Literature Study GuidesCivil DisobedienceSection 2 How To Achieve Abolition Summary

Civil Disobedience | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Civil Disobedience | Section 2 (How to Achieve Abolition) | Summary



Obstacles to slavery reform, Henry David Thoreau contends, are not only the powerful slaveholders in the South but the businessmen in Massachusetts, more interested in earning a living than in preserving their humanity. Thoreau's real "quarrel" is with these New England neighbors. Although most people think social progress is slow because the majority is "unprepared," Thoreau believes progress is slow because people don't act on their principles. Claiming they are opposed to slavery and the war, many people "sit down with their hands in their pockets," feel powerless, and do little as they wait for others to bring about change. Thinking and acting this way removes their feelings of guilt.

Even voting is ineffective because it's a gamble, "playing with right and wrong." A voter may cast his ballot for a cause he thinks is right, but he isn't "vitally concerned"; he continues to do nothing but hope the odds will swing in his favor. Men who support a popular cause are not much better. By the time a majority votes to abolish slavery, Thoreau thinks, the vote won't be an act of courage; rather, slavery will be on its way out anyway, or voters will be indifferent. Citing the example of an upcoming Baltimore convention, Thoreau believes politicians won't stick to principle but will choose and serve the available presidential candidate. Thoreau laments the lack of courage he sees in most Americans. Because the population has grown, the average American is no longer a brave settler but an "Odd Fellow," talkative but not very bright or independent, concerned only with living in comfort and making charitable gestures for show.

Thoreau does not think an individual needs to "devote himself" to righting wrongs; most likely he has other things to do. But at least he can stop supporting causes he does not believe in, and not achieve a good life by "sitting on another man's shoulders." For instance, some of Thoreau's neighbors have publicly declared they'll never fight in Mexico or never stop a slave rebellion. Yet their taxes and lifestyles support slavery and the war, both of which they claim to oppose. They even will admire a soldier who refuses to serve in an unjust war, while they continue to enable the war themselves.

The biggest roadblock to reform, Thoreau finds, lies with those who demonstrate "disinterested virtue": disagreeing with what their government is doing but supporting the government nonetheless. Some citizens are pushing to "dissolve the Union" but will not go so far as to "dissolve it themselves" by refusing to pay money to the Treasury to keep the war going. Thoreau claims the relationship between the individual and the State parallels the relationship between the State and the Union, and "have not the same reasons prevented the State from resisting the Union which have prevented [individuals] from resisting the State?"

Thoreau does not understand how people can be satisfied merely by holding opinions and lacking the action to back them up. "Action from principle—the perception and the performance of right"—is a revolutionary concept, dividing states and families and creating internal conflict between an individual's best and worst nature.

So what should men do in the face of unjust laws? Should they try to change the laws, or should they disobey them? Most men wait until the majority decides to change the laws, fearing resistance will worsen the situation. The problem, Thoreau says, is the government, which doesn't want to reform, won't hold itself accountable to the people, and punishes courageous leaders. In fact, the government imprisons poor men who won't work, but frees rich men who embezzle large sums.

Thoreau compares the unjust government to a "machine." If people apply enough "friction" or resistance, the machine will stop working, but if the machine is specially equipped, then the remedy might be worse than the injustice. However, if the injustice causes one person to behave unjustly to another, then the law must be broken, as a "counter friction" to the machine. Just because one man cannot change everything, he does not need to continue supporting evil. Nor does petitioning the government do much. What he must do is call directly on all who consider themselves opposed to slavery and ask them to "withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts."

The only direct representative of the government Thoreau meets is the annual tax collector, his "civil neighbor." As someone who has chosen to work in government, the tax collector will have to choose how to treat a resistant Thoreau—respectfully as an individual or rudely as an enemy. The relationship between citizens and the government is a "copartnership." And if only one "HONEST man" were to stop holding slaves, withdraw his support for the State, and go to jail, ending the partnership, Thoreau thinks slavery would end right then. In fact, the only place for men who truly value justice in Massachusetts is in prison with fugitive slaves, Mexicans, Indians, and others who the State decides "are not with her but against her." With enough people in prison, the State will have to act. It is more of a "violent and bloody measure" for citizens to pay their taxes, which support wars, than it is for them to refuse payment. Thoreau defines this action as "a peaceable revolution."

Imprisonment isn't the only punishment the State doles out; it also can seize goods and property, though Thoreau admits the men most likely to resist are the poorest with the least to seize. A rich man, on the other hand, is "always sold to the institution which makes him rich." Thoreau sees no exception to this rule: money corrupts. Rich men who want to be virtuous may have uneasy consciences. He gives the biblical example of coins engraved with the image of the ruler Caesar; men who "enjoy the advantages of Caesar's government" must pay the ruler his taxes. Most people Thoreau encounters fear losing these advantages and government "protection"; Thoreau freely admits a life lived in disobedience to the State is difficult. People who choose to disobey unjust laws cannot own much; the cost of being rich is being a "good subject." Thoreau thinks his independent, minimalist life costs him less.

As an example of government control, Thoreau tells of being required to pay a tax for the support of a pastor at a church he never attended. Thoreau doesn't want to be indebted to any society or organization he hasn't chosen to join, such as the church.


Thoreau has already explained why the abolition of slavery should be an immediate goal. Now he tackles the harder question of how to achieve it. What should American citizens or Massachusetts residents do if they're convinced by his argument in Section 1?

First, people in the North should realize they are the ones with the problem. Thoreau recognizes the tendency to demonize the Southern slave states, while at the same time the Northern states do as much to further slavery through their compromises. He wants people to stop making empty gestures of virtue. Men who "hesitate," "regret," and even "petition" may think they are doing all they can do, but Thoreau wants them to do more by involving themselves directly.

Voting, considered one of the hallmarks of involved citizenship in a participatory democracy, means little, if nothing, to Thoreau. As he explains in his discussion of the 1848 Baltimore convention, he holds elected officials in low regard, primarily because officials don't rely on "wisdom and honesty," are unpredictable, and won't make real changes. If a man believes in a cause enough to vote for it, Thoreau reasons, why leave it to "the mercy of chance"? He knows government works slowly when citizens follow the rules. Thus, without immediate disobedient actions from citizens that may indeed incur great personal costs and risk to character, slavery will likely be abolished only when it becomes inconvenient for voters—not nearly soon enough.

Thoreau's townsmen's conception of resistance differs from his. Whereas they imagine dramatic acts such as staunchly refusing to "march to Mexico" or refusing to "put down an insurrection," if requested to do so, Thoreau thinks refusal to obey, like passive acceptance of evil, does not require showmanship to be effective. It can be as simple as denying to pay the government money. He mentions a movement in Northern states in which several men, including William Lloyd Garrison, were "petitioning the State to dissolve the Union," or declare independence from the United States. Garrison's motto was, "No union with slaveholders." This movement was similar to the secession movement, with the opposite view of slavery, in Southern states. According to Thoreau, however, they could achieve independence more easily by not paying money to the Treasury.

Even with simple measures, results will be dramatic, for Thoreau knows he is calling for revolution in his own way. Principled action is "revolutionary" because it would change both individuals and society. In Walden, his book about living with radical self-sufficiency on Walden Pond, Thoreau mentions facing the "essential facts of life"; one of these facts is acting in accordance with his conscience. He also describes "action from principle" as a radical act of patriotism and courage. When men are individually wronged (for instance, when someone owes them money), they take steps to correct the situation. What if the collective wrongs of society, such as wars and slavery, were as important to people as individual slights were? What if men were as affected and upset by crimes they didn't directly suffer from as those they did? In mentioning rebels having been punished for telling their governments what they didn't want to hear, Thoreau specifically mentions the historical and religious figure of Christ, the scientist Nicolaus Copernicus, and the theologian Martin Luther. Thoreau knows enough time has passed for readers to recognize these rebels' influences and contributions to society. Thoreau uses historical examples to ask readers how history will judge the actions they presently are taking.

Thoreau's explicit demand for action is "break the law." When he discusses "adopting the ways which the State has provided," he is referring to voting, social reform, petitioning, and other government-approved ways to advocate for progress. None of these brings about fast results, especially with Thoreau's mistrust of politicians. Skeptical, too, of social reform movements, Thoreau believes true change must come either from the individual or not at all. He sees government-provided outlets for advocacy, such as petitions, as ineffective, pacifying methods for change; people do not realize that their allegiance to the government itself is the real problem, and in Section 3 he will cite Daniel Webster's Constitution-based defense for slavery as a cowardly way out. The direct way is the hard way and involves sacrifices, not signatures.

The next demand he makes on readers is more extreme: anyone who cares about justice should be in prison, a place for "freer and less desponding spirits." This demand underscores Thoreau's unorthodox ideas about freedom, slavery, and imprisonment. Only in jail, he believes, can he truly be free under the current laws. By contrast, free men of the North are actually enslaved to their federal and state governments. If a majority of free voters agree to vote out slavery when it becomes an easy, government-sanctioned choice, Thoreau says, "They will then be the only slaves." His reversal of definitions causes readers to think about government, prison, and obedience to the law in a new way, rejecting the principles of participatory democracy as shallow and ineffectual; any dependence on the State is a form of slavery.

Turning to the practical complications of his resistance plan, Thoreau acknowledges the difficulty of living by one's principles. A true dissident cannot own much, if any, property, must grow his own food, and must be prepared to relocate at any time. If he has family, the government will harass them as well.

The quotation that begins, "It costs me less in every sense," refers to the Greek mythological character Antigone, who also defied law to do what she thought was right (give her brother a burial) and who believed disobedience cost her less than obedience would have. This life works for Thoreau, who cannot imagine another way of living; but can it work for everyone? Most tax resisters in Thoreau's era did not practice voluntary poverty; he is creating a specific image of a revolutionary. Like many of the historical figures he mentions earlier—Christ, Copernicus, Luther, and Franklin—Thoreau considers himself a rebel and visionary, someone with no choice but to live an unorthodox, solitary life.

In discussing specific actions he wants readers to take, Thoreau provides the example of a man who won't earn "nine shillings for the State." This is the amount of unpaid tax Thoreau owed, the equivalent of about a dollar and fifty cents. (In the early 19th century, some areas of New England still used the British currency of shillings.) It is not much money, and the small sum serves to make the State's action of imprisonment seem even more extreme.

The "tax-gatherer" is local constable Sam Staples, whom Thoreau knew well (his "civil neighbor"). Thoreau knows his refusal to pay taxes has created some awkwardness in their relationship, because Staples now needs to treat him as a "disturber of the peace." But Thoreau doesn't believe in maintaining civility at the expense of doing the right thing; instead, he feels civility is the enemy of what is right. If he himself doesn't worry about appearing respectable and obeying unjust laws—if he can "withdraw from this copartnership"—then change may happen. Thus, he is breaking an unspoken code of civility by attacking the problem at its roots.

His local example of the "State's ambassador" is a reference to Samuel Hoar, a senator from Concord. Hoar traveled to South Carolina in 1844 hoping to overturn a state law requiring free black sailors to remain imprisoned on the ship, and possibly sold back into slavery, when their ship docked at a South Carolina port. The government of South Carolina did not welcome Hoar's intervention and forced him to leave. Hoar told the story at a Concord town hall meeting, where Massachusetts residents were furious on his behalf. When Thoreau tells the story, however, he places the blame with Massachusetts: "that State which is so anxious to foist the sin of slavery upon her sister" South Carolina. Hoar's actions would have had much more of an impact, according to Thoreau, if he had protested the unjust laws in his seemingly more progressive Northern state.

Money, he believes, not only endangers men's souls but keeps them willfully ignorant. When he writes the "Herodians"—a sect of Biblical Jews who supported King Herod and denied Jesus—"did not wish to know" how much money belonged to the government and how much to a higher power, Thoreau implies the wealthy in Massachusetts similarly don't want to know the truth about their money. They would prefer, for instance, to remain ignorant of where their taxes go.

Thoreau uses the imagery of the body to underscore his point. With the idiom "wash his hands of it," Thoreau suggests cleansing himself from direct contact with the government's wrongdoing. He moves on to a metaphor involving the whole body; "sitting upon another man's shoulders" reminds readers that oppression, like a body, is physical, has weight, and can inflict a burden on the one who must bear it. Transcendentalists believed in the divine right of the individual to "pursue his contemplations," and Thoreau wants mental and physical freedom for everyone, even people he has never met. His idea of justice is egalitarian: the same equality for every human being.

He also uses the visceral metaphor of blood to describe a wounded conscience as "blood shed," and minces no words when saying those who pay taxes help the State commit "violent and bloody" acts. Thoreau positions the State as the aggressor and advocates a nonviolent method of resistance. Although other activists have used Thoreau as an example of peaceful protest, Thoreau himself never committed to nonviolence during his career. When tensions heightened in the abolitionist movement, he was not opposed to forceful and violent measures if necessary, as his later defense of John Brown's antislavery movement indicates. He wanted resisters to take whatever action was most effective at the time.

Thoreau returns to the metaphor of government as a machine. What is the place in this machine for nonconformists or protesters involved in civil disobedience? They are a "counter friction," or force resisting the machine's power, pushing its motion in the other direction. If citizens obey its laws and "let it go," the government machine may wear out on its own, and although it may invite citizen participation through a "spring" or a "pulley," these methods will hurt others. In Thoreau's view, the machine is a violent mechanism, seeking to do active harm, and its range of motion and power paints a picture of violence.

The statement beginning "Unjust laws exist ..." contains another example of a rhetorical question. Directly including readers by using the pronoun we, Thoreau asks them to think for themselves and decide what to do, or at least recognize what they already are doing. The third and most unorthodox choice, transgression, is mentioned last. The first two options are implied to be the imperfect solutions reformers have opted for in the past, and they have not worked.
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