Study Guide Prepared by Michael
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.
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. )
wrote "Civil Disobedience" in first-person point of view.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 posteriori.
Influence on Others
principles discussed in “Civil Disobedience” have influenced defenders
of human rights throughout the world.
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.
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."
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.
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.
Summary Begins Here
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 citizens.
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.
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
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
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 official approval.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 seen.
tax that I always pay is the highway tax, for I want to be a good neighbor.
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.
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
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
4. 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.