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Civil Disobedience

Shannon Kristine Croft

2005 Dec 05

Henry David Thoreau was an American author, environmentalist and abolitionist. He resisted paying taxes to a government that would support slavery and fight in the Mexican war which he felt was a way to get more land for slave owners. After spending one night in jail in1849, Thoreau wrote a document now known as “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”. In it he stresses the importance of men using their conscience to decided what is right rather than following unjust laws. He felt that this was the only way to peacefully bring about changes. He begins his essay with motto, “That government is best which governs least” explaining that government is the only way that people have to execute their will, however the government system is easily abused. The Mexican war was the decision of just a few individuals, if it had been left up to the people, he felt they would not have agreed. The people are the ones who have achieved the accomplishments in the country, not the government, if anything, government slowed the people’s progress. Thoreau states he is not asking for “No Government”, but rather a better government.

When it comes to voting, the majority decision is the strongest, but not necessarily the right decision. He calls for a government where conscience decides right and wrong, stating there is no need to respect a law if people feel the law is wrong. Thoreau goes on to say that many men are easily misled into thinking what they are doing is good, giving an example of a soldier who is against the war but fights anyway. Thoreau compares this soldier to a machine or a “wooden man”. He reminds that all men have the right to resist the government if they feel that their laws are unjust, but that voting is not enough, there must be some action.

Thoreau talks about his opposition to slavery stating that thousands of people are opposed to slavery and the war but do nothing to stop it. In fact these people are actually showing support indirectly, by paying taxes. Those who are truly against slavery should withdraw support of the government of his state of Massachusetts. Thoreau felt that if even one person were to do this and face going to jail for his beliefs, then others would follow and soon the state would have no choice but to end slavery. This, he said was the only peaceful revolution.

Most men prefer to obey unjust laws while trying to change them because they fear punishment will be worse than the law. Thoreau disagrees, stating that it costs less to pay the penalty than the tax. He refused to pay poll tax for 6 years, a total of 9 shillings. For this he was jailed for one night. Thoreau describes feeling free in jail, and he felt as if he alone were the one who paid tax. During the night in jail he realized that the state was showing its superior strength by punishing his body, not changing his mind. It was that night he says that he lost all respect for the state.

Thoreau compares his night in jail to a trip to a foreign country. He felt that he had a close view of his town for the first time. In the morning Thoreau was upset that someone paid his tax. Upon leaving the jail he saw even more distinctly the state were he lived and the people who lived there. He used some harsh words to describe his neighbors, stating he understood that they were different from him with their prejudices and superstitions. Many of them simply ignorant and unaware of the unjustness of laws.

Thoreau concludes that he is not against all taxes but that people need to be more aware of the laws. In his final thoughts he says, “There will never be a 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 individuals accordingly.”

Thoreau took a stand for what he felt was right even though it seemed he was alone in his position. For the most part, I agree with Thoreau. It is not easy to stand for your beliefs alone. Thoreau’s writings were not popular when he was alive; very few people at that time understood the importance of his words. Over the years his work has become well known and has even been the inspiration for leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to lead peaceful movements. Henry David Thoreau encouraged people to live simply and listen to their inner voice. He once said, “Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.”


Reef, Catherine. Henry David Thoreau. Maryland: Twenty-First Century Books, 1992.

Wikisource. 01 Nov. 2005. "Thoreau, Henry". 28 Nov. 2005

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© 2005 Shannon Kristine Croft
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