Civil Disobedience Summary and Analysis
Section I: Government and Democracy
Thoreau opens his essay with the motto "That government is best which governs least." His distrust of government stems from the tendency of the latter to be "perverted and abused" before the people can actually express their will through it. A case in point is the Mexican war (which would extend slavery into new US territories), orchestrated by a small élite of individuals who have manipulated government to their advantage against popular will. Government inherently lends itself to oppressive and corrupt uses since it enables a few men to impose their will on the majority and to profit economically from their own position of authority. Democracy is a tradition, and with each succeeding generation, it drifts from its original ideals of freedom and becomes increasingly burdensome and compromised. Thoreau views government as a fundamental hindrance to the people that it purports to represent. Far from furthering any creative enterprise, it has only stifled human accomplishment. Thoreau cites as a prime example the regulation of trade and commerce, and its negative effect on the forces of the free market.
Thoreau objects to the notion of majority rule on which democracy is theoretically founded, noting that the views of the majority do not always coincide with the morally right one. A man has an obligation to act according to the dictates of his conscience, even if the latter goes against majority opinion, the presiding leadership, or the laws of the society. Thoreau evokes the figure of soldiers marching to their deaths in the cause of a conflict that they perceive as unjust, and asks if they retain their humanity by deferring their fate to legislators. Once a man resigns himself to the decisions of others, he becomes a machine, his body an instrument. Many men consider service to their country to be an automatic virtue, but any act of service must always be conjoined with the exercise of conscience. In cases where the government supports unjust or immoral laws, Thoreau's notion of service to one's country paradoxically takes the form of resistance against it. Resistance is the highest form of patriotism because it demonstrates a desire not to subvert government but to build a better one in the long term. Along these lines, Thoreau does not advocate a wholesale rejection of government, but resistance to those specific features deemed to be unjust or immoral. Later in the essay, he will qualify his position by refusing to pay a poll tax (used to fund the Mexican war), but readily pays taxes for education and road maintenance.
The opening paragraph expresses Thoreau's seemingly libertarian political sentimentsthe idea that the most ideal form of government is one which exercises the least power and control over its citizens. Thoreau pushes this line of thinking to its logical limit by envisioning a society in which government is eliminated altogether because men have the capacity to be self-regulating and independent. The implied dissolution of the State is as much an expression of Thoreau's idealisma utopic vision that cannot be realistically achievedas it is the theoretical endpoint of the way societies develop and evolve.
There is an inherent tension between Thoreau's desire to limit the power of the State and the guarantee of freedom and equality that the State should provide to all of its citizens in the context of abolishing slavery. Whereas this theoretical tension remains largely unresolved in the essay, it is important to keep in mind from a purely historical standpoint that Thoreau is writing Civil Disobedience some twenty years before passage of the Fourteenth Amendment (guaranteeing equal protection and due process under the law), which substantially increased the role of the federal government in enforcing constitutional rights and freedoms. Ultimately, Thoreau's position cannot be accurately characterized as anti-government, since he is indeed willing to support some forms of social welfare with his tax dollars. His resistance to civil government springs not from some anarchic impulse or ideologically motivated hatred of the State, but from a more pragmatic understanding of how tax dollars enable the continuation of oppressive government policies.
Thoreau's frequent italicizing of pronouns underscores, on the level of language, some of the main themes in Civil Disobedience, notably that of agency. Referring to government, Thoreau writes in the second paragraph: "It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate." The colloquial use of pronouns in this way conflates the distinctioncentral to Thoreau's thoughtbetween the individual and the State. A common tendency is to attribute the positive virtues and actions of individuals to an impersonal collectivity known as the State. To use "it" as the subject of the sentence confers an agency to the government that it does not intrinsically have. For Thoreau, government is an inanimate entity that draws its vitality and authority only from the people it represents.
Civil Disobedience Essays and Related Content
- Civil Disobedience: Major Themes
- Civil Disobedience: Essays
- Civil Disobedience: E-Text
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- Civil Disobedience: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Henry David Thoreau: Biography
- Civil Disobedience Summary
- About Civil Disobedience
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Section I
- Summary and Analysis of Section II
- Summary and Analysis of Section III
- Summary and Analysis of Section IV
- Related Links on Civil Disobedience
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources