Civil Disobedience | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Civil Disobedience | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Henry David Thoreau emerged as one of the foremost American philosophers and thinkers during the 19th century. Thoreau's essay Civil Disobedience is his treatise, or formal statement, on government and the responsibilities of enlightened citizens to question and disobey unjust rule. Delivered as a speech in 1848 and subsequently published in 1849, Civil Disobedience is often credited as a foundational text for the protests and social movements that would define America's next century.

Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience to protest what he perceived to be great injustices committed by the American government—namely, the perpetuation of slavery in the South and the imperialistic aims of wars of aggression. The author was famously jailed for refusing to pay taxes supporting such policies. Thoreau's thesis is that if citizens fail to disobey or speak out against unjust laws, they allow themselves to be made "agents of injustice."

1. Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience in response to the Mexican-American War.

Although Civil Disobedience was written primarily to protest slavery in the United States—and the forced support of slavery through taxation—Thoreau was also taking aim at another perceived injustice committed by the American government. In 1846 the United States declared war against Mexico, leading to the Mexican-American War (1846–48). Thoreau saw this conflict as an unnecessary, imperialistic act of aggression with the sole purpose of spreading slavery to the North American southwest. It was his denouncement of this war that led tax collectors to finally jail Thoreau, as they had previously looked the other way when he first begun to refuse payment out of objection to the support of slavery in the Southern states.

2. Thoreau assisted escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad after writing Civil Disobedience.

After the publication of Civil Disobedience, Thoreau put his abolitionist beliefs into practice. Thoreau assisted escaped slaves on their journeys through the Northern states, protecting them from capture on the historic Underground Railroad. Although Thoreau was reluctant to join any abolitionist organizations during his lifetime, he often met with and befriended important figures of the movement, including the writer and social reformer Frederick Douglass. Thoreau reportedly once filled in for Douglass at a gathering and delivered a speech in his stead.

3. Civil Disobedience helped to inspire the civil rights movement of the 20th century.

Civil Disobedience laid a framework for just rebellion against authority in the United States, and it influenced many of the most pivotal social movements of the next century. Indian civil rights activist Mohandas Gandhi was moved by Thoreau's essay, saying:

[Thoreau's] ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all of my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian Independence.

Thoreau's abolitionist ideology also inspired leaders of the African American civil rights movement in the 1960s, including Martin Luther King Jr. King once stated:

Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.

Thoreau's idea of an inherently just, nonviolent resistance to clear injustice helped shape a century that would see the rights of people challenged by tyranny and war around the globe.

4. Thoreau's first published book was so unpopular that the majority of copies were returned to his home.

Thoreau's first literary venture was released in 1849, months before Civil Disobedience. Entitled A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau's book chronicled a boat trip he'd taken with his brother years earlier through the rural, pastoral countryside of the northeast. Unable to find a publisher willing to pay print costs, Thoreau financed the project himself, and he was disappointed when very few copies were sold. The majority of copies were returned to Thoreau's home, about which he joked:

I have now a library of some nine hundred volumes, seven hundred of which I wrote myself.

5. Before earning a reputation as a radical philosopher, Thoreau revolutionized the making of pencils.

Thoreau's father, John, was a shopkeeper in Concord, Massachusetts, when Thoreau was a child. The family found stability in the production of pencils after John started a pencil-making company, earning the family enough money to send Thoreau to college. After his education at Harvard, Thoreau applied what he'd learned about engineering to the family pencil-making business, inventing a machine to grind materials for pencil lead into a fine powder. This caused the Thoreau family pencils to write much more smoothly than any others produced in the United States, allowing them to compete with the German imported pencils that dominated the market at the time.

6. Thoreau's essay wasn't published under the title Civil Disobedience until after his death.

In the 19th century, the term civil disobedience hadn't yet come to describe the type of peaceful yet defiant protest that Thoreau outlines in his essay. When Thoreau delivered his essay as a speech in 1848, he did so under the working title Resistance to Civil Government. When the essay was published in 1849 it appeared under this title as well. The title Civil Disobedience only appeared when the essay was reprinted in 1866, four years after Thoreau's death.

7. Thoreau felt "free "throughout his imprisonment.

Thoreau's refusal to pay taxes to support slavery and war led to his imprisonment for a night in 1846. Thoreau took his night in jail to reflect heavily on his hometown, as well as society at large. He described:

It was a closer view of my native town. I was fairly inside it. I had never seen its institutions before.

Thoreau also described how imprisonment, oddly, allowed him to feel freer than before, as he could fully understand the mindset of the incarcerated. He explained that authorities:

had resolved to punish my body...[but] they could not reach me. I did not for a moment feel confined.

8. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau fleshed out a famous quotation from Thomas Jefferson.

In order to make his point about governmental corruption in the United States, Thoreau borrowed words from one of the nation's founding fathers: Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson famously wrote, "That government is best which governs least." These words condemned tyranny and the overreaching capabilities of the state, both of which Jefferson wished to avoid in the governance of the young United States. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau expands on the idea, writing:

I heartily accept the motto,—"That government is best which governs least;" and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,—"That government is best which governs not at all;" and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

9. A member of a famous rock band led the charge to preserve Thoreau's Walden Pond.

Walden Pond in Massachusetts, where Thoreau lived and wrote peacefully in nature for several years, is now a state reservation open to the public. In order to preserve the area, Don Henley, Grammy-winning lead singer of the rock band The Eagles, created the Walden Woods Project in 1990. The project greatly expanded the protected area of Walden Pond by 140 acres. In an interview, Henley explained:

Many people refer to Walden Woods as the birthplace of the American conservation movement because it was there that Thoreau called for us to set aside land in its natural state, an impulse that would later lead to the creation of our national parks. If we can't protect the place where the idea of land conservation was so early asserted, how can we hope to save other places of historical and environmental significance?

10. Some anarchist groups drew inspiration from Civil Disobedience, likely against Thoreau's wishes.

Certain anarchist thinkers have used Civil Disobedience to affirm their antigovernment stances. While Thoreau does make adamant claims about limiting the invasive power of authority, few scholars would consider his principles in alignment with true anarchy or the abolition of government. The 20th-century Russian-American anarchist writer Emma Goldman once described Thoreau as "the greatest American anarchist," but Thoreau would have likely disagreed with this categorization. He clearly states in Civil Disobedience that he seeks to improve—not abolish—governmental authority, stating, "I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government."

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