Civil Disobedience | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Civil Disobedience | Summary



Section 1 (Why the Best Government Governs Least)

Thoreau begins with the conviction that a limited government is the best government. He thinks government only gets in the way of people's efforts to create a free society. The solution, he says, is a "better government" in which conscience rules instead of law.

Most men serve the State as "machines" and associate themselves with a disgraceful government that allows slavery. Although everyone "recognize[s] the right of revolution," they mistakenly think revolution is no longer necessary. He argues for immediate reform in Massachusetts, where "merchants and farmers" are too busy making a living to consider the devastating effects of slavery and the Mexican War.

Section 2 (How to Achieve Abolition)

People may have good intentions, but they don't act "in earnest and with effect"; voting is not enough. Most voters select the best candidate available, passively accepting injustice and immorality, even if they are not engaged in immoral acts themselves.

Rather than wait for unjust laws to be changed, Thoreau believes individuals should disobey those laws immediately. Abolitionists, for instance, should stop paying taxes to slave-supporting Massachusetts. An individual shouldn't wait for others to join him, but should be a "majority of one" in doing the right thing. The penalty will be imprisonment or a hefty fine, but if even one man goes to prison for his abolitionist beliefs, slavery might actually end. If more people choose punishment over following unjust laws, the laws are more likely to change.

Thoreau acknowledges that the State will harass those who challenge its authority, especially if they (like him) don't have much money. But he thinks his liberty is worth more. To illustrate his point, he has refused to pay taxes to support a preacher whose church he doesn't attend.

Section 3 (How to Conform to Honorable Laws)

Thoreau hasn't paid his poll tax for six years and, as a result, spent one night in jail—where he felt free, not confined—and pitied his jailers for not understanding him. He describes his night there as a learning experience, which felt like a journey to a new town. When he was released, he saw the town he lived in more clearly. He explains he doesn't mind paying taxes for services such as highways and schools; he just wants to "refuse allegiance to the State." Although he regrets inconveniencing his neighbors by not paying his tax, he has no "wish to quarrel" and still wants to live by his principles.

Any government, he reasons, is going to be imperfect. Even the best politicians and reformers have limitations. Truly wise legislators are rare. Even a democracy, which seems to be the best form of government yet, isn't a perfect "free and enlightened State" because it lacks respect for the individual.

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