Civil Disobedience | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Civil Disobedience | Main Ideas


Citizen's Duty

Thoreau argues that each individual is responsible for creating the society they want to live in. "Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect," he advises in Section 1. Rather than wait for reformers or elected representatives to make changes, citizens should make changes themselves. All people who want an end to slavery, for instance, should "at once ... withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government." This disobedience is not only their right but their responsibility.

The essay explains how Thoreau believes a model citizen must act. Despite his desire to be a "bad subject," Thoreau believes he is doing what is best for the country. Most significantly, he reverses traditional notions of citizenship and patriotism. Those who disobey unjust laws, he thinks, are the real "patriots" who "serve the State with their consciences." By contrast, soldiers and legislators serve the State only with their bodies.

Law Versus Conscience

When law and conscience conflict, Thoreau believes no one should question which to choose. A society in which citizens are driven by their inner moral compasses will be a better place for everyone. Otherwise, he is not sure why individuals have consciences if not to guide them in difficult situations.

Laws can change according to the interests of the group in power, a group chosen because it is "physically the strongest." Laws value efficiency and convenience: "a consistent expediency." Legislators are neither perfect nor considerate of their constituents' best interests. For example, Daniel Webster defends slavery because it is permitted in the Constitution, not because it serves the needs of the people. And the American government itself is only "a tradition, though a recent one."

Thoreau is more interested in what he sees as universal, unchanging human needs, such as justice and freedom. He has faith that individual citizens can determine the right thing to do; they simply need the courage to do it.

State Abuse of Power

Thoreau's frequent references to "the State" are an example of metonymy, or the use of a word to represent a larger, closely associated concept. By "the State," Thoreau means the American government on a federal and state level and, more broadly, any ruling institution of government. He refers, for instance, to a possible "free and enlightened State" he has imagined. In the United States, however, the State still wields its power without justice or wisdom.

He offers several examples of State-sanctioned violence. Wars lead soldiers to their deaths, make men act against their own consciences, and cripple the invading nation. Enslaved people comprise one sixth of the American population, and the rest allow slavery to continue for the sake of "commerce and agriculture." Anyone who fights for justice is imprisoned and fined. The State is described as a "machine" that values "expediency" or efficiency above all.

But Thoreau does not place all the responsibility for immorality with the powerful. If citizens felt empowered to question authority, Thoreau thinks, the State would not practice or condone injustice. The government can abuse power only with the approval of the governed: "It can have no pure right over my person or property but what I concede to it." He challenges readers to think the same way.

The Ideal Government

According to Thoreau, an ideal governing body honors individual desires and needs, promotes justice above all, and respects dissenting voices. He quotes Confucius as saying, "Poverty and misery are subjects of shame" in a reasonable government: good leadership cares for its citizens.

Thoreau identifies ways for the current leadership to improve. Although he does not oppose the idea of government or democracy, he believes U.S. democracy is not working as intended. He wants the ruling powers held accountable to the individuals they rule. He questions the effectiveness of elected representatives who make decisions on behalf of the people. Through his interrogation of American political systems, Thoreau challenges readers to imagine a political system that actually represents the desires of its citizens. How would this ideal government make laws? How would it act toward other nations? How would it differ from the current government?

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