Henry David Thoreau Civil Disobedience Other Essays Summary

In his essay “Civil Disobedience," Henry David Thoreau opens by saying, “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’" ( ), and then clarifies that his true belief is “‘That government is best which governs not at all’" ( ). In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau evaluates the federal government critically, contending that it is an artificial institution created by the powerful while acknowledging that it is believed to serve a purpose and is likely to remain a feature of American life. Given these circumstances, in his essay on civil disobedience Thoreau encourages, in one of the important quotes from “Civil Disobedience” by Thoreau that, “every man make known what kind of government would command his respect [as] one step toward obtaining it" ( ). Civil disobedience is the strategy for articulating one’s beliefs. As this thesis statement for “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau suggests, the author defines the act of civil disobedience by explaining the thoughts and emotions that should guide it, and these include having a sense of rightness and moral conscience.

A number of social as well as historical conditions provoked Thoreau’s thought and resulting essay on the subject of civil disobedience. One of the factors that influenced Thoreau to consider civil disobedience as a method of resistance was the poor treatment of Mexico by the United States. In ”Civil Disobedience” Thoreau is also disturbed by the way that the United States fails to take care of vulnerable people and why it embraces Christian ideals of sacrifice but “excommunicates Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce[s] Washington and Franklin rebels" ( ). Still more alarming to Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau, however, was the institution of slavery in the South; Thoreau declared in one of the important quotes from “Civil Disobedience" “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also" ( ). In fact, the practice of slavery in the United States is the single most hypocritical aspect of the government as far as Thoreau is concerned. He remarks in one of these particularly succinct quotes from “Civil Disobedience”: “[W]hen a sixth of the population…has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves… I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize" ( ). Thoreau considers civil disobedience a moral and social duty of American citizens. He defines civil disobedience as an act of willful resistance, achieved by not obeying laws he considers to be hypocritical. One act of civil disobedience may be not paying taxes. Another act, and one he deems more important still, is to avoid colluding with the government by refusing to play an active role in it. It is important to point out, though, that civil disobedience is, as its name suggests, peaceful. It does not involve taking up arms or using any other methods of violence to achieve its ends. Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience is a seminal work in the American literary canon, and it is clear that his treatise on concentrated, thoughtful resistance has been influential in subsequent social and political movements which themselves have been recorded by writers. One of the movements that was marked by its insistence on civil disobedience is the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The man who was considered the leader of this movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated the kind of peaceful but assertive resistance defined by Thoreau as civil disobedience. Dr. King’s strategy for political change was to plan, facilitate, and implement as many acts of resistance as possible while avoiding violence at all costs. Even more than Thoreau, it seems, King wanted the actions of civil rights activists to provoke thought, critical evaluation of the government and of society at large, and a radical change in government’s and society’s processes and treatment of marginalized minorities. While Thoreau seems to have been more of an individualist in his essay “Civil Disobedience”, calling upon each citizen who felt so compelled to determine and implement his own act of resistance, which need not necessarily be coordinated with someone else, King mastered the power of civil disobedience by creating a critical mass of individuals to band together as a show of solidarity. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King addresses those individuals who criticize him for such a strategy, and what makes this letter so effective and powerful is that his audience, the people he is trying to convince, are eight ministers who criticized Martin Luther Kingfor bringing his movement to Alabama.

Section I: Government and Democracy

Summary

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.

Analysis

The opening paragraph expresses Thoreau's seemingly libertarian political sentiments‹the 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 idealism‹a utopic vision that cannot be realistically achieved‹as 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 distinction‹central to Thoreau's thought‹between 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.

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