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Thoreau and “Civil Disobedience”

Thoreau and “Civil Disobedience”


Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862). (Wikimedia Commons)

Henry David Thoreau, the son of a Concord pencil-maker, graduated from Harvard in 1837. He worked a short while as a schoolmaster, but then began writing poetry. He soon joined a religious, philosophical, and literary movement called Transcendentalism. The leader of the movement was Ralph Waldo Emerson, a writer and lecturer.

At first, Thoreau agreed with Emerson’s teaching that social reform begins with the individual. In 1845, he built a hut at Walden Pond on property owned by Emerson. For the next few years, Thoreau lived simply off the land, meditated, and wrote about nature.

In 1846, the United States declared war against Mexico. Thoreau and other Northern critics of the war viewed it as a plot by Southerners to expand slavery into the Southwest. Thoreau had already stopped paying his taxes in protest against slavery. The local tax collector had ignored his tax evasion, but decided to act when Thoreau publicly condemned the U.S. invasion and occupation of Mexico.

In July 1846, the sheriff arrested and jailed Thoreau for his tax delinquency. Someone, probably a relative, anonymously paid Thoreau’s taxes after he had spent one night in jail. This incident prompted Thoreau to write his famous essay, “Civil Disobedience” (originally published in 1849 as “Resistance to Civil Government”).

Thoreau’s minor act of defiance caused him to conclude that it was not enough to be simply against slavery and the war. A person of conscience had to act. In “Civil Disobedience,” he proclaimed an activist manifesto:

In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation, which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty, are slaves, and a whole country [Mexico] is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.

Thoreau argued that the government must end its unjust actions to earn the right to collect taxes from its citizens. As long as the government commits unjust actions, he continued, conscientious individuals must choose whether to pay their taxes or to refuse to pay them and defy the government.

Thoreau declared that if the government required people to participate in injustice by obeying “unjust laws,” then people should “break the laws” even if they ended up in prison. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” he asserted, “the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

By not paying his taxes, Thoreau explained, he was refusing his allegiance to the government. “In fact,” he wrote, “I quietly declare war with the State....”

Unlike some later advocates of civil disobedience like Martin Luther King, Thoreau did not rule out using violence against an unjust government. In 1859, Thoreau defended John Brown’s bloody attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, during his failed attempt to spark a slave revolt.

For Further Reading

The Thoreau Reader The annotated works of Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau, Henry D. The Portable Thoreau. New York: Penguin Books. 1964.

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