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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2005
Type of Work
.......Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" is an essay that attempts to persuade readers to oppose unjust government policies in general and the Mexican War and the institution of slavery in particular.
.......Thoreau first presented the essay as a lecture on January 26, 1848, at the Concord (Massachusetts) Lyceum. In May 1849, it was published under the title "Resistance to Civil Government" in Aesthetic Papers, a short-lived journal of transcendentalist Elizabeth Peabody (1804-1894). In 1866, four years after
Thoreau's death, the essay was published under its permanent title, "Civil Disobedience," in a Thoreau collection entitled A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers. )
Point of View
.......Thoreau wrote "Civil Disobedience" in first-person point of view.
.......In the essay, Thoreau says it is the duty of all citizens to disobey unjust government policies. They should express their opposition through acts of civil disobedience, such as refusing to pay taxes. Thoreau cites two examples of unjust U.S. government policies: the continuation of the institution of slavery and
the prosecution of the Mexican War (April 1846-February 1848).
.......Citizens of good conscience should actively oppose unjust government policies through nonviolent resistance, such as refusal to pay taxes. They should even be willing to go to jail rather than yield to immoral or unethical government laws and activities.
- Slavery is an evil institution that must be abolished.
- The Mexican War is an unjust conflict because it is being fought to acquire new territory in which to establish slavery.
- Talk means little unless action backs it up. Saying you are against an unjust government policy does nothing to eliminate that policy. But backing your words up with action—action that may impose hardship on you—will
- Citizens must oppose efforts by groups that promote their own selfish interests at the expense of morality, ethics, and individual rights.
Thoreau and Transcendentalism
.......Thoreau believed every human being has inborn knowledge that enables him to recognize and understand moral truth without benefit of knowledge obtained through the physical senses. Using this inborn knowledge, an individual can make a moral decision without relying on information gained through everyday living,
education, and experimentation. One may liken this inborn knowledge to conscience or intuition.
.......Thoreau and others who believed that this inborn knowledge served as a moral guiding force were known as transcendentalists—that is, they believed that this inner knowledge was a higher, transcendent form of knowledge than that which came through the senses. Because Thoreau and his fellow transcendentalists trusted their own inner light as a moral guiding force, they were possessed of a fierce spirit of self-reliance. They were individualists; they liked to make decisions
for themselves. If the government adopted a policy or a law that offended their consciences, they generally reacted strongly.
.......“Civil Disobedience” expresses Thoreau’s reaction and measured response to government dictums that legitimized slavery and the
Mexican War. Transcendentalism, as Thoreau’s moral philosophy was called, did not originate with him or his fellow transcendentalists in New England but with the German philosopher Emanuel Kant. He used the word transcendental to refer to intuitive or innate knowledge—knowledge which is a priori rather than a
Thoreau's Influence on Others
.......The principles discussed in “Civil Disobedience” have influenced defenders of human rights throughout the world.
.......Among them was Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi
(1869-1948), the great Indian leader. Using ideas promoted in Hindu and Christian philosophy, as well as tactics espoused by
Thoreau and Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, Gandhi led a successful campaign of passive resistance in South Africa between 1896 and 1914 to obtain civil rights for immigrants from India. But rather than terming his philosophy of peaceful agitation either civil disobedience or passive resistance, he called it satyagraha (pronounced SAHT ya GRUH ha), a Hindi (Indo-Aryan language) word via
sanskrit (old Indo-European language). This word means “grasping for truth” or “attachment to truth.” In effect, this philosophy asked its followers to endure suffering, instead of causing it, to achieve its aims. After World War I, Gandhi returned to his native India to lead a movement against British rule of that country, enlisting millions of supporters in a nonviolent movement that resulted
in Indian independence. This campaign earned him the title of “Father of India” and a lasting place in history as one of the 20th Century’s greatest leaders.
.......His ideas—and the ideas of
Thoreau—profoundly influenced the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his successful nonviolent campaign in the 1960's to achieve civil rights for black Americans. In his autobiography, King wrote, “No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea [passive resistance to injustice] across than Henry David
Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest."
.......Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Mass., on July 12, 1817. After graduating from Harvard University in 1837, he taught school but quit after a few weeks, then worked for a short while for his father, a pencil-maker. In 1838, he returned to teaching but by the early 1840's had decided to pursue writing as a
career and began turning out essays and poetry. His most famous work is Walden; or Life in the Woods (1854), which recounts his experiences living alone in a cabin he built at Walden Pond near Concord.
Summary of the Essay
Writer's Note: The following summary condenses the content of “Civil Disobedience.” It retains first-person point of view, using the pronoun I, to make the summary more readable and easier to understand. However, except for boldfaced quotations in red type, the writing is mine, not
Thoreau’s.—Michael J. Cummings, author of The Cummings Study Guides. The Summary Begins Here
.......The best government is one with severely limited powers. It should use its powers only to carry out moral and ethical activities on behalf of the citizens. Unfortunately, factions of powerful self-interest groups sometimes manipulate the government into carrying out actions that offend the conscience of upright
.......A case in point is the Mexican War. It is an unjust war that seeks to annex Mexican land and then establish slavery on it. In this matter and in many others, vast numbers of citizens regrettably have forfeited their consciences to the
government, blindly doing the government’s bidding even when their conscience tells them that what they are doing is wrong. I cannot do what they do. I cannot accede to the policies of a government that legitimizes slavery and then invades another country in order to expand this evil institution.
.......Here in Massachusetts, there are merchants and farmers who go along with government policy because they are more interested in making money than in doing justice to fellow human beings. And what of those who oppose slavery and the war? Too many of them sit back and allow others to carry out this task for them. By failing to act to initiate
reform—by continuing to yield to unjust government polices—these people become obstacles to reform. Their inaction helps to perpetuate the unjust policies.
.......The state, of course, has procedures in place to enable citizens to bring about reform. But those ways take too long. Besides, in the present case, it is the Constitution—the very law itself—which is
.......I believe that those who support abolition of slavery should immediately withdraw their support of the Massachusetts government rather than wait and go through channels. If they have God on their side, they have reason enough to act at once without
.......If even only one honest man would stand on principle and be willing to go to jail for his action, we could abolish slavery in America. For it does not matter how small the beginning of resistance is. If it is done well once, it is done
for all time. Of course, we would rather talk about reform than carry out reform.
.......Actually, a prison is the only place today where an honorable man in a slave state can live with honor. His disobedience—his refusal to go along with the state—will speak eloquently and loudly for reform. As for servants of the state—tax gatherers and other officers—they should resign their offices. If
citizens are willing to go to jail and if civil servants quit their jobs, then the revolution has taken place. Reform will come.
.......Several years ago, the state ordered me to pay a sum to support a clergyman whose church I did not attend. I refused to
contribute. In a written statement that I gave to the town clerk, I told government officials the following:
Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any society which I have not joined........Since that time, the state has never again asked me to support that church. However, the state did jail me for one night because I have refused to pay the poll tax for six years. But even though I was behind a thick wall, not one of my townsmen was as free as I was.
.......In carrying out penalties such as the one imposed upon me, the state uses force, not reason, to deal with citizens. I answer only to the force of a higher power.
.......My cellmate was a man accused of burning down a barn, but he claimed he was innocent. From what he told me, it appeared he was drunk when he went into the barn to bed down. When he smoked his pipe, the barn caught fire.
.......A lot of men wrote verses while biding their time in the jail. Many of them tried to escape but were caught. To get revenge, the prisoners sang their verses.
.......After I blew out the lamp and went to bed, I stayed up for a while
listening to the town clock strike and the sounds of the village coming in through the open windows. In the morning, I had a breakfast of brown bread and a pint of chocolate on a tin tray passed through an opening in the door. Later, I was released after someone paid my tax. The first thing I did was to finish an errand I had started the previous day—I was going to the shoemaker’s to have a shoe repaired—but could not complete because of my arrest. After putting on my mended shoe, I went out with a local group to pick huckleberries on top of a high hill two miles off. In this pastoral setting, the state was nowhere to be
.......One tax that I always pay is the highway tax, for I want to be a good neighbor.
.......I do not wish to give
you the idea that I am looking to quarrel with other citizens or with the country. In fact, I would like to abide by the laws of the country. But I cannot abide by them when they are unjust laws and when the leaders who make them override the rights of upright individuals guided by their consciences.
There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. 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 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. 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 I have also imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Do you believe unjust or immoral government policies are in force today in your country? (These policies could be related to taxes, abortion, gun control, religious practices, gender inequality, or any other issue. If you answer yes to the question, identify the policy or policies you oppose.)
2. Would you be willing to risk going to jail to oppose a policy (or policies)?
3. Other than breaking the law (by refusing to pay a tax, for example, or by participating in a demonstration that blocks
traffic) what can you do to eliminate or replace an unjust or immoral government policy? Write an essay on this topic. Examples of options open to you include boycotts, running for office, contacting your legislative representatives, and proposing a ballot question. There are many more.
Write an essay on the laws, policies, or practices aimed at segregating blacks before the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.
5. Write an essay on the laws, policies, or practices aimed at limiting the rights of women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.