"Civil Disobedience"

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau was a contemporary of transcendentalist thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman who rejected rationalism and instead sought deeper insights into the human spirit and the mysteries of existence.  Rejecting tradition and conformity was an essential part of searching for the deeper meaning of the eternal.  Thoreau in particular, an opponent of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) who spent time in jail for refusing to pay his taxes, praised individuals who rejected the conformity of society, who refused to obey unjust laws, and who followed a "different drummer" through independent thinking.  In this famous piece, he offered some suggestions that would become a model for 20th Century leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Questions to Consider

  1. What kind of peaceful revolution does Thoreau advocate?
  2. Why is Thoreau wary of the rich when it comes to righteous causes?
  3. According to Thoreau, why do people need government?
  4. What is the significance of this document?

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 there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race should find them; on that separate, but more free and honorable, ground, where the State places those who are not with her, but against her, - the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.  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 by how much truth is stronger than error, 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.  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.  If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, ask me, as one has done, "But what shall I do?" my answer is, "If you really wish to do anything, resign your office."  When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.  But even suppose blood should flow.  Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded?  Through this would a man's real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death.  I see this blood flowing now.

I have contemplated the imprisonment of the offender, rather than the seizure of his goods, - though both will serve the same purpose, - because they who assert the purest right, and consequently are most dangerous to a corrupt State, commonly have not spent much time in accumulating property.  To such the State renders comparatively small service, and a slight tax is wont to appear exorbitant, particularly if they are obliged to earn it by special labor with their hands.  If there were one who lived wholly without the use of money, the State itself would hesitate to demand it of him.  But the rich man - not to make any invidious comparison - is always sold to the institution which makes him rich.  Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him; and it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it.  It puts to rest many questions which he would otherwise be taxed to answer; while the only new question which it puts is the hard but superfluous one, how to spend it.  Thus his moral ground is taken from under his feet.  The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as what are called the "means" are increased.  The best thing a man can do for his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out those schemes which he entertained when he was poor.  Christ answered the Herodians according to their condition.  "Show me the tribute-money," said he; - and one took a penny out of his pocket; - if you use money which has the image of Caesar on it, and which he has made current and valuable, that is, if you are men of the State, and gladly enjoy the advantages of Caesar's government, then pay him back some of his own when he demands it.  "Render therefore to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to God those things which are God's," - leaving them no wiser than before as to which was which; for they did not wish to know.

When I converse with the freest of my neighbors, I perceive that, whatever they may say about the magnitude and seriousness of the question, and their regard for the public tranquility, the long and the short of the matter is, that they cannot spare the protection of the existing government, and they dread the consequences to their property and families of disobedience to it.  For my own part, I should not like to think that I ever rely on the protection of the State.  But, 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.  This is hard.  This makes it impossible for a man to live honestly, and at the same time comfortably, in outward respects.  It will not be worth the while to accumulate property; that would be sure to go again.  You must hire or squat somewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon.  You must live within yourself, and depend upon yourself always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs....