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Analysis of Henry David Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government”

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(“Civil Disobedience”)

            Henry David Thoreau may be generally considered as the most distinguished American proponent of civil disobedience. His 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience”, now known as “Resistance to Civil Government” is partly a response to the author’s arrest for failure to pay his poll tax in 1846. Thoreau had stopped paying his tax in 1842 to protest against slavery, but his protest was ignored for several years. He used this essay as a vehicle to publicize his ideas and his protest. “Civil Disobedience” was first presented as a lecture in two parts before the Concord Lyceum with the title of “The Relation of the Individual to the State” in January and February of 1848. It was first printed with the title “Resistance to Civil Government” in May the following year. After Thoreau’s death in 1862, the essay was included in his collected works under the title of “Civil Disobedience.”

            While the ideas in “Civil Disobedience” are not new and can be traced back to classical Greece, Thoreau states them in a compelling and persuasive way. This essay is perhaps the most widely known of Thoreau’s works, having a widespread international readership. Here, Thoreau stresses the specific circumstances of his own situation, relating it to contemporary political events, and using the narrative to explore the conflict between the individual conscience and the power of the state. Thoreau asks how the individual whose personal moral and ethical beliefs conflict with those of the state can have an impact on state policy. He attempted to answer this by outlining the elements of a theory of civil disobedience that was capable of crippling the machinery of government. Thoreau’s approach is nonviolent and passive.

            In the essay, Thoreau also presented much of his general theory of government. This very conservative position basically argues that government functions should be severely limited and that the government often interferes with individual liberty and potential achievement. Thoreau thus proposes a theory of minimal government. Thoreau’s political philosophy rested on one key principle, as famously declared in the essay:

The authority of government, even as such as I am willing to submit to … is still an impure one: to be strictly just it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person or property but what I concede to it.… There will never be a really 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 him accordingly. (89)

            Thoreau’s essay also probes questions of the individual’s relationship to other individuals, the individual’s relationship to humanity in general, and the individual’s relationship to institutions with the power to intimidate and control. Moreover, he also raises the issue of the individual’s relationship to war. Thoreau asks: Do citizens have the obligation to financially support wars with which they do not agree by paying taxes that may directly or indirectly support these wars? A similar issue surfaced during the Vietnam War when some people withheld all or part of their taxes to register their dissent from the war effort. Moreover, this essay even asks readers to consider the ethics of tax policy. For Thoreau, majority rule, courts of law and government would never compromise sacrosanct individuality. The quiet militancy of passive resistance mirrors a deep resoluteness. Furthermore, the author’s later more open activism hardly reflected a shift in his basic philosophy; the essential lesson of the essay – that government must protect the freedom of its citizens – was to be reiterated in later activist writings.

            Usually, it is assumed that those practicing civil disobedience are following Thoreau’s footsteps. However, his life and works suggest that what the author actually believed in was somewhat different from what is by and large understood by today’s “civil disobedience”. Actually, in spite of the common belief that the Thoreau used the expression “civil disobedience” to signify his resistance to the laws of a slave state, there is no concrete evidence that the author himself ever used the phrase. The term has consequently been used to explain such a wide variety of activities like resistance, strikes, riots, revolution, boycotts of commodities, underground resistance, refusal to obey superior orders, picketing, freedom rides, hunger strikes, sit-ins, marches, and simply non-comp1iance. The meaning of “civil disobedience” today has extended far beyond what Thoreau advocated.

            By making a strong statement about the necessity of civil disobedience, Thoreau created a document of enormous importance in American and world history. Gandhi used it as a text for his civil disobedience campaigns in Africa and India; and it was frequently cited by Martin Luther King, Jr., during the civil rights campaigns in the American South. Moreover, during the 1960’s and 1970’s, Thoreau’s essay was also used by the anti-Vietnam War movement as inspiration for its sit-ins and demonstrations. In 1989 it played a role in the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Peking with tragic results.

            Overall, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” is well organized and rhetorically effective. Aphorisms and paradoxes abound in the essay, and sententious phrasing is common. Thoreau’s arresting metaphors help carry the power of his argument; he compares the state to a huge machine complete with gears and levers, and he compares the civilly disobedient to impediments who bring this machine to a clumsy halt. Thoreau moves the readers from general principles to concrete representation of his philosophy in the graphic description of his night in jail that slows the essay’s rhythm and invites readers to quietly meditate on his themes. The author moves the readers from general to specific and then back to general principles again. Thoreau’s personal situation is both synecdoche and symbol for the more abstract conflict of individual conscience and state power.

Work Cited

Thoreau, Henry David. “Resistance to Civil Government”. Reform Papers. Ed. Wendell Glick. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.

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