
-Civil Disobedience and Other Essays
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
“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.” Civil Disobedience by Thoreau
“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.”
“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”
“If any think that their influence would be lost there, and their voices no longer afflict the ear of the State, that they would not be as an enemy within its walls, they do not know how much truth is stronger than errors, nor how much more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.”
If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself.
“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.” Civil Disobedience by Thoreau
“Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of free-trade and of freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation. They have no genius or talent for comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufacturers and agriculture.
-On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
“A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.”
“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.”
“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.” Civil Disobedience by Thoreau
HENRY DAVID THOREAU
Henry David Thoreau is an American essayist, philosopher, naturalist and a leading transcendentalist. He was born David Henry Thoreau in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts. His parents were John Thoreau and Cynthia Dunbar. From 1833 to 1837, he attended Harvard College. During this period at Harvard, he started writing. He published numerous essays which were first delivered as lectures. He chose a simple living, working sometimes as a teacher and pencil maker, his father’s profession. He spent most of his time as a land surveyor. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 44 in 1862. His birthplace in Virginia road is still maintained by Thoreau Farm Trust.
Thoreau’s first book was A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He gained international fame through his essay, Walden. Civil Disobedience is his another most popular essay. Walden is a memoir in which Thoreau reflects upon the effectiveness of living in a simple, natural surrounding. He details his experience living near Walden Pond for two years, two months and two days. He writes,
“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, 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 practise 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 be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” -Walden by Thoreau
Thoreau was also an abolitionist who sought to end slavery in the United States. His thoughts in his Civil Disobedience later influenced Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Leo Tolstoy.
The following are the list of books by Henry David Thoreau:
- Aulus Persius Flaccus (1840)
- A Walk to Wachusett (1842)
- Paradise (to be) Regained (1843)
- The Landlord (1843)
- A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)
- Resistance to Civil Government, or Civil Disobedience, or On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849)
- Slavery in Massachusetts (1854)
- Walden (1854)
- A Plea for Captain John Brown (1859)
- The Last Days of John Brown (1860)
- Walking (1862)
- Autumnal Tints (1862)
- The Fall of the Leaf (1863)
- Excursions (1863)
- Life Without Principle (1863)
- Night and Moonlight (1863)
- The Highland Light (1864)
- Cape Cod (1865)
- Letters to Various Persons (1865)
- A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers (1866)