Literature Study GuidesCivil DisobedienceSection 3 How To Conform To Honorable Laws Summary

Civil Disobedience | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "Civil Disobedience Study Guide." Course Hero. 31 Aug. 2017. Web. 19 Nov. 2018. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2017, August 31). Civil Disobedience Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved November 19, 2018, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2017)



Course Hero. "Civil Disobedience Study Guide." August 31, 2017. Accessed November 19, 2018.


Course Hero, "Civil Disobedience Study Guide," August 31, 2017, accessed November 19, 2018,

Civil Disobedience | Section 3 (How to Conform to Honorable Laws) | Summary



Henry David Thoreau hasn't paid a poll tax for six years. He spent one night in jail for nonpayment of taxes, but he didn't feel confined. Instead, he felt freer than his countrymen on the other side of the wall. The jailers couldn't reach him; they could punish only his body. The State doesn't have "superior wit or honesty, but ... superior physical strength." While the State's physical strength enables it to jail him, the State cannot force Thoreau to change who he is. After all, he asks, what kind of life would man live if he were forced to be someone other than who he is?

Thoreau describes his night behind bars as "novel and interesting." His cellmate was a friendly man, in jail for burning a barn. Thoreau suspects he set the barn on fire by accident. Thoreau observes the writing former prisoners have left behind in his cell and the evidence of escape attempts. He asks his cellmate a lot of questions. At night Thoreau listens to sounds he's never heard or noticed before, and imagines the town hundreds of years ago "in the light of the middle ages." He thinks he's beginning to understand the town and its inhabitants.

When Thoreau is released (after "someone interfered" to pay the tax), his view of his neighbors has changed. He feels he can no longer trust them; they take no risks and are not serious about wanting to do the right thing, hoping instead "a certain outward observance and a few prayers" will redeem them. Thoreau admits to being harsh, because his neighbors probably don't even know there is a jail in their village. He finishes the errand he came into town to do before his arrest, and then goes to pick huckleberries with a group of berry pickers.

Thoreau wants to be a "good neighbor"; he pays highway taxes and supports education. He is as concerned with being a good neighbor as he is with opposing the State where necessary. That said, whoever paid his tax might have been concerned about him, but they were only furthering the State's injustice, and Thoreau is not happy about being bailed out.

Sometimes Thoreau thinks his neighbors mean well and would do better if they could, but he sees no reason to compromise his principles simply because others do. He knows the government isn't asking him for much money compared to the penalty—the "overwhelming brute force"—he experiences if he doesn't pay. Why does he "put his head into the fire"? Thoreau says he refuses to be satisfied with people as they are. He believes humans, unlike "rocks and trees and beasts," have the capacity to change.

Not trying to make excuses for disobeying the law, Thoreau acknowledges that the Constitution and the American government, from some points of view are good, "admirable and rare things." But "from a point of view a little higher," they may look less admirable. Only a man without imagination can live peacefully under "unwise rulers." Legislators, who work in the government, lack the distance and perspective to see the institution the way it really is.

Thoreau says Daniel Webster, a well-known senator, is the only one in government with "sensible and valuable words" but isn't always right; "not a leader, but a follower." Thoreau cites a speech Webster gave before the Senate, in which Webster used the original Constitution to defend slavery and discourage abolitionist movements. Webster is more concerned with "expediency," or efficiency, than with wisdom. He doesn't try to find truth at its source. Thoreau thinks brilliant legislators are rare; although some admired legislators are good speakers, they lack "genius or talent" for the more "humble" but more important work of governing.

Thoreau says government has the power only he ("the governed") gives it, and until leaders have "true respect for the individual," a truly free State will never exist, not even in a democracy. He likes to imagine a State that treats all with justice and that doesn't mind a few residents who live independently from the government. This situation would lead to a "perfect and glorious State," which Thoreau has imagined but never seen.


In the final section, Henry David Thoreau explains his own resistance and his vision for radical change. When he stopped paying the poll tax six years before writing "Civil Disobedience" and four years before the Mexican War was declared, his resistance was not in response to the war, but to the other misdeeds of government (slavery, for one). As he wrote the essay in response to a rapidly changing world, he revised his motives to fit the situation and gave his actions new meaning.

The poll tax itself was not a federal tax but rather a local tax for states, counties, and towns. Its revenues did not pay for the Mexican War, which was financed by loans and land sales. But Thoreau sees local government as complicit in federal crimes. His frequent references to the state of Massachusetts show he considers local leaders, and even his neighbors, as misguided as the entire country.

He expresses pity and sorrow, rather than contempt, for his jailers. He saves his anger for the person who paid his tax, who he thinks should have known better, and for the ineffectual reformers who keep the State running. But in jail he sees that the State is not as powerful as he imagines it to be. The people in power don't know what to do, so they put Thoreau in prison, thinking he'll conform. Even though their action has the opposite effect—Thoreau leaves even more determined to effect change—the system will continue to operate. He offers an example from nature, where he draws inspiration. Like two trees growing side by side, he and his jailers will "both obey their own laws," no matter what.

"Civil Disobedience" includes an example of a prison narrative, showing prison as a place that provides a unique vision. Inside a cell the prisoner can see truths about society he cannot see on the outside. Thoreau feels as if he has traveled both in distance and time, describing jail as a place slightly removed from the real world. Citizens not incarcerated are unaware of the injustices inside a prison and of the truth it reveals. He pointedly describes jail as one of his town's "peculiar institutions," employing the phrase "peculiar institution," which is often used as a euphemism to describe slavery.

The sentence "This is the whole history of 'My Prisons'" is a reference to the prison memoir My Prisons or Le mie prigioni by Italian author Silvio Pellico (1789–1854). Thoreau is making the reference as an understatement; his one night in a local jail bears no comparison to the years of suffering Pellico endured as a political prisoner. But like Pellico, Thoreau comes to a new understanding of the outside world.

Thoreau, who had hoped to spend a longer time in a cell, observes the jail from a journalistic distance. He writes from the point of view of a traveler or anthropologist, even noticing the prisoners' forms of resistance in the sung verses of the men who attempted to escape. He himself isn't tortured or mistreated. Even his cellmate appears content. He feels quietly superior to those on the other side, believing "I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax." Yet he describes the materials of the prison as harsh, strong, and man-made, like the machine of government: "wood and iron, a foot thick" and "stone and mortar." He himself, "flesh and blood and bones," is a creation of nature, made of something entirely different and untouchable.

What surprises and alarms Thoreau most is the divide he feels between himself and the rest of society. He imagines the psychological "wall of stone" separating him from his neighbors to be more difficult to surmount than any physical wall. (Gandhi repeats the image of the wall in a record of his own imprisonments.) Acquaintances don't greet him, an offender, as part of the community; instead, they observe him like an outsider.

At the end of his journey, however, Thoreau is able to join in a huckleberry picking. The nature-loving Thoreau knows where to find the best huckleberries in the bushes; he is welcomed into the group and ascends to "one of our highest hills, two miles off." Now back in the natural world, he is physically and mentally transcending, or rising above, the State. Thoreau emphasizes this physical aspect of his journey to highlight the mental transcendence of his prison insights.

Thoreau returns to the language of conflict, declaring personal war with the State, and makes the unexpected statement, "I will still make use and get what advantage of [the State] I can." Taking advantage of the State's resources may seem inconsistent with Thoreau's desire to withdraw from the government and be independent of it, but he still feels obligated to participate in some forms of American citizenship, such as writing the essay to "educate my fellow-countrymen." He also admits his actions may change as "the hour," the time and event he's responding to, changes. He'll do whatever he thinks is necessary, including using State resources.

Furthermore, Thoreau imagines the State not as an anonymous, distant evil, but as a power aided by (and partly composed of) his neighbors—"partly a human force." Government is made up of humans, whose minds he wants to change. He would not try to antagonize an animal, a tree, or any "purely brute" member of the natural world. He has higher standards for humans because they have the capacity to transform and transcend. With minds and spirits, they are able to understand how freedom can be found in the natural world rather than in the physical body.

For someone with low standards, however, Thoreau admits the current American government is perfectly acceptable; for the most part it is functional, efficient, and respectable. Again he contrasts "lower" and "higher" in both life forms and ways of thinking, showing the transcendentalist desire to rise above mundane concerns and imagine a better world.

Thoreau longs for vision and wisdom in his rulers, not prudence or expedience. They'll make the most prudent, or convenient and effective, choice instead of the right choice, and place policy over people. Thoreau acknowledges, to a certain extent, that this is the legislator's job. Government is set up to reward efficiency and discourage introspection. Yet he names Senator Daniel Webster specifically, because Webster was known for his eloquence and influence on national laws. Thoreau quotes from a speech Webster gave in 1848 on the Mexican War and the admission of Texas to the Union. Webster was led by "the men of '87"—the original writers of the Constitution—to defend slavery because it was written into the "original compact" and formed part of the Founders' original vision for adding states. According to Thoreau, Webster ignores the possibility of change for the better, for the 19th century reflects different views on human rights from those of the 18th century, and people now are speaking up and demanding change. Without adapting to the voice and experience of its people, Thoreau later states, "America would no longer retain her rank among the nations." Therefore, the government should respect the country as living, breathing, and capable of transformation, rather than bound by old interpretations of rules.

Thoreau is dismayed, but not surprised, by Webster's tone-deaf response. The nation has led Webster to make a "desperate answer" to what Thoreau thinks should be an easy moral question, and to ignore his personal morals in the name of states' rights. Thoreau points out that Webster is clear to distance himself from "associations formed elsewhere" or abolitionist movements.

As Thoreau moves toward the cautiously hopeful end of his essay, he offers the metaphor of water. Those who want to seek wisdom beyond what has been provided in written texts, such as the Constitution and the Bible, will go beyond these to seek out the sources of truth "trickling into this lake or that pool," and continue the pilgrimage" toward the real source. Thoreau thus sees the dissident not merely as a hero, loner, and revolutionary, but also as a pilgrim or a seeker. He speaks in spiritual terms about good government, imagining an inspirational leader who looks to the Bible's New Testament to learn how to govern compassionately.

An ideal government, to Thoreau, is something sacred. The individual soul is even more sacred, and the best State will honor each person "as a higher and independent power." He returns to the idea he states at the beginning: citizens working together, rather than as an arm of government, lead the nation to progress. Because Thoreau has no perfect legislator as an exemplar, he has created a version of himself as a role model: a dissident who lives "aloof" or apart from the State. Meanwhile, he is wrestling with the question of how to live the most authentic life possible in an imperfect world. Part of his authenticity is the unwillingness to accept the world as imperfect. The use of imagination, he claims, separates those who can't live happily under corrupt governments from those who can look the other way.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Civil Disobedience? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!