Civil Disobedience

College Bound Reading List

Have you read “Walden,” the book that Henry David Thoreau wrote while living at Walden’s Pond in Massachusetts? If you haven’t, you should! “Walden” is a great book to read in high school, college, and throughout one’s life, because like all good literature, with each subsequent reading new depths of understanding are achieved. His thoughtful commentary on self-sufficiency, solitude, and simple living is a classic that’s as relevant today as it was 150 years ago.

During his stay at Walden Pond (July 1845 – September 1847), Thoreau also became an outspoken antiwar protestor and tax resister. He even spent a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes to a government that supported slavery. Thoreau considered it to be an interesting experience that gave him a new perspective on his relationship to the government. Thoreau was released the next day when “someone interfered, and paid that tax.” (It was his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson who bailed him out!)

On January 26, 1848, Thoreau delivered his famous “Civil Disobedience” lecture at the Concord Lyceum. He was motivated in part by his disgust with slavery, the Mexican-American War, and people who do nothing to put an end to injustice. This lecture was published in May 1849 as an essay titled “Resistance to Civil Government.” It was re-named “Civil Disobedience” when republished in 1866, and that’s what it is popularly known as today. “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” is another commonly used title.

“Civil Disobedience” is perhaps an even more important and influential work than “Walden.” In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau discusses the relation of the individual to the state and explains why higher laws take precedent over human laws. An aphorism sometimes attributed to either Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine – “That government is best which governs least” – actually was first found in Thoreau’s essay.

Thoreau argues that people have a duty to avoid allowing governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that such acceptance without protest enables the government to make them agents of injustice. If a government is actively facilitating something that is fundamentally immoral, even if it would be difficult and expensive to stop it, it must be stopped because it is wrong. Otherwise you imply that YOU support the injustice.

Thoreau applauds those who follow their conscience, even if it means courting imprisonment: “Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison…. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence….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.”

The word “civil” as used by Thoreau basically means “relating to citizens and their interrelations with the state,” not necessarily “civil” in the case of being “polite or nonviolent” as many people assume. Of course most political philosophers would counsel against the notion of an actual revolution because of the upheaval that would result. But that’s one of the reasons why Thoreau preferred to live simply because he would have less to lose if the government should retaliate.

In a constitutional republic like the United States, people often think that the proper response to an unjust law is to try to use the political process to change the law, but to obey and respect the law until it is changed. But if the law is itself clearly unjust, and the lawmaking process is not designed to quickly obliterate such unjust laws, then Thoreau says the law deserves no respect and it should be broken. He says that waiting passively for an opportunity to vote for justice is as ineffective as wishing for justice; what you need to do is to actually be just.

Thoreau’s use of the term “resistance” in his essay served as a metaphor which compared the government to a machine. He said that when the machine was working injustice, it was the duty of conscientious citizens to be “a counter friction” – that is, a resistance – “to stop the machine.” A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; but it is irresistible when it clogs the machine. Thoreau points out that you serve your country poorly if you do so by suppressing your conscience in favor of the law because your country needs consciences more than it needs conscienceless robots. Because of this, it’s “not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.”

Government is not an act of God, but something made by man who has a fallen nature. Thus, Thoreau asserts that governments typically turn out to be more harmful than helpful. Democracy is no cure for this, as majorities do not necessarily have the virtues of wisdom and justice. Thoreau believes that the United States government, with all its faults, has some admirable qualities. However, “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.”

Read an annotated version of “Civil Disobedience” online at The Thoreau Reader:


Did You Know…? American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was greatly influenced by Thoreau’s essay. In his autobiography, he wrote: “During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.”

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