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Civil Disobedience Summary and Analysis

by Henry David Thoreau

Section II

Section II: Resistance to Civil Government


In the American tradition, men have a recognized and cherished right of revolution. Still, Thoreau has a dismissive attitude toward some of the grievances that have sparked revolts in the past, such as the 1775 protest against tax on foreign goods. From his perspective, slavery outweighs all other causes for revolution both in magnitude and moral gravity. As he points out, one sixth of the population in the United States lives in servitude. A man disgraces himself by associating with a government that treats even some of its citizens unjustly, even if he is not the direct victim of its injustice. Thoreau takes issue with William Paley, an English theologian and philosopher, who argues that any movement of resistance to government must balance the enormity of the grievance to be redressed and the "probability and expense" of redressing it.

Thoreau proceeds to attack those in his native state of Massachusetts who profess to be against slavery in the South while participating in the commerce and agricultural trade that supports it. The only effective and sincere way to express opposition is through concrete deeds and acts of resistance. Anti-slavery sentiment by itself does not exempt someone from the charge of moral complicity. Thoreau turns to the issue of effecting change through democratic means. Voting for politicians opposed to slavery does not in itself qualify as a moral commitment to the abolition of an unjust practice; it simply registers the will of the people that one policy should prevail over another. The position of the majority, however legitimate in democratic terms, is not tantamount to a moral position. The country is full of men who defer to majority opinion and the shortcomings of a political process that offers a limited number of candidates and choices.

Thoreau believes that the real obstacle to reform lies with those who disapprove of the measures of government while tacitly lending it their practical allegiance. At the very least, if an unjust government is not to be directly resisted, a man of true conviction should cease to lend it his indirect support in the form of taxes. Thoreau exhorts his reader to "action from principle" but again weighs the proportionality of the "remedy" (the measures of civil disobedience taken in the name of resistance) to the "evil" (the injustice to be remedied). He concludes that if a specific law of a government makes a man into an "agent of injustice," that law should be rightfully transgressed and broken regardless of the individual repercussions. Thoreau calls on his fellow citizens to withdraw their support from the government of Massachusetts and risk being thrown in prison for their resistance. Forced to keep all men in prison or abolish slavery, the State would quickly exhaust its resources and choose the latter course of action. In these circumstances, to pay taxes would be to enable the continuation of a government's repressive policies. For Thoreau, out of these acts of conscience flow "a man's real manhood and immortality."

Money is a generally corrupting force because it binds men to the institutions and government responsible for unjust practices and policies, notably the enslavement of black Americans and the pursuit of the war with Mexico. Thoreau sees a paradoxically inverse relationship between money and freedom. The poor man has the greatest liberty to resist because he depends the least on the government for his own welfare and protection. For the "rich man," crudely speaking, the consequences of disobedience often seem too great, either to his property or personal standing in society. Thoreau explains how he has consequently dissociated himself from as many superfluous entanglements in outside institutions as possible, such as the local church.


Thoreau faces the difficult philosophical task of circumscribing the legitimate uses of civil disobedience even as he attempts to lay down a rationale for it. While the essay focuses specifically on slavery in the United States, the logic behind civil disobedience could be applied more generally to any number of grievances against government. At the risk of allowing his own argument to be invoked indiscriminately, Thoreau seeks to define in which cases it is justified to resist government, and in which cases the injustice is "part of the necessary friction of the machine of government."

Most importantly, Thoreau rejects the criterion of expediency used by Paley to judge the necessity of rebellion at a given moment in history. Though it may not be convenient to resist, and the personal costs greater than the injustice to be remedied, Thoreau firmly asserts the primacy of individual conscience over collective pragmatism. Civil disobedience does, however, involve at least two restrictions: 1) the means of resistance advocated and practiced by Thoreau are nonviolent (though in later political writings, he appears to change his mind on this matter); 2) the act of resistance should specifically target the injustice to be remedied. Moral objection to a particular law does not authorize nonobservance of all laws.

Some aspects of Thoreau's argument seem anti-democratic on their face, particularly his disregard for majority opinion as expressed through elected representatives. But Thoreau reveals himself to be far more nuanced over the course of the essay. His fundamental respect for democracy and the Constitution coexists with a pervasive cynicism about the integrity of politicians and the voting process, which significantly limits the ability of ordinary citizens to express their will in the first place.

At several points, Thoreau uses mechanical metaphors to describe the functioning of government. To conceive of the State as a machine suggests its dehumanizing effects, especially with regard to the treatment of slaves. These metaphors are also part of a larger dichotomy in Thoreau's thinking between nature and artificial social constructs, such as government, corporations or the church. In the following section, Thoreau refers to a "higher law" derived from nature, and uses a metaphor borrowed from the natural world to justify civil disobedience.

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