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Thoreau's Civil Disobedience

nickleberry | 23.10.2005 03:20 | Analysis | Culture | Free Spaces | Cambridge

I recently had the good fortune to read Henry David Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience". I did not realise it when I first started reading but this essay has a most remarkable history. Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King have all read and been influenced by it. Emma Goldman, the American anarchist, was arrested for reading Thoreau's essay from a public platform in 1917.

But all this was news to me. I would never have heard of the essay let alone read it were it not for the fact that it was included at the end of a volume of "Walden"; this is Thoreau's most famous work and is an account of two years spent living alone in the woods of Massachusetts by Walden pond from 1845 on.

"Walden," it turns out, is a good introduction to Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience": It establishes Thoreau in the reader's mind as a highly independent thinker and actor. Forsaking the luxuries and easy familiarity of a life in civilisation, Thoreau famously decided "to live deliberately" on his own in the woods. I say 'forsaking' but this implies incorrectly that he missed his former life amongst people. On the contrary Thoreau revelled in the chance to explore and experience the natural wonder of Walden pond, as well as the natural wonder of his own internal landscape:

"...there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but... it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals.... than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's being alone..." (p. 243)**

Thoreau sought, in these two years in the woods, to truly know himself and indeed to allow the reader to know him a little too. In the process he also had chance to reflect at length on the society which he had temporarily left behind. His observations range from the trivialities of dinner parties, "I was never so effectually deterred from frequenting a man's house... as by the parade one made about dining me, which I took to be a very polite and roundabout hint never to trouble him so again." (p. 107) to much deeper and more political observations, "[concerning an acquainatance]: He had been instructed only in that innocent and ineffectual way in which the Catholic priests teach the aborigines, by which the pupil is never educated to the degree of consciousness, but only to the degree of trust and reverence and a child is not made a man, but kept a child." (p. 110)

As a prelude to "Civil Disobedience" though, the most important aspect of "Walden" is its location outside of society. In "Walden" Thoreau describes himself living largely free from the strictures and authority of town life... and he likes it! He is scathing in his description of the day-to-day grind of life back in the rat race. Far better, says he, to live free from the expectations of, and obligations to, normal, petty human society and to use this freedom to know oneself and to know the world in which one lives.

So to "Civil Disobedience": The starting point for this essay is a night Thoreau spent in jail in his native town of Concord. He was arrested by Sam Staples, the local constable, tax collector, and jailer, in 1846 for failing to pay his poll tax. Constable Staples had turned a blind eye to Thoreau's non-payment for some time but things finally came to a head one day in July and a night in jail was the consequence.

The circumstances surrounding all of this are entertaining in their own right (Thoreau's breakfast the morning after was a "pint of chocolate, with brown bread" (p. 358)!!) but the real interest lies in the reason for Thoreau's non-payment of the tax: as a protest against slavery. This is not the first case in history of a principled act of civil disobedience nonetheless it is very significant; for fifty years later Gandhi would read Thoreau's account of his actions and be spurred to put his ideas into practise first in South Africa and later in India. The popularization of civil disobedience as a lever for societal change would largely depend on the success of these two campaigns.

So what does Thoreau actually say? He begins by stating his belief that "'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." (p. 343) In effect Thoreau longs for a "world-wide-Walden" where humans are free to know themselves without interference by authority. However he also implies that, perhaps, the general population is not ready for such an arrangement; what then?

"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." (p. 344) In stating his practical position Thoreau maintains his point of view that it is for the individual to shape society not the other way around. Thoreau places power squarely in the hands of each human being and he has much to say on how that power should be used:

"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... 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."(p. 344)

For Thoreau then, morality has precedence over legality. He illustrates this point with reference to the military, the arm of government which offends him the most. When the essay was first written the US was making war on Mexico, a state of affairs which Thoreau found reprehensible. Added to this was the abomination of slavery and Thoreau was in a quandary:

"How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognise that political organization as MY government which is the slave's government also." (p. 346)

So we have a situation where a goverment is at odds with one of its citizens' conscience. The citizen is, according to Thoreau, therefore beholden to follow her conscience not the will of the government. Inevitably this must mean rebellion: "In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize." (p. 346)

But how to rebel? Thoreau begins with what is not rebellion. "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..." (p. 347) He includes in this 'do nothing' those who restrict their opposition to voting ("Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it." (p. 347). He does not have the time to wait until a majority of his fellow citizens are in agreement with him - the burden of his conscience is more urgent than that. "Moreover, any man more right than his neighbours constitutes a majority of one already." (p. 352)

For Thoreau the problem with 'doing nothing' in this case, and the reason that positive action against the state is a moral obligation, is that obedient citizens are helping to keep the slavery and war machine running. Those who disagree with the government's policies continue to play their everyday roles within society, roles that enable soldiers to march on foreign lands and slaves to stay in chains. "Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measure of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support, are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform." (p. 350)

So his plea is to "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." (p. 351) The way in which Thoreau chose to do this was by non-payment of taxes. "It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the state, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with,- the dollar is innocent,- but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance." (p. 359)

The outcomes of this act of disobedience are several and uniformly positive. In the first place the act is effective: "... if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership [with the state], and be locked up in the county jail therefor, 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." (p. 352) Indeed this is the only way in which an individual can compel a State to act: "A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority... but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight." (p. 353)

In the second place disobedience benefits the disobeyer for obedience only "divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine." (p. 350) More than this though the consequences of the disobedience, contrary to popular opinion, are not a stain on one's honour but a measure of it: "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... on that separate, but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her but against her." (p. 353)

With this comes the final outcome of civil disobedience - the effect on one's peers: For in punishing the person who disobeys the State inadvertently acts as a public witness to that individual's opposition. For the act of disobedience and its consequences are seen by others and the truth of that action is uncovered: "My civil neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the very man I have to deal with....he is obliged to consider whether he shall treat me... as a neighbor and well-disposed man, or a maniac and disturber of the peace..." (p. 352)

But perhaps there is one more outcome of civil disobedience - as an act of prophecy for a society unencumbered by the authority of government, a world-wide-Walden. This is the note on which Thoreau ends the essay, hopeful and confident:

"I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbour; 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. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen." (p. 364)

** Page numbers refer to the Variorum Edition of "Walden and Civil Disobedience" printed in 1968.

*Thoreau uses patriarchal language in general. I have reproduced his words. I have also reproduced his American spellings.

A webtext of "Civil Disobedience" and "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau can be found here.



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Thoreau's writing has a lot more to say

27.10.2005 21:42

Thanks for the thoughtful intro to Thoreau on Civil Disobedience.....I would just like to add that Thoreau can also be illuminating about atttitudes to people, work, life in general and nature - and all written in an accessible style.