Civil Disobedience | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Civil Disobedience | Quotes


That government is best which governs least.

Section 1 (Why the Best Government Governs Least)

This statement establishes Henry David Thoreau's view that the real strength of government lies in the people it governs. Rulers who govern least (or, as he prefers, not at all) respect individual rights to disagree and dissent, and they trust their citizens to do what is right. This argument helps Thoreau explain his resistance to paying taxes for government operations he does not support because they are morally wrong.


Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?

Section 1 (Why the Best Government Governs Least)

Henry David Thoreau believes his only obligation is to his conscience, or inner sense of morality. "Majorities" can be swayed by many influences—money, convenience, manipulation, greed, or indifference—as Americans have seen in the persistence of slavery and the border dispute starting the Mexican War. Consciences, on the other hand, rely more on intuition; transcendentalists believed strongly in this power. Thoreau believes consciences are more trustworthy than laws or political guidance.


I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.

Section 1 (Why the Best Government Governs Least)

In much of his work Henry David Thoreau considers the question of how a person can live an authentic, honest life. In "Civil Disobedience" he defines a man as someone with a strong moral character and a clear sense of self. Thoreau uses the word subject to imply subjugation or obedience (for example, a person who is the subject of a ruling king). Anyone who considers himself a subject gives the government power it should not have.


The mass of men serve the State, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies.

Section 1 (Why the Best Government Governs Least)

By saying "the mass of men," Henry David Thoreau implies that most citizens (not only jailers, standing army members, and other groups he names) serve the government in one way or another. The word serve suggests a lack of freedom, and the word machines suggests a lack of control and consciousness. Without consciousness, men commit their bodies to unjust service of the State. Even men who don't consider themselves slaves—free men—serve the State and don't even know it. Thoreau asks readers to consider what freedom and slavery really mean.


I cannot ... recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also.

Section 1 (Why the Best Government Governs Least)

Henry David Thoreau refers to the institution of slavery, still legal in the United States. He does not merely disagree with the government's actions; he verbally renounces his citizenship. By referring specifically to "the slave," he invites readers to consider slavery in more than an abstract sense. Slaves are the fellow human beings of Thoreau and his contemporaries. Readers cannot turn away or ignore them.


Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it.

Section 1 (Why the Best Government Governs Least)

In a participatory democracy such as the United States, voting is considered a major civic responsibility. However, Henry David Thoreau's view on voting is different. He sees it as a passive action, especially dangerous because voters think their work "for the right" is finished once they have voted. He goes so far as to compare voting to gambling: voters may hope a law will pass or an elected representative will be honorable, but they don't really know what will happen. Most truly just actions, Thoreau believes, are unpopular and thus will not pass with a majority vote.


Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.

Section 2 (How to Achieve Abolition)

Henry David Thoreau advocates direct, attention-getting action; the statement is a direct invitation to readers. Thoreau is making a persuasive argument with certain actions he wants readers to take. Let your life—all your actions, not just some of them—show your beliefs. Continuing the metaphor of government as a machine, Thoreau sees civil disobedience as a "counter friction," or opposing force, pushing against the odds.


Any man more right than his neighbors, constitutes a majority of one already.

Section 2 (How to Achieve Abolition)

Henry David Thoreau criticizes average voters for waiting until a majority agrees with them before they take civil action. He knows that what he advocates—not paying taxes and not working for the government—is risky, unorthodox, and unpopular, and not many people will do it. He encourages any dissidents to consider themselves a "majority of one" or a member of the winning side. By suggesting dissidents are "more right" and the true majority, he indicts anyone who remains complicit.


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

Section 2 (How to Achieve Abolition)

This is one of the best-known statements in "Civil Disobedience." Henry David Thoreau both defends his decision to go to prison and warns dissidents of the extreme measures they'll need to take if they really want justice. He urges readers to take a more active role in holding the government accountable, because their own liberty depends on it. No "just man" is truly free until all of them are. In 1918 socialist and reform advocate Eugene V. Debs will echo this statement in his trial, saying, "While there is a soul in prison, I am not free."


Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.

Section 2 (How to Achieve Abolition)

Henry David Thoreau returns to his earlier discussion of voting, now telling readers how to make their votes count. Constituents have more influence than they realize. Thoreau imagines the impact on federal law if a thousand men stopped paying their taxes; it would be "a peaceable revolution." Even one true dissident would be a revolution.


Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue.

Section 2 (How to Achieve Abolition)

Henry David Thoreau's personal ethics require thrift. He owns only what he needs. He believes no citizens could accumulate wealth without somehow compromising their morals to get it. Anyone with a well-paying job is "sold to the institution." With wealth, he thinks, a man doesn't have to consider how to live or ask the hard questions that would make him a better person. By contrast, Thoreau associates virtue with poverty; men who work for justice do not favor owning a great deal of property.


I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.

Section 3 (How to Conform to Honorable Laws)

Henry David Thoreau speaks here in terms of opposition and direct conflict. As a "counter friction to stop the machine," he sees himself as under attack but unrelenting. He aligns the State with physical power and force, and himself with nature and the desire to live (breathing). He implies he'll prove himself to be stronger than the State, despite the odds seemingly stacked against him. This is a defiant assertion of individualism and a declaration; as long as the State is in power, Thoreau will continue to be a dissident.


If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.

Section 3 (How to Conform to Honorable Laws)

Henry David Thoreau doesn't expect government to reform overnight. He knows it will dole out punishment "according to its nature." Similarly, he will live according to his own nonconformist nature. He has emphasized at several points in the essay how obeying an unjust law would cause him more harm and danger (to his soul and spirit) than disobeying the law would. He chooses the metaphor of a dying plant to show readers he is discussing matters of life and death.


To be strictly just, [a government] must have the sanction and consent of the governed.

Section 3 (How to Conform to Honorable Laws)

Henry David Thoreau sums up his vision of an effective government in this sentence. Laws work only if people choose to obey them, and leaders rule only if people choose to respect them. Because many Americans did not provide "sanction and consent" for slavery, the Mexican War, or other government decisions, Thoreau thinks the rulers are unjust and do not have as much power as they think they do.


Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government?

Section 3 (How to Conform to Honorable Laws)

Henry David Thoreau has described the limitations and failures of representative democracy and has stated he would obey a better, more moral government. Now he is challenging American exceptionalism and the idea of expansion and "mission" that helped spur the Mexican War. Maybe American democracy is not the best government; maybe further steps need to be taken. He wants Americans to imagine true justice and freedom, instead of being content with and proud of what they have.

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