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Civil Disobedience Essay Summary

Henry David Thoreau: "Civil Disobedience"

Thoreau had some serious problems with the way the United States was run. He was an outspoken opponent of slavery and bitterly opposed the Mexican-American War, which he viewed as an act of American aggression. In protest, Thoreau refused to pay his poll taxes. He spent a night in jail for this offense in 1848, and was released the next morning when a friend (against his wishes) paid the tax for him. The following year his essay on the topic, "Civil Disobedience," was published.

Thoreau was not an anarchist; he did not believe that there should be no government, only a more just one than currently existed. If the government would not improve itself, he argued, it was a just man's duty to refuse to support it. "It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong," Thoreau wrote, "but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support."12 Thoreau continued to oppose slavery, and unjust laws. He hid escaping slaves in his Concord home in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it a crime to help slaves fleeing from slavery.

"Civil Disobedience" has become a manifesto of non-violent protest, read and used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Not all of Thoreau's books had as lasting an impact. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was also published in 1849. It was so unsuccessful that Thoreau was forced to buy back more than 700 unsold copies, out of 1,000 the publisher had printed. I now have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes," Thoreau quipped in his journal, "over seven hundred of which I wrote myself."13

In his essay “Civil Disobedience," Henry David Thoreau opens by saying, “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’" ( ), and then clarifies that his true belief is “‘That government is best which governs not at all’" ( ). In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau evaluates the federal government critically, contending that it is an artificial institution created by the powerful while acknowledging that it is believed to serve a purpose and is likely to remain a feature of American life. Given these circumstances, in his essay on civil disobedience Thoreau encourages, in one of the important quotes from “Civil Disobedience” by Thoreau that, “every man make known what kind of government would command his respect [as] one step toward obtaining it" ( ). Civil disobedience is the strategy for articulating one’s beliefs. As this thesis statement for “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau suggests, the author defines the act of civil disobedience by explaining the thoughts and emotions that should guide it, and these include having a sense of rightness and moral conscience.

A number of social as well as historical conditions provoked Thoreau’s thought and resulting essay on the subject of civil disobedience. One of the factors that influenced Thoreau to consider civil disobedience as a method of resistance was the poor treatment of Mexico by the United States. In ”Civil Disobedience” Thoreau is also disturbed by the way that the United States fails to take care of vulnerable people and why it embraces Christian ideals of sacrifice but “excommunicates Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce[s] Washington and Franklin rebels" ( ). Still more alarming to Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau, however, was the institution of slavery in the South; Thoreau declared in one of the important quotes from “Civil Disobedience" “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also" ( ). In fact, the practice of slavery in the United States is the single most hypocritical aspect of the government as far as Thoreau is concerned. He remarks in one of these particularly succinct quotes from “Civil Disobedience”: “[W]hen a sixth of the population…has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves… I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize" ( ). Thoreau considers civil disobedience a moral and social duty of American citizens. He defines civil disobedience as an act of willful resistance, achieved by not obeying laws he considers to be hypocritical. One act of civil disobedience may be not paying taxes. Another act, and one he deems more important still, is to avoid colluding with the government by refusing to play an active role in it. It is important to point out, though, that civil disobedience is, as its name suggests, peaceful. It does not involve taking up arms or using any other methods of violence to achieve its ends. Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience is a seminal work in the American literary canon, and it is clear that his treatise on concentrated, thoughtful resistance has been influential in subsequent social and political movements which themselves have been recorded by writers. One of the movements that was marked by its insistence on civil disobedience is the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The man who was considered the leader of this movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated the kind of peaceful but assertive resistance defined by Thoreau as civil disobedience. Dr. King’s strategy for political change was to plan, facilitate, and implement as many acts of resistance as possible while avoiding violence at all costs. Even more than Thoreau, it seems, King wanted the actions of civil rights activists to provoke thought, critical evaluation of the government and of society at large, and a radical change in government’s and society’s processes and treatment of marginalized minorities. While Thoreau seems to have been more of an individualist in his essay “Civil Disobedience”, calling upon each citizen who felt so compelled to determine and implement his own act of resistance, which need not necessarily be coordinated with someone else, King mastered the power of civil disobedience by creating a critical mass of individuals to band together as a show of solidarity. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King