Still, many of those decisions are made by a majority of those representatives. Justice, according to Thoreau, does not and should not rely on the ruling majority. The reason for this, particularly in America, is that the American government leaves no room for conscience. He points out that the American government is governing slaves and slavery, and that a man who prized justice above all things would not be content to allow such a practice to continue.
How can such a man, asks Thoreau, act on the behalf of justice? By withdrawing his financial support. He does this by refusing to pay his taxes. Thoreau believes in practicing what he preaches, and writes about how he himself refused to pay his taxes and for this civil disobedience spent a night in the town jail. Of his stay in jail, he has nothing unpleasant to say. His cell and cellmate, he writes, were clean and friendly, respectively.
When the Mexican War broke out in , he protested against it as an aggressive war of conquest aimed in part at adding new slave territories to the United States, and for this reason as well, he refused to pay the tax. When Thoreau still failed to comply, Staples arrested him on July 23 or 24 and imprisoned him in the Middlesex County jail.
In the essay, Thoreau argues that laws, being human-made, are not infallible, that there is a higher divine law, and that when those laws conflict, one must obey the higher law. Hence slavery, no matter how legal and it remained legal until , was always unjust in its violation of the integrity and divine soul of the enslaved. He does not, however, argue for violent revolution; he advocates nonviolent resistance. Later, Thoreau would contradict such a philosophy in three essays championing John Brown, who endorsed and practiced violence.
The disobedient must be prepared to accept punishment, if necessary: The authority of government. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I conceded to it.
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. This doctrine has always been repellent to authoritarians of the far Right and Left, who tolerate no dissent and have had protesters beaten, imprisoned, and even killed.
In the seventeenth century, Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony reproved his constituents for daring to criticize him, calling them naturally depraved and maintaining that the authorities are instituted by God and that to criticize them constitutes treason and atheism. In Billy Budd, Foretopman , Herman Melville satirically presented the authoritarian military point of view when Captain Vere insists that those in uniform must obey without question: If our judgments approve the war, that is but coincidence.
For that law and the rigour of it, we are not responsible. Our vowed responsibility is in this: The individual must not support the structure of government, must act with principle, must break the law if necessary. Abolition can be achieved by withdrawing support from the government, which may be accomplished practically through the nonpayment of taxes. If imprisonment is the result, there is no shame in it — prison is the best place for a just man in an unjust society.
In the current state of affairs, payment of taxes is violent and bloody. Nonpayment constitutes a "peaceable revolution. He describes his experience in the Concord Jail in some detail, commenting upon the folly of the state's treatment of a man as if he were a physical entity only, rather than an intellectual and moral one. A man can be compelled only by one who possesses greater morality.
In Civil Disobedience as throughout his other writings, Thoreau focuses on the individual's ultimate responsibility to live deliberately and to extract meaning from his own life; overseeing the machinery of society is secondary. Thoreau asserts that he does not want to quarrel or to feel superior to others.
He wants to conform to the laws of the land, but current laws are not honorable from a higher point of view. Politics and politicians act as though the universe were ruled by expediency.
In the progression from absolute monarchy to limited monarchy to democracy, Thoreau observes an evolution in government toward greater expression of the consent of the governed. He notes that democracy may not be the final stage in the process.
Summary Thoreau's Civil Disobedience espouses the need to prioritize one's conscience over the dictates of laws. It criticizes American social institutions and policies, most prominently slavery and the Mexican-American War.
Civil Disobedience study guide contains a biography of Henry David Thoreau, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.
"Civil Disobedience" was included in the Riverside Edition of (in Miscellanies, the tenth volume), in the Walden and Manuscript Editions of (in Cape Cod and Miscellanies, the fourth volume), and in the Princeton Edition (in Reform Papers, the third volume) in The essay, now known as “Civil Disobedience,” was written to argue the moral necessity of resisting the institution of slavery, which the United States’ war against Mexico sought to extend. “Civil Disobedience” has become one of the ethical cornerstones of nonviolent resistance movements.
The essay Civil Disobedience or Resistance to Civil Government was a speech delivered by David Thoreau in response to a particular event-the Mexican War, which occurred in May This war was probably expected to result in the expansion of slave territory. Civil Disobedience Summary SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.