Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”

  • How does Thoreau convince Americans that civil disobedience is worthwhile?
    • What are Thoreau’s views regarding the role constituents under a government that permits lawlessness?
    • How do his views differ from those of his contemporaries and predecessors?
    • Does his approach to civil disobedience address the pressing issues of inheritance during the 2nd generation of American political experience?
  • What are some potentially impractical or problematic implications of his philosophy?


During the second generation of the American political experience, thinkers such as Irving, Emerson, Tocqueville, Lincoln, and Douglass expressed their distinct concerns regarding serious constraints to the freedom championed in America’s founding documents. These constraints were permitted by American political practice despite foundational commitments to equality and to other ideals, and each thinker strived to adopt tools for combating the apathy and lawlessness that compromised American republicanism. The surviving generation grappled an urgent challenge during this critical era: how do Americans set the precedence for maintaining foundational constitutional commitments when ambiguously-defined constitutional ideals were honored in theory, but manifested in laws that permitted lawlessness?

Thoreau presents three possible responses to laws that promote lawlessness: citizens could “be content to obey them,” “try to change them but obey until they’re changed” or “disobey them at once.” Thoreau’s political agenda involving immediate disobedience is contingent upon his belief that the character inherent within the American people produces a good society, and that the government’s involvement in maintaining collective happiness must be understood with respect to the independence and moral correctness of its constituents.

Thoreau begins his seminal piece with the assertion: “I heartily accept the motto, — ‘That government is best which governs least.” Thoreau’s view of the role of government conflicts  Lincoln’s view as expressed in the Lyceum Address, in which Lincoln echoes the Winthropian ideology that government derives its protective ability from the allegiance of its constituents. Lincoln encourages citizens to patiently abide by government, despite its imperfections and provisions for immoral practices, to avoid uncontrollable internal dissension that endangers an union that he hopes is invincible, but worries is quite fragile. However, throughout “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau emphasizes the need for immediate action and separation from a government that violates man’s introspectively discoverable moral principles.

Perhaps a product of the democratic sentiment of mutual distrust among citizens and the government, Thoreau also establishes his perspective regarding the nature of man and thus man’s proper involvement in government. Although Thoreau is convinced of the potential for individuals to reason independently and reason well, he also mistrusts individuals because of their tendency to submit to the tyranny of the majority. This paradox results from Thoreau’s understanding that the democratic legacy has been passively adopted, and rarely questioned, from generation to generation. Submission to tyranny of the majority implicitly conflates the size of the majority with the correctness of its beliefs, and can cause citizens to adopt the attitude that their individual actions do not matter. Tocqueville feared the tyranny of the majority and Thoreau wholeheartedly shares that fear, viewing it as a concomitant of democratic legacy that naturally perpetuates helplessness and apathy towards injustice, and squashes the lively political involvement necessary for maintaining American republicanism. In addition, Thoreau deeply mistrusts the minority who control the government. He champions the individualism that Tocqueville fears, and discourages self-reliant individuals from resigning their precious principles to a representative instead of exercising them directly.

If Thoreau neither assents to the power of the majority nor trusts the minority, whom or what does he trust? The answer lies in what Thoreau credits when society functions properly. Instead of merely critiquing what government has done incorrectly, Thoreau goes as far as to remove credit from government even when it acts correctly, because it often intercepts the main driving force behind positive change — “the character inherent in the American people.” Contrary to those who believe in the necessity of citizens’ interdependence for ensuring collective freedom, Thoreau views individuals as inherently trustworthy. Thoreau’s belief in the ability for individuals to act according to their moral principles and his subsequent rejection of the necessity of government for upholding foundational ideals drive his view of the relationship between a government and its constituents.

After discussing the role of the individual citizen and how he should reject the majority, Thoreau discusses how the individual should regard a government that permits lawlessness. Thoreau believes that associating with it comes with unavoidable disgrace, and he references the exceptional revolutionary spirit to assert that the correct response to this injustice is civil disobedience. Despite Thoreau’s championship of subjectivity, he states that “all men recognize the right of revolution,” and that by not fighting the obvious injustices permitted by the current system of government, Americans collectively betray the very attitude that fueled their forefathers’ heroic construction of their country.

Thus, Thoreau calls for alacrity, for action: “it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize” for “at once a better government.” Thoreau then aggrandizes the imperative urgency of this duty by referring to God Himself. His allusion to the relevance of this call to the “interest of the whole society” seems paradoxical in light of his distrust in the majority, but further illustrates his belief that because every man is intelligent, and because no intelligent man can support slavery, political action against blatant injustices is a basic human cause that no one can invalidate. Although transcendentalist thinkers generally do not advocate for relying on others’ thoughts, Thoreau’s argument for an immediate upheaval, which parallels an argument for the exceptional revolutionary upheaval, further demonstrates the universality of the necessity to resist a ruling system that permits injustices. This widely-inclusive call to action also addresses the apathy rampant during the era of inheritance, when political fervor inevitably weakened after the passing of those who risked their lives in the name of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thoreau is confident that no one could be apathetic about injustices and refuse to act immediately after he assesses his own principles.

Thoreau then pinpoints the greatest threat to a reformed society:  the “nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man” who tolerate the status quo and passively rely on others to actively fight for justice. Thoreau is disgusted with the widespread appearance of commitment that masks the reality of lackadaisical indifference that idly waits for others to “remedy an evil.” In many ways, Thoreau’s standard for true political involvement goes beyond that of his contemporaries: mere banter and disruptive disobedience for the sake of reviving an exceptional revolutionary sentiment is necessary, but not sufficient. While Thoreau does not address the concern that spontaneous individual political action might threaten individuals’ interdependence for justice, he focuses on the necessity of political action to avoid leaving justice “to the mercy of chance,” or wishing it to “prevail through the power of the majority.” Furthermore, to directly speak to those who may not see themselves as one of the “patrons of virtue,” Thoreau defines participation and support very broadly, asserting that merely existing as a member of an unjust institution makes one complicit in injustices forwarded by the government. Although Thoreau does not address the potential instability of a community that subscribes to the self-centered view that one is a “man first and subject afterwards,” he states that those who simultaneously abide by their principles and accept the government betray their greatest asset and commit a crime against themselves. Thoreau’s call for citizens to dissolve themselves from the state again references God — that if God is on one’s side, one is already in the majority. Waiting for one’s opinion to be in the majority is not only too slow, but also irrelevant because God is already on the side that advocates for justice — the winning side. This rhetorical strategy encourages more citizens to seize the worthwhile risk of fighting injustice, while simultaneously empowering those who are already fighting.

How does Thoreau respond to one who wants to avoid violating his own inward perception, but remains afraid to resist authority because he wants to remain protected under the laws that privilege him? In his argument for civil disobedience, Thoreau also honestly presents the consequences for resisting laws while further promoting a philosophy that values self-excavation and self-reliance above all else. He states that because imprisonment is often unjust, a just man often finds himself in prison, and this statement frames imprisonment as something of which principled citizens should be proud. His philosophy also valiantly argues for citizens to shift their attention from the loss of physical comfort to the alternate consequence of “bloodshed when the conscience is wounded,” a wound by which a man’s “real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death.” By not actively defending justice, one betrays his greatest possession — independent reasoning and consciousness — which is worse than potentially suffering the physical bloodshed to uphold one’s conscience. Resisting external forces that encroach upon one’s noble pursuit of principle is only possible through firm self-reliance and removing as much dependance from government as possible, which can only provide physical comfort anyways.  

Thoreau’s thinking thus provides the source for a genuine, stable and constantly renewable spirit of inheritance that extends beyond the exceptional occasion of the revolution, because the source is found through a fiery introspection achievable by every American. Thoreau further establishes the insuppressible core of his revolutionary energy when he juxtaposes outer physical confinement, which is a possible consequence of civil disobedience, with one’s growing inner strength, which is a guaranteed benefit of civil disobedience. Systems of government and majority power can only overpower one physically, but each person can derive an insurmountable inner power, an inner power that empowers any citizen to act upon his or her intuition for principle to defend moral correctness.

A pressing second generation problem following the exceptional revolution is that citizens have little personal conviction to assent to a government that was passed down to them, when they have lived under no other system and have had no opportunity to personally define democracy. Thoreau’s understanding of civil disobedience addresses many concerns during this era because it justifies individuals in their resistance to majority rule, a predisposition that has settled into normalcy in American political thought and could have easily remain unquestioned. Deeply skeptical of government, Thoreau rejects the view that a person must marginalize his values out of loyalty to the government, especially one whose laws promote blatant lawlessness. The civil disobedience he poses encourages an active political participation that calls people to be guided by their conscience instead of obedience to an inherited and problematic governance structure. Beyond advocating for his understanding of civil disobedience, Thoreau also models an admirable spirit for preserving principle, a spirit that is derived from his view that the true key to sustaining inheritance is not a brilliant governance structure, but whatever allows people to capitalize on their greatest source of principle: their ability to act on their external observations and internal introspection. Thoreau’s inclusive call to action draws in all citizens; anyone can and should resist blind consent to the status quo and act on their own intuition to defend moral correctness, and government should be conducive for inciting critical thinking and political action to achieve these ends. However, individuals should not passively wait for governmental reform — they should immediately resist any lawlessness and seek every opportunity to act on their inherent desire for justice.

Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”

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