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.
Civil Disobedience Summary
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Civil Disobedience (1849), by Henry David Thoreau, is an essay in which Thoreau examined the responsibilities—especially the moral responsibilities—of the democratic citizen. In this essay, Thoreau relates his experience of being imprisoned for not paying tax. His decision to avoid tax was not because he missed the deadline or couldn’t afford it, but rather because he held a moral objection to the actions of the government, and considered it his civil responsibility to refuse his support. Since taxes are the main avenue through which citizens support their government, he refused to pay. Civil Disobedience looks at the circumstances that merit removal of such support.
Thoreau begins by challenging what the role of government really is. He believes that government that doesn’t govern is the best kind. He considers government to be a hurdle for society as well as the individual because its main concerns—trade and commerce, and politics—don’t help anyone, but instead get in the way of societal function and progress.
Though he decries government, he does not propose anarchy as an alternative. He stresses in his essay that he doesn’t want to get rid of government, but rather, to make it better. He wants a government that is most concerned with justice. From this claim, Thoreau must lay out his ideas on what justice is, and why it should be the government’s main focus.
For Thoreau, democracy—true democracy, not a democratic republic—means that the majority rules. The people voice their opinions, and that is how the government determines its actions and laws. True democracy is inefficient, which is why most governments that claim to be democratic are really democratic republics—that is, the people elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. 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 references, for example, the machine-like soldiers who carry out the government’s will without consideration for whether or not their actions are just.
The fuel lighting the fire in Thoreau’s essay is slavery, and his hope that it will be abolished. He takes some of the responsibility away from the slave owner and transfers it to those who don’t want slaves, but are too concerned with trade, commerce, and politics to fight for what they claim to know is an unjust practice. 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. Furthermore, he points out that while the state—the government—has the right to control his body by way of putting him in jail for failure to pay his taxes, it cannot control his mind. It cannot control his moral sense, which is to say, his sense of justice.
A government for the people, according to Thoreau, requires the consent of the people in order to utilize authority. He writes that not only do citizens have the right to withdraw and withhold that consent—by refusing to financially support the government—but they also have the responsibility to do so as active members of society. He stipulates that financial support in the form of tax should be refused until the government turns its focus first to justice—only then is the call to civil disobedience met.
Thoreau’s essay has influenced shifts in policy more than once. While he focuses on not paying taxes as a form of refusing to support the government, the term “civil disobedience” has since become associated with any form of non-violent protest. Such protests are given as a right to American citizens by the rights to freedom of assembly, association, and speech. These rights have been used numerous times to gain attention and change laws. The women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights movement are two such examples, but history is full of peaceful protesters using civil disobedience to show the government their disapproval. Since it was originally published in 1849, this essay has influenced such figures as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Martin Buber, Leo Tolstoy, John F. Kennedy, William O. Douglas, and others.