Civil Disobedience and Henry David Thoreau

Civil Disobedience is an essay written by Henry David Thoreau first published in 1866, in which Thoreau attempts to convince readers to oppose the Mexican-American War and the institution of slavery as a whole. First presented as a lecture in 1848, and shortly thereafter as an essay titled Resistance to Civil Government. It was not until sometime after Thoreaus death that the essay was published as Civil Disobedience and began to gain further prominence and popularity. In his essay, Thoreau attempts to explain his rationale for protesting against his own government by non-violent means. His essay has become a de facto manifesto for those seeing political change by means of peaceful protest. It is difficult for one to argue that Thoreaus heart wasnt in the right place while penning his essay. Living in a country that he so dearly loved, he was a firsthand witness to slavery, an evil institution that needed to be abolished, and a war between the United States and Mexico which was being fought only to establish new territory in which slavery could be expanded into. Well ahead of his time, both ethically and morally, he sought to protest these actions of his country which he deemed objectionable, and he would do so without bloodshed. Living in a country which, since its inception, used its fists, not only to gain power, but to intimidate and bully those that threated its status quo, Thoreau would attempt to convince those who were as driven as he was to peacefully rise-up.

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Civil Disobedience, gained its fair share of notoriety when it was published, and over the last century and a half has become the foundation upon which many civil rights leaders and activists build and pursue their cause. It has helped to shape landmark rulings from high courts, while also shaping the moral discourse that our country was facing. This essay serves to explain how such a seeming short essay, penned over 150 years ago, could have such a lasting impact. Comparisons to more modern day activists such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and their methods of peaceful protest will be discussed as well. Finally, the overall relevance in todays world, and whether or not Thoreaus work still measures up by todays standards. Throughout his essay, Thoreau is trying to prove one main point: Citizens in good conscience, should actively oppose the unjust policies of their government using non-violent methods. This includes refusal to pay taxes and other methods of non-cooperation. According to Thoreau, one must be willing to be imprisoned rather than to bow to the unethical and immoral government laws and practices.

One topic that is touched upon but never explicitly said, and actually serves as a larger basis for his rational, states that the rule of God, transcends the law of man. Moral and ethical convictions which are considered to be an innate characteristic in every man, can and should supersede any laws created by man himself. Slavery and war, which Thoreau writes about as specific influences, are both in direct objection to the divine rule listed above. The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) was a major inspiration for Thoreaus work. Having seen the United States essentially bombard Mexico and claiming their territory as their own, all in the name of what Thoreau saw as slavery expansion, something needed to be done. Seeing his country continuing to perpetuate these moral injustices could no longer go unchallenged. Thoreau understood that something needed to change, and that he also couldnt be the only one with those same feelings. He also knew that solving violence and aggression with more violence and aggression would only exacerbate the problem, and ultimately lead to no solution. With these things in mind, Thoreau sought to protest the actions and behaviors of his county. His primary method, was to stop paying taxes.

The theory was, that if he were to not pay taxes, that would be less money to fund the actions of the government in which he was protesting against. He understood that his monetary implications on the government as a whole were negligible, however the results would be seen in the message being sent. This seemingly small form of disobedience would not fail to be noticed, and Thoreau would eventually be imprisoned for his actions. Thoreaus non-violent form of protest and willingness to be imprisoned rather than support his countries degrading moral behavior served as the basis for two very important and crucial civil rights activists some 100 years later. Mohandas Gandhi was an Indian activist who led the non-violent Indian Independence Movement against British rule. Gandhi adopted and expanded the methods of non-violent protest that Thoreau outlined, including: hunger strikes, mass noncooperation, nonviolent direct action and other social, cultural, economic, and political forms to intervene.

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Civil Disobedience and Henry David Thoreau. (2019, May 13). Retrieved February 5, 2023 , from

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