“I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.”
“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison.”
On July 23, 1846, during a sojourn to the isolated Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau walked into Concord, Massachusetts, to get his shoe fixed. He ran into the local law-enforcement official, Sam Staples, who was in charge of collecting taxes. Thoreau owed six years of outstanding poll taxes, which he had chosen not to pay as a way of protesting the fact that slavery remained legal in part of the United States. When Thoreau again refused to pay the tax, restating his opposition to slavery and saying that he was also disgusted by the Mexican-American War, Staples placed him under arrest and put him in jail.
Thoreau was bailed out the following day, against his will, possibly by his aunt. However, the experience left a mark on the author. For the next several years, he delivered spoken addresses about the natural propensity of governments to act in unethical ways, the need for individuals to be vigilant critics of government actions, and, most importantly, the argument that righteous people should not participate in any way in the workings of unrighteous governments. These ideas were published in 1849 under the title “Resistance to Civil Government.” In 1866, after Thoreau’s death, “Resistance to Civil Government” was republished with a new title, “Civil Disobedience,” by which it is better known today.
Although Henry David Thoreau was clearly a man of great inspiration, acting from a strong sense of iconoclastic creativity, he was also a product of his times. Events on an international, national, and regional scale helped to shape his personal character and the content of his work. Understanding these forces is the key to making sense of Thoreau as a person and an author and appreciating what “Resistance to Civil Government” meant to him.
The Industrial Revolution, which began in the middle of the eighteenth century, had dramatically transformed American and European society by the mid-nineteenth century, when Thoreau did the bulk of his writing. It shifted the base of the economy from agricultural to manufacturing activities and led to a large-scale movement of people from rural to urban settings. While most people of his day had a purely positive view of the Industrial Revolution’s impact, Thoreau was more critical in his reactions to it. He was concerned that people were growing out of touch with the power of nature and the ways of life associated with traditional agrarian rural communities, which he considered to be healthier and more authentic than those that came from living in large cities.
He shared these atypical beliefs with another important writer in the region, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82). Beginning around 1836, Emerson gained fame as a touring lecturer in the northeastern United States. He expounded on a loosely congruous set of topics, including the divine character of nature, the importance of individual creativity, and the superiority of rural life to urban life. This general philosophy came to be known as transcendentalism. As a young man, freshly graduated from Harvard and working as a schoolteacher, Thoreau became close friends with Emerson, and he lived with Emerson’s family on and off through much of his adult life. Thoreau’s inclusion in the circle of philosophers, essayists, and poets who published the transcendentalist journal the Dial must be considered one of the great influences on his writing career.
At the same time, Thoreau was more frankly political than many other transcendentalists, and he was always known to be concerned about the key issues of his day. He developed the ideas expressed in “Resistance to Civil Government” after being briefly jailed in 1846 for refusing six years of outstanding poll tax. He claimed he did so as a protest against slavery and the Mexican-American War.
The northeastern states banned slavery in the decades after the Revolutionary War, but it remained a thriving and lucrative institution in the South until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Thoreau’s was among an increasing number of Northern voices calling for a federal ban on slavery, and in his later life, he supported controversial antislavery activists such as John Brown, who led slaves in a violent rebellion against proslavery white Southerners.
Thoreau was staunchly against the Mexican-American War, which lasted from 1846 to 1848, from its outset. The war was fundamentally a dispute over where the borders of the two countries should be drawn, especially in Texas. It was opposed by many Americans, particularly in the North. Abolitionists considered the American incursion into Mexico to be a ploy by Southern proslavery activists to expand the area of legalized slavery in the United States. Many others simply felt it was an unnecessary act of aggression, and costly in terms of American lives and resources.
Henry David Thoreau was born as David Henry Thoreau on July 12, 1817. His parents, John Thoreau and Cynthia Dunbar, were of modest financial means, as his father worked as a pencil manufacturer. However, the Thoreau family enjoyed a good reputation for hard work and honesty in their Concord, Massachusetts, community.
Thoreau was a keen student in his early years, and he drew attention to himself for his wit and intellect at Concord Academy. After secondary school, he began his studies at Harvard College, which he attended from 1833 to1837. After graduating from Harvard, he became a schoolteacher at a public school in Concord. He soon found that he did not agree with administering corporal punishment to misbehaving students as directed by his superiors and resigned from his post in protest. In the following years, he worked alongside his brother John in an alternative private school in Concord. His brother died of tetanus after cutting himself shaving, and this tragedy deeply impacted Thoreau.
During this time, Henry David Thoreau, as he was now calling himself, became acquainted with several members of the locally flourishing transcendentalist movement, including the patriarch of the philosophy, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson became convinced of the younger man’s literary talent and encouraged him to write essays for the transcendentalist journal the Dial. Starting with an initial essay in 1840, Thoreau soon became a favorite contributor to the periodical. Thoreau grew very close to Emerson and lived with his family from 1841 to1843, both in Massachusetts and at Emerson’s brother’s home on Staten Island, New York. Thoreau became a tutor and caretaker for Emerson’s children, as well as a sort of groundskeeper for the Emerson estates.
In 1843, Thoreau returned to his hometown of Concord and took over the family pencil-manufacturing business, which he ran on and off for the rest of his life. However, he continued to take sojourns to pursue his writing and lecturing interests. The most famous of these took place from 1845 to 1847, when he moved to a small cabin on the edge of Walden Pond and built a cabin on land owned by Emerson. This experience, which Thoreau considered a great experiment in simple living away from society, resulted in the celebrated Walden, eventually published in 1854.
During his stay at Walden Pond, Thoreau had an altercation with the law when a tax collector demanded that he pay six years of delinquent poll taxes. Thoreau refused, saying that he was opposed to slavery and the Mexican-American War, and was thrown in jail for the night of July 23, 1846. Although he was freed when his aunt paid the taxes without his knowledge, the arrest shaped Thoreau’s political opinions, which he expressed in a series of lectures and papers. These thoughts were ultimately published as the essay “Resistance to Civil Government” in 1849.
Thoreau moved back to Concord in the autumn of 1847. He first lived at the Emerson’s home but had two subsequent homes of his own in town. For the decade of the 1850s, Thoreau ran his family’s pencil-manufacturing business. He occasionally traveled throughout the northeastern United States and Canada to give popular lectures and pursue his passionate interest in the natural history of the region.
Henry David Thoreau died on May 6, 1862, finally succumbing to complications from tuberculosis, which he had contracted decades earlier in college. He is remembered as one of the leading voices in early American literature. As a poet, essayist, and social activist, he gave voice to a philosophical radicalism developing in the New England region in the middle of the nineteenth century. Like his close friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau used his prowess as a writer and speaker to challenge the status quo of New England society and encourage new ways of understanding what it meant to be American.
The first line of “Resistance to Civil Disobedience” is clearly its most famous. Specifically, the quoted phrase, “That government is best which governs least,” is remembered as most forcefully communicating the point of the essay. The origin of this quote is unclear, however. It is commonly considered to be a phrase coined by Thomas Jefferson, but this has not been documented by historians. It may be the case that the phrase was attributed without evidence to Jefferson in Thoreau’s day, just as it is now, and Thoreau believed that he was in fact quoting the author of the Declaration of Independence, even if he was incorrect in this belief.
Whatever the authenticity of this alleged Jefferson quote, Thoreau is clearly using it as a response to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. In an 1844 essay entitled “Politics,” Emerson stated, “The less government we have the better.” Although Thoreau was a more outspoken political activist, the theme of mistrust of government was a staple of transcendentalist philosophy, since government control was antithetical to individual freedom.
In the next several passages, Thoreau states the point even more forcefully, saying, “That government is best which governs not at all.” Although he writes the phrase as though as though he is quoting an outside source again, this line is clearly of his own invention. He goes on to explain his position, saying that the whole point of government is that it is supposed to make life easier for its citizens, but in reality it makes life more difficult.
Next, he relates that there is a controversy about governments having standing armies. Many Americans of his day were opposed to such a military institution, preferring that a suitable military be formed to meet challenges as they occurred and disbanded when these challenges passed. Thoreau argues that it is equally unnecessary to have a standing government that continues to exist even in times when it is not required by the people of the nation.
Thoreau couches his main objection to a standing government in the observation that it can be “abused and perverted” by people with special interests. He gives the example of the Mexican-American War, which was largely unpopular, especially in the North. Many abolitionists considered it to be driven by the Southern slaveholding lobby, which sought to create a larger Southern zone in which slavery was legal and thereby increase their power on a national level. According to Thoreau, the Mexican-American War would not have occurred except that “a few individuals using the standing government as their tool” forced it on the American people.
He continues by saying that the American government, a relatively new institution, is changing in character, shifting from merely reflecting the will of the people to imposing its own will on the people. Thoreau passionately exclaims that it is not government that keeps people free, pushes the western frontier, and educates the citizens. These achievements, he argues, must be acknowledged as the achievements of the American people themselves.
He next takes a more economic approach to furthering his argument against government. According to Thoreau, the American government has recently imposed so many complicated regulations on trade that it is a wonder that commerce has continued at all. The author contends that if they were to be judged on the actual impact of their actions rather than their good intentions, the men who drafted the laws concerning trade would be found to be criminally obstructive.
In the following section of the essay, Thoreau significantly tempers the tone of his argument. He steps back from his radically anarchistic position, saying that he knows it is not actually possible for the nation to exist without any government at all. As a responsible citizen, then, what he is truly calling for is for his fellow Americans to demand a better government than the one that is currently developing.
Notably, he is against the idea of a government acting based solely on the will of the majority of its citizens. Such a system, he explains, will not automatically result in a government that makes the right decisions. Such a government will often commit injustices against the minorities within the nation. The only way to prevent a government ruled by majority opinion from becoming a destructive force is for all of the citizens who shape the actions of the government to always listen to their consciences when making decisions that impact their fellow Americans. Law alone, Thoreau, states, will not make people act better toward one another; that can only come from people individually acting according to a well-developed sense of morality.
Thoreau points out that one result of too much blind adherence to the law is unthinking militarism. When men do what they think is expected of them by their government, rather than what they know to be right, they become part of a dehumanizing military machine. Even though the men assembled in a military procession are alive, they may as well be ready to be buried with military ceremony. Thoreau caps off his point by quoting a famous dirge by the poet Charles Wolfe (1791–1823) entitled “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corruna,” which is about the British fighting the French in Spain in 1809. Men who serve out of a sense of duty to the state, whether in the army and navy or as constables or jailers, are of no more actual value, according to Thoreau, than dogs or horses.
Other people serve with their minds rather than with their bodies. Instead of serving in a military capacity, these people act as lawyers and politicians. They are just as likely, in Thoreau’s view, to unintentionally do evil, even if they perceive themselves as doing good for the country.
Only rarely do people who truly deserve respect participate in the functioning of the state. Indeed, people who are honest and true to their own sense of morality will soon find that they have a difficult time remaining in office, since many within the government will have disdain for them and consider them enemies of the state. However, these are the true “heroes, patriots,” and “martyrs.” Thoreau again uses a literary allusion to underscore his point, this time quoting Shakespeare’s play King John, in which the king’s son Lewis proclaims, “I am too high born to be propertied, / To be a secondary at control, / Or useful serving-man and instrument, / To any sovereign state throughout the world.”
Thoreau then rhetorically asks how a righteous person should interact with the government. He responds by saying that a decent person should not participate at all in the government, since it is also the government that allows the institution of slavery to continue. Although Americans recognized the right to rebel against the British government during the Revolutionary War, many of Thoreau’s readers would not have thought revolution appropriate at this juncture. Thoreau argues that it is worth contemplating revolutionary change because the current government keeps a sixth of its population enslaved and acts like an occupying army toward the rest of its citizens.
In the section of the essay that follows, Thoreau directly responds to the ideas of an English Enlightenment philosopher named William Paley (1743–1805). In several essays that appeared in his 1785 tome Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, Paley put forth the argument that it is God’s will that a government be obeyed as long as it is acting in the interest of the overall society. As a utilitarian philosopher, Paley believed that the benefits of a government should be measured by how it benefits the majority of its citizens. Thoreau takes issue with this mode of judging actions, saying that even if the acts of a government are good for the majority of people, they can still be morally wrong if they negatively impact some of the people in the governed society. The examples he gives of this, not surprisingly, are slavery and the Mexican-American War.
The reality is, Thoreau states, that the reason that slavery continues and the Mexican-American War is being fought is not only because the Southern slaveholders are protecting their interests but also because the far larger number of Northern merchants simply do not want to hobble their own incomes by disrupting farming or trade by pressing for emancipation. Even though the majority of people might be against slavery or the war in theoretical terms, they are unwilling to risk their own temporary well-being by taking principled stands against the immoral institutions of slavery and aggressive wars. In Thoreau’s view, there are simply far too few real patriots willing to act to make America a true land of freedom.
Thoreau cautions against putting too much faith in the ballot. He compares voting to a kind of gambling or gaming, with voters placing bets on the side they think will win. Although it has some elements of moral judgment, is it a weak substitute, in Thoreau’s view, for people actually voicing their opinions about the issues of the day. He even goes so far as to say that voting is actually doing nothing.
Thoreau clarifies that he does not intend this essay to mean that it is the responsibility of every good person to singlehandedly take on all the moral wrongs of the day. Instead, what he means is that decent people must find a way to avoid participating in the immoral acts, directly or indirectly. As he says, he knows many people who would not serve if ordered to fight in Mexico or put down a slave rebellion, yet still willingly pay their taxes, thus sending people in their place to commit these immoral acts. Instead of seeking to dissolve the government, Thoreau advocates that people of conscience dissolve the connections between themselves and an immoral government.
It is not enough, Thoreau continues, for people merely to have opinions on political matters; they must act. He states as fact that there are unjust laws, then asks his audience to think about the best way to proceed in such a context. Should a person follow unfair laws, speak out against them but continue to obey them, or simply break them? For Thoreau, the last option is clearly the right choice.
Not participating in the operation of an unjust government seems to Thoreau to be the strategy that most confounds those within it. This is evidenced, in his opinion, by the state’s eagerness to indefinitely jail even a very poor man if he does not pay his taxes to the government. Meanwhile, the government barely does anything to those people who siphon off government funds for private gain, allowing them to remain free.
In a metaphor that he repeats throughout the essay, Thoreau compares the government to a machine. He says that injustice may indeed be the friction of the machine. If that is the case, he advises, it is best to simply disengage from it. There is a chance that the machine itself may “wear smooth,” and it will definitely “wear out” in time. In fact, it may be best to work to stop the machine if the injustice is too great to tolerate.
Thoreau asserts that it is not up to an individual to do everything to improve the world. However, it is necessary for decent people to do something to work for a better future. He is dismissive of the possibility that there are ways of working within the government to make this happen, stating that the entire basis of the government is flawed.
He next suggests a specific course of action for abolitionists living in the state of Massachusetts, saying that if they wish to end the institution of slavery in the United States, they should effectively cut off their involvement with the government on all levels, starting with the state government. Thoreau writes that the only way that he ever encounters the state government is in the person of the tax collector, so it is against this person that he must struggle for freedom from a corrupt government. Even though it might seem like a very small act of conscience, Thoreau proposes that all true revolutions start in this way, with a single determined individual acting in a morally upright manner.
Thoreau next puts forth his famous argument that the only true place for an honest man living in a society ruled by an unjust government is in prison. He explains that incarceration is the main tactic that the state knows to use to combat those who are against it, and anyone who honestly opposes the immoral actions of the state should be willing to be arrested. He asserts that being locked up as a prisoner of conscience is a way to clog up the prison system and convince those people charged with administering the functions of the state that they should quit their positions.
Thoreau envisions this as a nonviolent revolutionary tactic. However, he is quick to point out that he is not altogether opposed to the use of violence in reforming the government. He argues that it is a kind of violence to make people live contrary to their consciences, and this kind of metaphorical bloodshed is already taking place.
After acknowledging that the state sometimes chooses to take away property instead of incarcerating individuals who do not pay tax, Thoreau segues into a brief but powerful discussion of wealth in general. Overall, he believes, wealth is a corrupting force. As he puts it, “the more money, the less virtue,” meaning that people of economic means often forget the importance of living according to their principles as they accumulate wealth by working within a corrupt state.
Thoreau devotes a significant portion of the essay to recounting his own experience with not paying taxes. He first mentions that he refused to pay a tax that was being collected on behalf of the church. Although the tax man threatened him with jail if he did not pay, Thoreau wrote a letter to the town clerk stating that he did not wish to be known as a member of the church and that he would not pay any taxes to it.
The next incident Thoreau describes is his far more famous run-in with the law over his refusal to pay poll taxes for six years. He says that during the night he spent in jail, he did not feel constrained and in fact considered himself to be freer than the people on the outside. He recounts how he talked at length with his cellmate, learning all he could about the people who had previously dwelt within the cell, and was surprised to learn what a rich history the modest jail cell had. He describes it as a lot like traveling a foreign country, with unusual things to see and experience.
When he was released the next day because someone “interfered” and paid his tax, he writes, he felt himself to be a changed man. His resolve to resist the state was strengthened rather than weakened, and he no longer felt he could tolerate the company of his neighbors who professed to be against slavery and the Mexican-American War but were not willing to do anything about it. He recounts how he found solace from his ill feelings toward his fellow townspeople by going off into the countryside and picking berries.
Thoreau concludes “Resistance to Civil Government” by discussing the actual role that government can play in effecting meaningful change. He says that the American government, though it bears significant flaws, such as a constitution that allows slavery, is not a particularly bad one. However, he argues, it is not possible to rely on government alone to make a better world. Although the citizens of the United States should insist on improvements to their government, politicians are too limited in their understanding of what matters in life to bring about true reforms. Ultimately, Thoreau asserts, meaningful change comes from the creative force of individuals. Someday government may progress to the point that it respects the individual as the basis of its power, but such a state has yet to exist.
Thoreau wrote “Resistance to Civil Government” with two specific, related grievances in mind: the continuation of the slave trade in the United States and the Mexican-American War. However, the impact of this work transcended his lifetime and the particular issues of his day. Later activists drew upon the main concepts he laid out in this groundbreaking work to further their own movements. As such, it is possible to consider Thoreau as an important pioneer in the field of social activism.
The key lesson of “Resistance to Civil Government” is that people of conscience should not simply work within the existing political system to change legislation but should instead disengage from an immoral government altogether. Thoreau envisioned government as a kind of machine and insisted that it is important for socially conscious people to refuse to be part of the machine if it is causing harm to society. By completely withdrawing their support from the machine, by not giving it their labor or taxes, morally astute individuals can help break down the corrupt machine.
Of course, Thoreau acknowledged that governments do not approve of people who refuse to participate in their smooth functioning. They will invariably react by punishing such activists, usually by placing them under arrest. As he learned from his own experience of being briefly incarcerated for refusing to pay poll tax, being put in prison is not necessarily such a terrible fate, and a person of strong convictions should take pride in being jailed by an immoral government, since this is the most honorable place for an honest person living in a corrupt state.
Although Thoreau did not entirely reject the possibility of supporting a violent revolution, his essay laid out a sort of template for nonviolent social protest that was used by some of the best-known social activists of the twentieth century. For instance, Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), who was the most influential leader of the movement to free India from British rule, was an avid reader of Thoreau’s work. Gandhi first gained experience in the social-justice field through his civil rights work in South Africa. He described Thoreau as an important teacher in this period of his life, stating that “Resistance to Civil Government” affirmed the work he was doing to end racial oppression by the white South African government.
Another prominent figure in the history of nonviolent social change who greatly admired Thoreau was Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68). America’s best-known civil rights activist, King worked in the 1960s to improve conditions for African Americans. Like Gandhi, King was explicit about the important role that Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” played in helping to shape his own philosophy and celebrated quest for social justice. King’s struggle, Gandhi’s, and the struggles of so many other activists who have been touched by “Resistance to Civil Government” and used the tactic of nonparticipation in corrupt governments stand as evidence of Henry David Thoreau’s lasting legacy of innovative political philosophy.
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