Henry David Thoreau on When Civil Disobedience and Resistance Are Justified (1849)

His­to­ry is rife with exam­ples of oppres­sive gov­ern­ments. The present is rife with exam­ples of oppres­sive gov­ern­ments. You can name your own exam­ples. The ques­tion that presents itself to any oppo­si­tion is what is to be done? Go under­ground? Sab­o­tage? Take up arms? The like­li­hood of suc­cess in such cases—depending on the bel­liger­ence of the oppo­si­tion and the capa­bil­i­ties of the government—varies wide­ly. But I see no moral rea­son to con­demn peo­ple for fight­ing injus­tice, pro­vid­ed their cause itself is just. Nei­ther, of course, did Hen­ry David Thore­au, author of the 1849 essay “Civ­il Dis­obe­di­ence,” a doc­u­ment that every stu­dent of Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy 101 knows as an ur-text of mod­ern demo­c­ra­t­ic protest move­ments.

This is an essay we have become all-too famil­iar with by rep­u­ta­tion rather than by read­ing. Thoreau’s polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy is not pas­sive, as in the phrase “pas­sive resis­tance.” It is not mid­dle-of-the-road cen­trism dis­guised as rad­i­cal­ism. It lies instead at the water­ing hole where right lib­er­tar­i­an­ism and left anar­chism meet to have a drink. “I hearti­ly accept the mot­to, ‘That gov­ern­ment is best which gov­erns least,’” wrote Thore­au, and ulti­mate­ly “’That gov­ern­ment is best which gov­erns not at all.’”

Like many utopi­an the­o­rists of the 19th cen­tu­ry, Thore­au saw this as the inevitable future: “when men are pre­pared for it, that will be the kind of gov­ern­ment they will have.” Thore­au laments all restric­tions on trade and reg­u­la­tions on com­merce. He also denounces the use of a stand­ing army by “a com­par­a­tive­ly… few indi­vid­u­als.” And yet—despite these rad­i­cal positions—Thoreau has been enshrined in the his­to­ry of polit­i­cal thought both for his rad­i­cal tac­tics and his defense of pre­serv­ing gov­ern­ment, for the present.

“To speak prac­ti­cal­ly and as a cit­i­zen,” he wrote, “unlike those who call them­selves no-gov­ern­ment men, I ask for, not at once no gov­ern­ment, but at once a bet­ter gov­ern­ment.” He does not go to great lengths, as clas­si­cal philoso­phers were wont, to define the ide­al gov­ern­ment. It is rad­i­cal­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic, that we know. But as to what con­sti­tutes injus­tice, Thore­au is clear:

When the fric­tion comes to have its machine, and oppres­sion and rob­bery are orga­nized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer. 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 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. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the coun­try so over­run is not our own, but ours is the invad­ing army.

This peo­ple must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mex­i­co, though it cost them their exis­tence as a peo­ple.

The fig­ure he cites of “a sixth of the pop­u­la­tion” is not erro­neous. As W.E.B. Du Bois showed in one of his rev­o­lu­tion­ary 1900 soci­o­log­i­cal visu­al­iza­tions, dur­ing the time of Thoreau’s essay, one-sixth of the country’s pop­u­la­tion was indeed com­prised of peo­ple of African descent, most of them enslaved. Thore­au wrote dur­ing debates over the imped­ing Fugi­tive Slave Act, a law that put every per­son of col­or in the expand­ing country—free or escaped, in every state and territory—at risk of enslave­ment or impris­on­ment with­out any due process.

Thore­au found both this devel­op­ing night­mare and the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can war too intol­er­a­bly unjust for the coun­try to bear. And he rec­og­nized the lim­i­ta­tions of elec­tions to resolve them: “All vot­ing is a sort of gam­ing… with a slight moral tinge to it,” he wrote, then observed with dev­as­tat­ing irony, giv­en total dis­en­fran­chise­ment of peo­ple who were prop­er­ty, that “Only his vote can has­ten the abo­li­tion of slav­ery who asserts his own free­dom by his vote.”

“Unjust laws exist,” writes Thore­au, “I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-fric­tion to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I con­demn.” Thore­au had put his dic­ta into prac­tice already many years before. He had stopped pay­ing his poll tax in 1842 to protest the war and the expan­sion of slav­ery. He was final­ly arrest­ed and jailed for the offense in 1846. The inci­dent hard­ly sparked a move­ment. He was bailed out, per­haps by his aunt, the fol­low­ing day. And as we well know, the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can war and the cri­sis of slav­ery were both resolved with… war.

But Thore­au used his expe­ri­ence as the basis for “Civ­il Dis­obe­di­ence,” which he wrote to a local audi­ence in his home state of Mass­a­chu­setts, and which went on to direct­ly inspire the mas­sive­ly suc­cess­ful, nation­al grass­roots move­ments of Gand­hi, Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. and oth­er non-vio­lent Human Rights and Anti-War lead­ers around the world. So what did he rec­om­mend dis­senters do? Here are the basics of his pre­scrip­tions, with his words in quotes:

“I do not hes­i­tate to say, that those who call them­selves Abo­li­tion­ists should at once effec­tu­al­ly with­draw their sup­port, both in per­son and prop­er­ty, from the gov­ern­ment of Mass­a­chu­setts.” Thore­au then goes on to describe his par­tic­u­lar form of resis­tance, the non-pay­ment of tax. His the­sis here, how­ev­er, allows for any just refusals to rec­og­nize gov­ern­ment author­i­ty.

“Under a gov­ern­ment which impris­ons any unjust­ly, the true place for a just man is also in prison.” Thore­au him­self suf­fered lit­tle, it’s true, but mil­lions who came after him—dissidents on all con­ti­nents save Antarctica—have endured impris­on­ment, beat­ing, and death. “Sup­pose blood should flow,” writes Thore­au, “Is there not a sort of blood shed when the con­science is wound­ed?” As for the just­ness of dis­obe­di­ence, Thore­au makes a very log­i­cal case: “If a thou­sand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a vio­lent and bloody mea­sure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to com­mit vio­lence and shed inno­cent blood.”  

Thore­au goes on to intro­duce a good deal of nuance into the argu­ment, writ­ing that com­mu­ni­ty tax­es sup­port­ing high­ways and schools are eth­i­cal, but those sup­port­ing unjust war and enslave­ment are not. He rec­om­mends dis­cern­ing, thought­ful action. And he expect­ed that the poor would under­take most of the resis­tance, because the bur­dens fell heav­i­est on them, and “because they who assert the purest right, and con­se­quent­ly are the most dan­ger­ous to a cor­rupt State, com­mon­ly have not spent much time in accu­mu­lat­ing prop­er­ty.” This has gen­er­al­ly, through­out his­to­ry, been true.

The best thing a per­son of means can do, he writes, is “to endeav­or to car­ry out those schemes which he enter­tained when he was poor.” Or, pre­sum­ably, if one has nev­er been so, to fol­low the poors’ lead. The para­dox of Thoreau’s asser­tion that the least pow­er­ful present the great­est threat to the State resolves in his recog­ni­tion that the State’s pow­er rests not in its appeal to “sense, intel­lec­tu­al or moral” but in its “supe­ri­or phys­i­cal strength.” By sim­ply refus­ing to yield to threats, anyone—even ordi­nary, pow­er­less people—can deny the government’s author­i­ty, “until the State comes to rec­og­nize the indi­vid­ual as a high­er and inde­pen­dent pow­er, from which all its own pow­er and author­i­ty are derived.”

Read Thoreau’s com­plete essay, “Civ­il Dis­obe­di­ence,” here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

6 Polit­i­cal The­o­rists Intro­duced in Ani­mat­ed “School of Life” Videos: Marx, Smith, Rawls & More

Hear 21 Hours of Lec­tures & Talks by Howard Zinn, Author of the Best­selling A People’s His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States

‘Tired of Giv­ing In’: The Arrest Report, Mug Shot and Fin­ger­prints of Rosa Parks (Decem­ber 1, 1955)

Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. Writes a List of 16 Sug­ges­tions for African-Amer­i­cans Rid­ing New­ly-Inte­grat­ed Bus­es (1956)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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