Civil Disobedience Summary
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Civil Disobedience (1849), by Henry David Thoreau, is an essay in which Thoreau examined the responsibilities—especially the moral responsibilities—of the democratic citizen. In this essay, Thoreau relates his experience of being imprisoned for not paying tax. His decision to avoid tax was not because he missed the deadline or couldn’t afford it, but rather because he held a moral objection to the actions of the government, and considered it his civil responsibility to refuse his support. Since taxes are the main avenue through which citizens support their government, he refused to pay. Civil Disobedience looks at the circumstances that merit removal of such support.
Thoreau begins by challenging what the role of government really is. He believes that government that doesn’t govern is the best kind. He considers government to be a hurdle for society as well as the individual because its main concerns—trade and commerce, and politics—don’t help anyone, but instead get in the way of societal function and progress.
Though he decries government, he does not propose anarchy as an alternative. He stresses in his essay that he doesn’t want to get rid of government, but rather, to make it better. He wants a government that is most concerned with justice. From this claim, Thoreau must lay out his ideas on what justice is, and why it should be the government’s main focus.
For Thoreau, democracy—true democracy, not a democratic republic—means that the majority rules. The people voice their opinions, and that is how the government determines its actions and laws. True democracy is inefficient, which is why most governments that claim to be democratic are really democratic republics—that is, the people elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. Still, many of those decisions are made by a majority of those representatives. Justice, according to Thoreau, does not and should not rely on the ruling majority. The reason for this, particularly in America, is that the American government leaves no room for conscience. He references, for example, the machine-like soldiers who carry out the government’s will without consideration for whether or not their actions are just.
The fuel lighting the fire in Thoreau’s essay is slavery, and his hope that it will be abolished. He takes some of the responsibility away from the slave owner and transfers it to those who don’t want slaves, but are too concerned with trade, commerce, and politics to fight for what they claim to know is an unjust practice. He points out that the American government is governing slaves and slavery, and that a man who prized justice above all things would not be content to allow such a practice to continue.
How can such a man, asks Thoreau, act on the behalf of justice? By withdrawing his financial support. He does this by refusing to pay his taxes. Thoreau believes in practicing what he preaches, and writes about how he himself refused to pay his taxes and for this civil disobedience spent a night in the town jail.
Of his stay in jail, he has nothing unpleasant to say. His cell and cellmate, he writes, were clean and friendly, respectively. Furthermore, he points out that while the state—the government—has the right to control his body by way of putting him in jail for failure to pay his taxes, it cannot control his mind. It cannot control his moral sense, which is to say, his sense of justice.
A government for the people, according to Thoreau, requires the consent of the people in order to utilize authority. He writes that not only do citizens have the right to withdraw and withhold that consent—by refusing to financially support the government—but they also have the responsibility to do so as active members of society. He stipulates that financial support in the form of tax should be refused until the government turns its focus first to justice—only then is the call to civil disobedience met.
Thoreau’s essay has influenced shifts in policy more than once. While he focuses on not paying taxes as a form of refusing to support the government, the term “civil disobedience” has since become associated with any form of non-violent protest. Such protests are given as a right to American citizens by the rights to freedom of assembly, association, and speech. These rights have been used numerous times to gain attention and change laws. The women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights movement are two such examples, but history is full of peaceful protesters using civil disobedience to show the government their disapproval. Since it was originally published in 1849, this essay has influenced such figures as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Martin Buber, Leo Tolstoy, John F. Kennedy, William O. Douglas, and others.
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