By Jeremy Mahr
Written in 1848, Henry David Thoreau’s seminal essay “Civil Disobedience” articulates Thoreau’s political awakening as an anti-imperialist, anti-authoritarian dissident. Inspired by Thoreau’s brief stint in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax, as well as his disgust with the institution of slavery and the Mexican-American War, the moral and political arguments in “Civil Disobedience” have found renewed relevance generations after the essay’s original publication date. It has been cited as an inspiration by figures such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Tolstoy, as well as the activists of Tiananmen Square and the Vietnam War protest movement.
As an outgrowth of the contemporary Transcendentalist movement which critiqued American society and the conformity that it seemed to demand, “Civil Disobedience” reflected a uniquely American form of dissent that drew from Enlightenment ideas of liberty and self-autonomy and extended them to support radical ideas of individualist political action. Beginning his essay with the benign adage of “That government is best which governs least,” Thoreau uses his platform to excoriate governments as agents of ineptitude and corruption. Like prominent thinkers of his day, Thoreau agreed that governments derive legitimacy from the consent of the governed. However,
“government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient” (1).
As a result of their inefficiencies, governments typically do more harm than good and are thus unjustified. According to Thoreau, even democracy cannot be a cure for this; because democracies rely on the will of the majority, rather than what is wise or just, they will fall victim to the same ills.
Despite these views, Thoreau was not a pessimist, and generally agreed that democracy was a superior form of government. However, he simply believed that people could do better. As he stated,
“The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?” (17).
Utilizing a framework of societal progress that many 19th Century Americans would have found familiar, Thoreau subverted mainstream expectations by arguing for a form beyond democracy, the U.S. Constitution, and possibly government itself. Because governments are illegitimate, Thoreau believed that decisions made by an individual’s conscience are not necessarily inferior to those made by government bodies. Therefore, respect for the law should always come secondary to respect for what is moral and right. In Thoreau’s eyes, because government upholds immoral causes such as slavery or the invasion of sovereign Mexican territory, people are not obligated to obey its laws. Thus, by using familiar themes of progress and freedom, Thoreau gives support for a radical, borderline anarchist vision of society in which individual will, not laws, dictates human action.
Thoreau’s identification of social change through the power of individuals rather than institutions sometimes led him to support violent causes, such as his admiration of radical abolitionist John Brown. As Donohue writes,
“Thoreau’s reaction to Brown, then, is not a break from his individualistic political views, but an identification of such values in the figure of Brown” (Donohue, 2007, pg 5).
In John Brown, Thoreau saw the idea manifested of a man who was willing to, in the words of Donohue, attack
“the roots of the slavery problem, and despite the violent measures used in this attack, it was the effort made—by an individual man of superior moral conscience against an unjust government….” (Donohue, 2007, pg 263).
Thoreau’s support for a man who advocated extra-parliamentary means for revolutionary change places him among a line of radical Americans who advocated for direct action, rather than the ballot, by any means necessary.
To treat “Civil Disobedience” as merely as anti-establishment screed, however, would not do it justice. A key insight in “Civil Disobedience” that elevates the essay beyond merely advocating for social change is its argument for the complicity of all citizens in enabling injustice. In doing so, it raises questions about the societal privileges that people all enjoy, including those of the self-styled dissidents themselves.
In the central episode of the essay, Thoreau confronts his neighbor, a taxgatherer, and refuses to pay the tax:
“I meet this American government, or its representative the State government, directly, and face to face, once a year, no more, in the person of its taxgatherer; this is the only mode in which a man situated as I am necessarily meets it; and it then says distinctly, Recognize me; and the simplest, the most effectual, and, in the present posture of affairs, the indispensablest mode of treating with it on this head, of expressing your little satisfaction with and love for it, is to deny it then. My civil neighbor, the taxgatherer, is the very man I have to deal with,—for it is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel,—and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government. How shall he ever know well what he is and does as an officer of the government, or as a man, until he is obliged to consider whether he shall treat me, his neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a neighbor and well-disposed man, or as a maniac and disturber of the peace…” (8).
As an act of civil disobedience, Thoreau’s refusal to pay his taxes represented more than just a dissident who disagrees with his tax dollars going to a war he does not support. Rather, it seeks to criticize all citizens who seek to use the facelessness of society to pretend that their hands are clean of the sins that government commit in their names (Carton, 1998).
The conflicting interests of the Thoreau’s neighbor illustrates this point: as a civilian, he would probably wish to treat Thoreau in an honorable manner. Yet, as a tax collector and an employee of the state, the neighbor has no choice but to condemn Thoreau as a criminal and send him to prison. When the facelessness disappears, when the walls are removed, and the artificial distances that separate people from the effects of their actions, the complicity of people in maintaining and perpetuating an unjust system is laid bare for all to see. The money you pay in taxes can be used to support an immoral war against a foreign land. The new sneakers you buy today were made possible by slave-like sweatshop conditions. Nobody truly is innocent, and the moral weight can be overwhelming. Yet, as Thoreau insists, if a person is not devoted to the cause of eradicating injustice, then the least that person can do is
“to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support” (6).
The themes echoed in “Civil Disobedience” do more than just voice support for opposing government institutions. It also forces us to question our fundamental beliefs. If revolutionary change by individual conscience is more effective than gradual institutional change, then to what extent should we respect the laws of government in our march towards a better society? Furthermore, if personal conscience is the primary justification for change, to what extent ought we guide our decisions by our own universal moral standards if they deviate from larger society? One may perhaps find justification for Thoreau’s ideas in not just the mainstream accounts of nonviolent marches of Dr. King, but also the militant actions of John Brown, and in modern times, the violent tactics of so-called anti-fascists who seek to disrupt far-right demonstrations in cities such as Charlottesville and Berkeley. In other words, those who seek to redress what they consider to be injustice, by any means necessary. Lastly, by bringing up the example of the tax collector, Thoreau reminds the reader that, like it or not, everybody is complicit in supporting a corrupt system, until the day we suddenly decide not to. Drawing from familiar American ideas, Henry David Thoreau emerges as a distinct American voice that is influenced by, and in turn influences, radical ideas of dissent and resistance. Despite these lingering moral questions, one fact remains clear: Thoreau’s ideas are not going anywhere.
Carton, E. (1998). The Price of Privilege: “Civil Disobedience” at 50. American Scholar, Vol. 67 (4), p105-112
Donohue, J.J. (2007). Hardly the Voice of the Same Man: ‘Civil Disobedience’ and Thoreau’s Response to John Brown. The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 48 (2), p247-265
Thoreau, H.D. (1848). Resistance to Civil Government.