Civil Disobedience

Civil Disobedience Summary and Analysis of Section IV

Section IV: Politicians and the People


Why submit other people to one's own moral standard? Thoreau meditates at length on this question. While seeing his neighbors as essentially well-intentioned and in some respects undeserving of any moral contempt for their apparent indifference to the State's injustice, Thoreau nonetheless concludes that he has a human relation to his neighbors, and through them, millions of other men. An appeal to their consciences is not altogether futile because these millions of other men are capable of reckoning with themselves and their God over questions of moral importance. Thoreau does not expect his neighbors to conform to his own beliefs, nor does he endeavor to change the nature of men. On the other hand, he refuses to tolerate the status quo.

His objective, moreover, is not to argue or to claim the high moral ground. Despite his stance of civil disobedience on the issues of slavery and the Mexican war, Thoreau claims to have great respect and admiration for the ideals of American government and its institutions. He is not a contrarian for its own sake or unwilling to obey most laws. Thoreau goes further to say that his first instinct has always been conformity. He is not by nature inclined to resist government, which in reality intrudes minimally into his daily thoughts and affairs.

Statesmen, legislators, politicians--in short, any part of the machinery of state bureaucracy--are unable to scrutinize the government that lends them their authority. To speak from within the institution of government is inherently a position of blindness. Thoreau values what these men contribute to society, their pragmatism and their diplomacy, but feels that only someone outside of government can speak the Truth about it. Even the lawyer, with his attentiveness to the concept of justice, is ultimately taught to think exclusively within the limits of a legal framework and hence to respect the Constitution that endorses slavery. Considerations of moral conscience do not come into play‹and sometimes are intentionally excluded‹when a problem is viewed in political or legal terms. Thoreau cites the speech of Daniel Webster, a prominent senator from Massachusetts at the time, who discounts the relevance of moral concerns to the issue of slavery. Webster concludes: "associations formed elsewhere, springing from a feeling of humanity Š have nothing whatever to do with it."

The purest sources of truth are, in Thoreau's view, the Constitution and the Bible. But politicians have never availed themselves of the lessons to be learned from these sacred documents. Confronted with "the much-vexed questions of the day," they have proven themselves incompetent and incapable of writing the most basic laws. "No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America" Thoreau proclaims with dry understatement. Without the corrective guidance of the people, America would have long ago declined in rank among the nations.

In his last paragraph, Thoreau comes full circle to discussing the authority and reach of government, which derives from the "sanction and consent of the governed." He reasserts the supremacy of the individual in relation to the State, and further insists that democracy is not the last step in the evolution of government, as there is still greater room for the State to recognize the freedom and rights of the individual. Thoreau concludes on a utopic note, saying such a State is one he has imagined "but not yet anywhere seen."


At first glance, Thoreau's citation of the New Testament as a source of truth is surprising and unexpected. Until this point, Thoreau has taken a largely secular view of government and even advocated breaking away from any institutionalized form of organized religion. Upon closer examination, it is apparent that Thoreau derives his justification of resistance not only from the historical tradition of revolution in America, but from religious sources as well. Throughout Civil Disobedience, passages from the Bible are referenced and seamlessly integrated into his argument about political dissent and civil disobedience. Thoreau cites Corinthians to emphasize the importance of individual conscience. Later, he quotes from Matthew to underscore his point about government and the corrupting effects of wealth.

Thoreau's allusions to the Bible are imbued with strong romantic and naturalist imagery. The source of truth is a "stream" that "comes trickling into this lake or that pool" from which wise men "drink." Such imagery points to Thoreau's transcendentalist belief that God is ultimately found within nature. In the final paragraph, Thoreau turns to another organic metaphor: as soon as an individual has been cultivated and "ripened" to the point of maturity, the State should allow him to "drop off" the tree, and to live free and independently. In the same paragraph, Thoreau counterbalances this idealistic vision with a more historical overview of government, commenting on the changing relationship in modern times between people and those who rule and legislate. The momentum of that change has favored greater individualism and autonomy: "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." Thoreau's concept of civil disobedience fits into the larger historical narrative of "progress" by empowering the individual to achieve greater freedom and equality for himself and others.