Civil Disobedience

Originally delivered as a lecture by Henry David Thoreau in 1849 to explain why he refused to pay his taxes, 'Resistance to Civil Government,' later known as 'Civil Disobedience' argues that we all have a moral obligation not to support a government with unjust laws. This is true even if withholding our support means breaking the law and risking punishment, such as imprisonment or loss of property. 

Civil Disobedience Civil Disobedience

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    Thoreau's protest was against slavery and unjustified war. While many people in the mid-nineteenth century shared Thoreau's disgust with slavery and war, his call to non-violent protest was ignored or misunderstood during his own lifetime. Later, in the 20th century, Thoreau's work would go on to inspire some of history's most significant protest leaders, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

    Background and Context for 'Civil Disobedience'

    In 1845, 29-year-old Henry David Thoreau decided to temporarily leave behind his life in the town of Concord, Massachusetts, and to live a solitary life in a cabin he would build for himself on the shores of nearby Walden Pond. Having graduated from Harvard nearly a decade earlier, Thoreau had experienced moderate success as a schoolmaster, a writer, an engineer in the Thoreau family-owned pencil factory, and a surveyor. Feeling a vague dissatisfaction with his life, he went to Walden "to live" in his own words, "deliberately, to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."2

    Thoreau is Jailed

    Thoreau was not completely isolated during this experiment. In addition to the friends, well-wishers, and curious passers-by who would visit (and occasionally spend the night) with Thoreau at Walden, he would also regularly make the trek back into Concord, where he would drop off a bag of laundry and eat dinner with his family. It was during one such trip in the summer of 1846 that Sam Staples, the local tax-collector, ran into Thoreau on the streets of Concord.

    Staples and Thoreau were friendly acquaintances, and when he approached Thoreau to remind him that he hadn't paid his taxes in over four years, there was no hint of a threat or anger. Recalling the event later in life, Staples claimed that he had "spoken to him [Thoreau] a good many times about his tax and he said he didn't believe in it and shouldn't pay."2

    Staples even offered to pay the tax for Thoreau, but Thoreau insistently refused, saying, "No, sir; don't you do it." The alternative, Staples reminded Thoreau, was jail. "I'll go now," responded Thoreau, and calmly followed Staples to be locked up.2

    Civil Disobedience, Blurry Image of a Prison Cell, StudySmarterA prison cell, Pixabay.

    The amount of the tax—$1.50 per year—was modest even when adjusted for inflation, and it was not the financial burden itself that Thoreau objected to. Thoreau and his family had long been active in the anti-slavery abolitionist movement, and their house was likely already a stop on the famous Underground Railroad by 1846 (though they remained highly secretive about the extent of their involvement in it).2

    Already deeply unhappy with a government that allowed slavery to continue existing, Thoreau's dissatisfaction only grew with the beginning of the Mexican War in 1846, just a few months prior to his arrest for refusal to pay taxes. Thoreau viewed this war, which was started by the President with approval from Congress, as an unjustifiable act of aggression.2 Between the Mexican War and Slavery, Thoreau wanted nothing to do with the U.S. government.

    The Underground Railroad was the name of a secret network of households that would help escaped slaves travel to free states or Canada.

    Thoreau would spend only one night in jail, after which an anonymous friend, whose identity is still unknown, paid the tax for him. Three years later, he would justify his refusal to pay taxes and explain his experience in a lecture, later published as an essay, called 'Resistance to Civil Government,' more commonly known today as 'Civil Disobedience.' The essay was not well-received in Thoreau's own lifetime, and was almost immediately forgotten.2 In the 20th century, however, leaders and activists would re-discover the work, finding in Thoreau a powerful tool to make their voices heard.

    Summary of Thoreau's 'Resistance to Civil Government' or 'Civil Disobedience'

    Thoreau begins the essay by quoting the maxim, made famous by Thomas Jefferson, that "That government is best which governs least."1 Thoreau adds his own twist here: under the right circumstances, and with sufficient preparation, the saying should be "That government is best which governs not at all."1 All governments, according to Thoreau, are just tools through which people exercise their will. Over time, they are liable to be "abused and perverted" by a small number of people, as Thoreau had witnessed during his lifetime in the Mexican War, which was started without approval from Congress by President James K. Polk.

    The positive accomplishments that people typically attributed to the government in Thoreau's time, which he thinks include keeping "the country free", settling "the West," and educating people, were in fact accomplished by "the character of the American people," and would have been done in any case, perhaps even better and more efficiently without government interference.1

    The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) was fought over territory that includes present-day California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico. As the United States expanded westwards, it originally tried to buy this land from Mexico. When that failed, President James K. Polk sent troops to the border and provoked an attack. Polk declared war without Congress' consent. Many suspected that he wanted to add the new territory as slave-holding states to secure the south's predominance in Congress.

    Thoreau acknowledges the impracticality of having no government at all, however, and thinks that we should instead focus on how to make a "better government," one that would "command [our] respect."1 The problem that Thoreau sees with contemporary government is that it is dominated by a "majority" who are "physically the strongest" rather than being "in the right" or concerned with what is "fairest to the minority."1

    The majority of citizens, insofar as they contribute to government at all, do so in the police force or the military. Here they are more like "machines" than humans, or on a level with "wood and earth and stones," using their physical bodies but not their moral and rational capacities.1

    Those who serve the state in a more intellectual role, such as "legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders," exercise their rationality but only rarely make "moral distinctions" in their work, never questioning whether what they do is for good or for evil. Only a small number of true "heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers" in history have ever dared to question the morality of the actions of the state.1

    The worry that a democracy could be hijacked by a majority who would show no interest in minority rights is known as the tyranny of the majority. It was a major concern of the authors of The Federalist Papers (1787), as well as later writers such as Thoreau.

    This brings Thoreau to the crux of the essay: how should anyone living in a country that claims to be "a refuge of liberty" but where "a sixth of the population...are slaves" respond to their government?1 His answer is that no one can be associated with such a government "without disgrace," and that everyone has a duty to try to "rebel and revolutionize."1 The duty is even more urgent than that felt during the American Revolution since it is not a foreign occupying force, but our own government on our own territory that is responsible for this injustice.

    Despite the fact that a revolution would cause a great amount of upheaval and inconvenience, Thoreau thinks that his Americans have a moral obligation to do it. He compares slavery with a situation where someone has "unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man" and must now decide whether to give the plank back, letting himself struggle and possibly drown, or watch the other man sink.1

    Thoreau thinks there is no question that the plank must be given back, as "he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it."1 In other words, while saved from physical death by drowning, this hypothetical person would suffer a moral and spiritual death that would transform them into someone unrecognizable. Such is the case with the United States, which will lose its "existence as a people" if it fails to take action to end slavery and unjust wars of aggression.1

    Civil Disobedience, Hands Reaching out from the sea, StudySmarterHands Reaching Out from the Sea, Pixabay

    Thoreau thinks that a number of selfish and materialistic motives have made his contemporaries too complacent and conformist. Foremost among these is a concern with business and profit which, ironically, has become more important to "the children of Washington and Franklin" than liberty and peace.1 The American political system, which relies entirely on voting and representation, also plays a part in nullifying individual moral choice.

    While voting may make us feel that we are making a change, Thoreau insists that "Even voting for the right thing is doing nothing for it."1 So long as the majority of people are on the wrong side (and Thoreau thinks that this is likely, if not necessarily, going to be the case) a vote is a meaningless gesture.

    A final contributing factor is the politicians in a representative democracy, who may well start off as "respectable" people with good intentions, but soon come under the influence of a small class of people who control political conventions. Politicians then come to represent not the interests of the entire country, but of a select elite to whom they owe their position.

    Thoreau doesn't think that any one individual has a duty to completely eradicate a political evil like slavery. We are all in this world "not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it," and we would need to devote literally all of our time and energy into fixing the world's wrongs.1 The mechanisms of democratic government are also too flawed and slow to make any real difference, at least within one human lifetime.

    Thoreau's solution, then is to simply withhold support from the government that supports injustice, to "Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn."1

    Since the average person (among whom Thoreau counts himself) only really interacts with and is recognized by the government once a year when they pay their taxes, Thoreau thinks this is the perfect opportunity to become a counter-friction to the machine by refusing to pay. If this results in imprisonment, so much the better, since "under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."1

    Not only is it morally necessary for us to accept our place as prisoners in a slave-holding society, if everyone who objected to slavery were to refuse to pay their taxes and accept a prison sentence, the lost revenue and overcrowded prisons would "clog the whole weight" of the government machinery, forcing them to act on slavery.

    Refusing to pay taxes deprives the state of the money that it needs to "shed blood," absolves you of any participation in the bloodshed, and forces the government to listen to your voice in a way that merely voting does not.

    For those who own property or other assets, refusing to pay taxes presents a greater risk since the government can simply confiscate it. When that wealth is needed in order to support a family, Thoreau concedes that "this is hard," making it impossible to live "honestly and at the same time comfortably."1

    He argues, however, that any wealth accumulated in an unjust state should be "a subject of shame" that we must be willing to surrender. If this means living modestly, and not owning a house or even having a secure source of food, then we must simply accept it as a consequence of the state's injustice.

    Reflecting on his own brief time in prison for refusing to pay six years of taxes, Thoreau notes how ineffective the government's strategy of imprisoning people really is:

    I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townspeople had paid my tax [...] the State never intentionally confronts a man's sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.1

    Thoreau notes that the government is unable to force people to change their minds regardless of the superiority of the physical force they can use. This is especially true when the government is enforcing a law that is fundamentally immoral and unjust, such as slavery. Ironically, the contrast between his bodily confinement and his moral and spiritual freedom caused Thoreau to find the experience of imprisonment liberating.

    Thoreau also notes that he has no problem with taxes that support infrastructure, like highways or education. His refusal to pay taxes is a more general refusal of "allegiance to the State" more than an objection to the specific use of any of his tax dollars.1 Thoreau also concedes that, from a certain perspective, the U.S. Constitution is in fact a very good legal document.

    Indeed, the people who dedicate their lives to interpreting and upholding it are intelligent, eloquent, and reasonable people. They fail, however, to see things from a larger perspective, that of a higher law, a moral and spiritual law that is above that legislated by any nation or society. Instead, most devote themselves to upholding whatever status quo they happen to find themselves in.

    Throughout his career, Thoreau was concerned with what he called a Higher Law. He first wrote about this in Walden (1854), where it meant a kind of spiritual purity. Later, he described it as a moral law that was above any kind of civil law. It is this higher law that tells us that things like slavery and war are in fact immoral, even if they are perfectly legal. Thoreau thought, in a manner similar to his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, that such a higher law could only be understood by engaging with the natural world.2

    Thoreau concludes by noting that democratic government, despite its flaws, gives more rights to the individual than absolute and limited monarchies do, and so represents genuine historical progress. He wonders, however, whether it may not still be further improved.

    For this to happen, the government must "recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all power and authority are derived, and [treat] him accordingly."1 This would involve not only, of course, an end to slavery, but also the option for people to live independently of government control as long as they "fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men."1

    A Definition of 'Civil Disobedience'

    The term "civil disobedience" was probably not coined by Henry David Thoreau, and the essay was only given this title after his death. Nonetheless, Thoreau's principled refusal to pay his taxes and willingness to go to jail soon came to be seen as the origin of a form of peaceful protest. By the 20th century, anyone who peacefully broke a law as a form of protest while fully accepting whatever punishment they would receive were said to be engaged in an act of civil disobedience.

    Civil disobedience is a form of peaceful protest. It involves knowingly breaking a law or laws that are seen as immoral or unjust, and fully accepting whatever consequences, such as fines, imprisonment, or bodily harm, that may come as a result.

    Examples of Civil Disobedience

    While Thoreau's essay was almost entirely ignored during his own lifetime, it has exercised an enormous influence on politics in the 20th century. In our own time, civil disobedience has come to be widely accepted as a legitimate way to protest perceived injustice.

    Thoreau's refusal to pay his taxes and the night he spent in the Concord jail may have been one of the first acts of civil disobedience, but the term is perhaps best known as the method that Mahatma Gandhi would use to protest British occupation of India in the early 20th century and as the favored strategy of many leaders of the American civil rights movement, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Civil Disobedience, Mahatma Gandhi, StudySmarterMahatma Gandhi, Pixabay

    Gandhi first encountered Thoreau's essay while working as a lawyer in South Africa. Having grown up in colonial India and studied law in England, Gandhi considered himself a British subject with all the rights that entailed. Arriving in South Africa, he was shocked by the discrimination he faced. Gandhi likely wrote several articles in the South African newspaper, Indian Opinion, either summarizing or directly referencing Thoreau's 'Resistance to Civil Government.'

    When the Asiatic Registration Act or "Black Act" of 1906 required all Indians in South Africa to register themselves in what looked very much like a criminal database, Gandhi took action in a manner heavily inspired by Thoreau. Through Indian Opinion, Gandhi organized large scale opposition to the Asiatic Registration Act, which eventually resulted in a public protest in which Indians burned their registration certificates.

    Gandhi was imprisoned for his involvement, and this marked a critical stage in his evolution from an unknown lawyer to the leader of a mass political movement. Gandhi would go on to develop his own principle of nonviolent resistance, Satyagraha, inspired by but distinct from Thoreau's ideas. He would lead peaceful mass protests, most famously the Salt March in 1930, that would have an enormous impact on Britain's decision to grant India independence in 1946.3

    A generation later, Martin Luther King, Jr. would also find inspiration in Thoreau's work. Fighting for desegregation and equal rights for America's black citizens, he first made use of the idea of civil disobedience on a large scale during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Famously begun by Rosa Parks' refusal to sit at the back of the bus, the boycott called national attention to Alabama's legally encoded racial segregation.

    King was arrested and, unlike Thoreau, served a great deal of jail time under harsh conditions over the course of his career. At another, later non-violent protest against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, King would be arrested and imprisoned. While serving his time, King wrote his now-famous essay, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," outlining his theory of peaceful non-resistance.

    King's thinking is heavily indebted to Thoreau, sharing his ideas about the danger of majority rule in democratic governments and the necessity to protest injustice by peacefully breaking unjust laws and accepting the punishment for doing so.4

    Civil Disobedience Martin Luther King Jr StudySmarterMartin Luther King, Jr., Pixabay

    Thoreau's idea of civil disobedience continues to be a standard form of nonviolent political protest today. While it is not always practiced perfectly - it is difficult to coordinate large numbers of people, especially in the absence of a leader withthe stature of Gandhi or King - it is the basis of most protests, strikes, conscientious objections, sit-ins, and occupations.Examples from recent history include the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Fridays for Future climate change protests.

    Quotes from 'Civil Disobedience'

    The Government

    I heartily accept the motto, 'That government is best which governs least'; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,—'That government is best which governs not at all.'"

    Thoreau thinks that government is just a means to an end, namely living peacefully in a society. If the government grows too big or starts playing too many roles, it will likely be subject to abuse, and treated as an end in itself by careerist politicians or people who benefit from corruption. Thoreau thinks that, in a perfect world, there would be no permanent government at all.

    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."

    Thoreau thought that democracy was a genuinely good form of government, far better than monarchy. He also thought there was a lot of room for improvement. Not only did slavery and war need to end, but Thoreau also thought that the perfect form of government would give individuals complete freedom (as long as they didn't do harm to anyone else).

    Justice and the Law

    Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.

    When the government enforces a law that imprisons anyone unjustly, it is our moral duty to break that law. If we also go to prison as a result, then this is just further proof of the law's injustice.

    ...if [a law] requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, 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 believed in something that he called a "higher law." This is a moral law, which may not always coincide with civil law. When civil law asks us to break the higher law (as it did in the case of slavery in Thoreau's lifetime), we must refuse to do it.

    They only can force me who obey a higher law than I.

    Nonviolent resistance

    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 shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible."

    This is perhaps as close as Thoreau comes to offering a definition of what we would today recognize as civil disobedience. Withholding support from the state not only allows us as citizens to not support what we see as an immoral law, but if practiced by a large group can actually force the state to change its laws.

    Civil Disobedience - Key takeaways

    • Originally called "Resistance to Civil Government," "Civil Disobedience" was an 1849 lecture by Henry David Thoreau justifying his refusal to pay taxes. Thoreau disagreed with the existence of slavery and with the Mexican-American War, and argued that we all have a moral obligation not to support the actions of an unjust state.
    • Democracy does not allow minorities to effectively protest injustice through voting, so another method is needed.
    • Thoreau suggests that refusing to pay taxes is the best form of protest available in a democratic state.
    • Thoreau also thinks that we need to accept the consequences of our actions, even if this includes imprisonment or confiscated property.
    • Thoreau's idea of civil disobedience has been enormously influential in the 20th century.


    1. Baym, N. (General Editor). The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B 1820-1865. Norton, 2007.

    2. Dassow-Walls, L. Henry David Thoreau: A Life, 2017

    3. Hendrick, G. "The Influence of Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience' on Gandhi's Satyagraha." The New England Quarterly, 1956

    4. Powell, B. "Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the American Tradition of Protest." OAH Magazine of History, 1995.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Civil Disobedience

    What is civil disobedience?

    Civil disobedience is the nonviolent breaking of an unjust or immoral law, and the acceptance of the consequences of breaking that law.

    When was 'Civil Disobedience' published?

    Civil Disobedience was first published in 1849. 

    What is Thoreau's main point in 'Civil Disobedience'?

    Thoreau's main point in 'Civil Disobedience' is that if we support an unjust government, we are also guilty of injustice. We have to withhold our support, even if that means breaking a law and being punished. 

    What types of civil disobedience are there?

    Civil disobedience is a general term for the refusal to follow an unjust law. There are as many types of civil disobedience, such as blockades, boycotts, walk-outs, sit-ins, and not paying taxes.

    Who wrote the essay 'Civil Disobedience'?

    'Civil Disobedience' was written by Henry David Thoreau, although its title was originally 'Resistance to Civil Government.' 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What was Thoreau protesting when he refused to pay his taxes?

    How long did Thoreau spend in jail?

    Who paid Thoreau's tax for him? 


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