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Henry David Thoreau wrote the essay Civil Disobedience to show his opposition to slavery and American imperialism. His essay has influenced many prominent civil rights activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience

When you think of models of American civil disobedience, who comes to mind? Rosa Parks? Martin Luther King, Jr.

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? Did you think of Henry David Thoreau? His is not a name currently associated with the idea of civil disobedience but in the 1840s, he literally wrote the book on the topic…

well actually, he wrote the essay.Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience or Resistance to Civil Government, published in 1849, is a call to arms similar to the stances that people like Parks and King would later take. Thoreau argued that people owed it to themselves and their fellow man not to blindly follow their government if they believe their rules and laws are unjust. This was partly motivated by Thoreau’s dislike of slavery and the American government’s support of it.

Instructions for Civil Disobedience

Though Thoreau begins the essay expressing his serious displeasure with the American government, he wasn’t advocating for true anarchy.

That’s where the ‘civil’ part of ‘civil disobedience’ comes in. Instead, he argues in the essay that American citizens should really follow their own consciences, and that those who opposed slavery or the Mexican-American War should stop paying taxes, because paying taxes to a government that supported those things was basically offering them support. Civil Disobedience argued that what a person believed to be right is more important than what was mandated by the government. It states: ‘Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.’Which brings me to the question you’re probably asking yourself, ‘if you refuse to pay taxes, won’t you go to jail?’ In Thoreau’s case, the answer is yes. He did briefly go to jail for refusing to the pay the poll tax, basically just a per-person tax that existed back then. But since Thoreau was a transcendentalist, he believed that if his soul and conscience was free, then he was free, even if he was technically behind bars.

As we’ve covered in other videos, transcendentalists believe in freeing one’s self from the material world and focusing on self-reliance, and that people could become more imprisoned by a desire for material wealth than by the bars of a physical jail.

Thoreau and the American Identity

Despite all of this, Thoreau states in Civil Disobedience that he doesn’t believe that the American government was all bad, he just thought that he, and other Americans, should demand better. He said ‘The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual..

.Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.’Whereas many Americans believed that democracy was the ultimate form of government and personal freedom, as a transcendentalist, Thoreau thought more emphasis needed to be placed on individualism, and in turn, individuals needed to take it upon themselves to fight injustice perpetuated by the government, instead of just saying they disagree and taking no action. He says of his relationship to the state, ‘I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually.

‘ He believed that simply voting for or against something wasn’t enough, withdrawing financial support in the form of not paying taxes would send a stronger message.

Lesson Summary

Henry David Thoreau‘s essay Civil Disobedience, published in 1849, has influenced civil rights leaders from President John F. Kennedy to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. By advocating that citizens are obligated to actively (but not violently) oppose governmental rules that they believe to be unjust, Thoreau was asserting his faith in the power of the individual, a central notion to transcendentalism. Thoreau encouraged Americans to avoid supporting immoral government spending (particularly in relation to slavery and the Mexican-American War) by not paying taxes, even if that action landed them in jail.

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and his purpose in writing it
  • Discuss how Thoreau’s transcendentalist beliefs influenced Civil Disobedience

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