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Civil Disobedience by Henry Thoreau

Background of Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, 1817. Thoreau was an American poet, practical philosopher, transcendentalist, and the pioneer of civil disobedience. Thoreau lived in Concord together with his four siblings in a middle-class setup where his father operated a local pencil factory. At the same time, his mother rented part of the family house. He enrolled at Harvard college in 1833, where he studied Greek, Latin, and German (Walls, 2017). He graduated in 1837 and returned to Concord to teach grammar but resigned shortly afterward. During this period, he met fellow American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson and was exposed to the transcendentalist movement. The transcendentalist movement advocated for the discovery of truth and that social reforms originated with individuals.

For the next few years, Thoreau lived a secluded life at Walden Pond on Emerson’s property, meditating and writing about nature. In 1846, the United States declared war against Mexico.  For six years, Thoreau had stopped paying poll taxes in protest against slavery. The local tax collector had ignored his defiance but decided to act when Thoreau publicly condemned the invasion and occupation into Mexico (Walls, 2017). In July 1846, Thoreau was arrested for his tax delinquency. However, he was released the next day after an anonymous relative paid his tax arrears. Thoreau was a strong supporter of the abolitionist movement serving as a speaker and conductor on the underground railroad, which was used to ferry slaves from the South into the north. In the 1850s, he contracted tuberculosis and became incapacitated and died on May 6, 1862, aged 44 years. Civil disobedience was published in 1849 under the title Resistance to Civil Government. Thoreau wrote his famous essay after spending a night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax. He rejected the poll tax policy as it helped support the Mexican -American war (1846- 1848) ignited by the annexation of Texas and the enforcement of proslavery laws, which he vehemently opposed.

Civil Disobedience

Thoreau starts his writing in support of the motto, ‘government is best which governs least,’ indicating his displeasure with the government. Thoreau introduces civil disobedience, which is an act of refusing to obey the law peacefully. He does not propose eliminating the government but creating a better functioning system (Delmas, 2016). He discusses the importance of individual freedom free from government control. Thoreau believed people are not obligated to follow an unjust law just because they are the minority. He was an ardent supporter of people living according to their consciences instead of following a herd symptom impacted by majority rule based on physical strength rather than justice. Thoreau likens voting to gambling as the majority rules regardless of one’s vote. Thoreau argues that government rarely proves itself useful. It derives its power from the majority because they are the strongest group, not because they hold the most legitimate viewpoint.

Thoreau believed that if citizens speak out to the government amicably, they will most likely obtain what they want. Thoreau’s hate for government stems from his opinion that the government controls people’s lives. Thoreau declared it was a moral and practical duty of a citizen to rebel against government wrongs. He was skeptical of government and its institutions. He believed it was the duty of individuals to take upon themselves to resist policies and practices that countered the government’s opinion of good intentions. According to Thoreau, it takes just one person to make a difference.


The choice to respect the law lies with individuals, where some citizens respect the law while others oppose it, especially when the laws do not favor them. Thoreau states that the obedient remain slaves to the oppressive authorities. Thoreau advocated for civil resistance for the sake of protection of the less powerful in society (Delmas, 2016). Thoreau explains the need to prioritize one’s conscience over the dictates of laws. Rather than wait for elective representatives to make changes, citizens should make changes themselves. He considered those who disobeyed unjust laws to be patriots.

Thoreau believes that citizens’ most critical function is to do what they believe is right, not follow the law of the majority. Citizens are not obligated to eliminate evils from the world but are obligated not to participate in the evils. This includes not being part of an unjust government such as the U.S., supporting slavery, and aggressive war tactics. He presents his model for dealing with an unjust government where he refuses to pay taxes. Thoreau explains this model is preferable to petitioning for government reforms as one cannot fight the government while working within its realms.

Civil Rights Movements

Historically many activists have been associated with civil disobedience in the fight against injustice and oppression of the ordinary people. The activists lobby people to resist oppressive authority, thus growing the aspect of civil disobedience. Thoreau’s teachings influenced two prominent 19th-century civil rights activists; India’s Mahatma Gandhi and the Unites State’s Martin Luther King. Jr. While performing civil disobedience, they all shared a mutual tactic of non-violence.

Mahatma Gandhi led the national freedom struggle against British rule. Gandhi’s non-violent civil rights movements were often referred to as Satyagraha, meaning devotion to truth. The British government’s failure to declare India an independent state after world war 1 triggered Gandhi to unleash Satyagraha on a mass scale. The struggle was divided into three parts; the non-cooperation movement, civil disobedience movement, and quit India movement. During the non-cooperation movement, Gandhi asked Indians to boycott foreign goods, educational institutions and withdraw from state offices by letting go of their nominated seats in government (Centeno, 2017). The movement aimed to disrupt the government’s everyday activities, weaken the British claim to authority and awaken Indians’ concept of an independent state.

The civil disobedience movement was against the salt tax, the government’s monopoly on the production and sale of salt, military expenditure, and levy duty on foreign cloth. Gandhi took part in the Dandi march as a protest against the salt tax, where he was arrested along with thousands of his supporters. The Quit India movement, launched in 1942, was aimed at influencing negotiations between the British government and Indian leaders. The movement led to increased pressure by Indians through the cry of Purna Swaraj, ultimately securing independence in 1947.

Martin Luther used the writings and actions of Mahatma Gandhi to shape his thoughts and strategies on non-violent resistance. Luther’s leadership as head of the Southern Christen Leadership Conference helped end the legal segregation of African Americans and all other American citizens in the South and other parts of the United States. His role as a civil rights activist started with the Montgomery boycott organization against the transit system. The boycott was a direct consequence of the arrest of Rosa Parks, an African American woman who had refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger, a violation of the city’s segregation law. His activism hoped that America and the world would become a colorblind society where the race would not impact a person’s civil rights.

Martin Luther advocated for equality in legal and constitutional rights by adopting non-violence tactics, peaceful protests, and civil disobedience. The movement organized private carpools to compete with the buses while other black residents walked, ignoring the commuter buses. The boycott ended in1956 after the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in buses was unconstitutional. In 1957, King decided to replicate the model across the southern parts to dismantle the Jim Crow system, which introduced racial segregation in law and practice. This led to hundreds of African Americans being involved in economic boycotts, sit-ins in segregated places, kneel-ins, and peaceful marches (Centeno, 2017). King was arrested multiple times while leading the marches, further expanding his political influence among the black community. King encouraged students to skip school and participate in sit-ins and marches in Birmingham and Albany. The non-violent protests’ culmination was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, and the 24th Amendment, which banned poll taxes.

For, Against, or Hybrid

Many people view the impact of civil disobedience from different perspectives. Some believe that the law should be followed at all times, while others believe it is a citizen’s civic duty to fight back against unjust guidelines. In my opinion, civil disobedience should be employed against an institution when an unconstitutional law is directly and imminently harmful to a person or group. Civil disobedience is founded on rational reasoning to pressure the government to change punitive laws rather than passively waiting for change (Velasco, 2016). However, civil disobedience disrupts societal harmony in fighting for justice, thus viewed as a major ill. Thus, civil disobedience should be used as a last resort in solving issues like the overuse of the tactic is detrimental to the economy and people. The most prominent successful civil disobedience includes; Mahatma Gandhi’s salt march, Martin Luther King Jr march for jobs and freedom, and the Baltic states’ singing revolution. The singing revolution involved large groups of Estonian citizens, Latvia and Lithuania, singing songs about their heritage, which led to their independence. Civil disobedience also leads to deaths such as the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa and the Tiananmen Square protest in China.
















Centeno, B. (2017). Civic Engagement, Disobedience, and Lasting Democracy: Thoreau, Gandhi, and MLK. Assemblages, 97.

Delmas, C. (2016). Civil disobedience. Philosophy Compass, 11(11), 681-691.

Velasco, J. C. (2016). Revitalizing democracy through civil disobedience. Filosofia Unisinos, 17(2), 11-120.

Walls, L. D. (2017). Henry David Thoreau: A Life. University of Chicago Press.


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