Resistance to Civil Government

views updated


Next to Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau's (1817–1862) essay "Resistance to Civil Government" (1849) is his most famous work. Its influence on later writers and reformers such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. has ensured that Thoreau's views on social issues would be not only controversial but misunderstood. To some he is the patron saint of passive resistance, whereas to others he is an anarchist. The truth lies somewhere between those extremes.

"Resistance to Civil Government" (often titled "Civil Disobedience") was neither the first nor the last of Thoreau's writings on social and political reform. These concerns occur throughout his writings and are rooted in the same transcendentalist self-culture that he espouses in Walden: an individual's highest duty is to perfect the spiritual connection to God within. By striving for personal perfection, one leavens the whole loaf of humanity. To attempt to reform society without first perfecting oneself is to hack at the branches of evil while ignoring its roots. Paradoxically, Thoreau's ideal program of social action requires no direct action on society.

Thoreau was often impatient with reform movements and utopian communities. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) he complains: "It is a great pleasure to escape sometimes from the restless class of Reformers. What if these grievances exist? So do you and I" (p. 126). In his last years even the Civil War could not convince him that the ideal of self-culture should give way to social action. As he wrote to his friend Parker Pillsbury (1809–1898) about the war, "I do not so much regret the present condition of things in this country (provided I regret it at all) as I do that I ever heard of it" (Letters, p. 195). Despite his clinging to the ideal of self-culture, however, when such issues came closer to home, he was sometimes forced to conclude that effective reform might depend on numbers. A crucial event was the night he spent in the Concord jail.


In July 1846, during the second summer of his residence at Walden Pond, Thoreau walked in from the pond to go to the cobbler and was stopped by Sam Staples, Concord's amiable tax collector and jail keeper. Staples asked him to pay several years of overdue poll tax (not a true voting tax but a "head" tax on every adult male over twenty years old). Thoreau's refusal to pay the tax was intended as a direct protest against an unpopular tax and as an indirect protest against the government's condoning of slavery. He also linked slavery to the Mexican-American War because Mexico refused to cede ownership of Texas, which had nonetheless been admitted to the Union as a slave state. Staples had until then chosen to ignore Thoreau's tardiness as not being worth his trouble, but Thoreau probably hoped that his refusal would lead to imprisonment so that he could dramatize his protest. So when Staples reminded him that his refusal to pay might lead to jail, Thoreau embraced martyrdom and volunteered for immediate incarceration.

Thoreau was marched off to jail and ushered into a cell with a man accused of burning down a barn. After his cell mate went to sleep, Thoreau restlessly stood by the cell window looking out at his neighbors going about their normal business oblivious of his plight. He likely hoped that the town would rally to his support once they knew about his protest. Thoreau's mother, however, soon learned of her son's dilemma and scurried home to find a way of getting him out before he could further embarrass the family. That evening, while Staples was out, his daughter at home took delivery of Thoreau's tax money from an anonymous donor (probably one of his aunts). By the time the daughter informed Staples of the payment, he already had his boots off and was relaxing for the evening, so he decided to let Thoreau stay put for the night and free him the next morning.

Thoreau had no visitors that night, and he soon realized that the community really did not care about his protest. The next morning, when he was freed, he left the jail "mad as the devil" at not being allowed to continue his protest. He eventually calmed himself, however, picked up his shoe at the cobbler, and went picking huckleberries. What he had intended as a clarion call of independence to wake his neighbors up had turned out to be only an unheard whisper. Passive resistance was not enough; it needed some press.

Thoreau included only one paragraph on his night in jail in Walden, but his disillusionment with the government and with his neighbors led him to work the experience up as a lecture that he delivered as "The Relation of the Individual to the State" to the Concord Lyceum in January 1848. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894), a fellow transcendentalist, published this lecture in 1849 as "Resistance to Civil Government" in a collection of essays titled Aesthetic Papers.


In its original publication in the 1849 Aesthetic Papers, Thoreau's essay is titled "Resistance to Civil Government," and that title is used in the standard Princeton edition of Thoreau's works. However, in "Another Look at the Text and Title of Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience,'" Fritz Oehlschlaeger argues persuasively that the change from the original "Resistance to Civil Government" to "Civil Disobedience" was authorial, part of a pattern of revisions by Thoreau himself. The later title does affect the reader's expectations about the essay. "Disobedience" is a softer term than "Resistance," and the word "civil" becomes a pun that can suggest both "relating to the state" and "courteous and polite." The earlier title is thus more aggressive and direct; the later title is more subtle and ironic, tones very common in Thoreau's other writings.


Misconceptions abound about Thoreau's position toward the government. One of the most common is that Thoreau was an anarchist (see Buranelli and Van Dusen). But there is a difference between transcendentalist self-culture and anarchy. Thoreau does say in the essay that "that government is best which governs not at all" (Reform Papers, p. 63), hence the accusation of anarchy. This comment, however, more accurately affirms the transcendentalist ideal that if everyone were to connect fully with the God within, all would live in harmony. Furthermore, Thoreau insists that he is not waiting for such an ideal future but rather wishes to speak "practically and as a citizen" who asks for "not at once no government, but at once a better government" (Reform Papers, p. 64).

Thoreau does not deny the benefit of having, or even of obeying, a government that enacts just laws. He is even willing to allow a government its imperfections, for, he says, "if the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go" (Reform Papers, p. 73). But when the government enslaved some and demanded that others condone such slavery with their votes and taxes, Thoreau believed that the injustice was too great to be overlooked and that he must withdraw his support. Like Socrates, however, Thoreau believed the individual was not exempt from the power of the state; a decision to disobey also meant a willingness to accept the consequences. Although compelled by conscience to disobey specific unjust laws, Thoreau was willing to submit to the larger principle of government as a human necessity.

Whether or not one agrees with Thoreau's argument for resisting unjust laws depends entirely on whether one accepts the premise that conscience is a God-given "higher law" that takes precedence over human laws. If one believes that individual conscience is a more reliable test of a truth than the number of people who support it, one readily follows Thoreau to his logical conclusion that "any man more right than his neighbors, constitutes a majority of one already" (Reform Papers, p. 74). If, however, one mistrusts the reliability of the conscience because it might as easily be the tool of the devil as of God, then one must assert law and majority rule as the antidote to dangerous individualism. This split between those who trust conscience and those who trust law remains a basic division in American culture.

Fully aware of this split, Thoreau begins the essay by giving reasons why government cannot be trusted. First, "government is at best an expedient" (Reform Papers, p. 63)—that is, a convenient tool used by the multitude of individual consciences from which it derives its power. By itself it can do nothing: it "never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way" (p. 64). Instead, "the character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished" (p. 64). When it fails to respond to the people from whom it derives its power, government becomes inexpedient. The second reason to be wary of government is that it is unreliable: it is often merely a "tradition" more concerned with perpetuating itself than with enacting the will of the people. It is often motivated more by self-interest and popular opinion than by justice.

Thoreau admits that the American government does provide avenues for change for dissenters, but these are often too slow and unreliable. Voting, for instance, is not as effective as Americans like to think: it is only "a sort of gaming, like chequers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it." "Voting for the right," he points out, "is doing nothing for it" (p. 68). A voter whose side is defeated submits readily to the majority, an equation of numbers with justice that is unacceptable to the transcendentalist belief in "some absolute goodness somewhere" (p. 69). Other methods of reform, such as legislation or petition, "take too much time, and a man's life will be gone" (p. 68), by which Thoreau means both the life of the reformer and the life of the victim (the slave, for instance). Nor does the government really desire to reform its own evils. It is more likely to "pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels" (p. 73) than to welcome them as reformers.

On hearing Thoreau's lyceum lecture "The Relation of the Individual to the Statem," Amos Bronson Alcott wrote the following entry in his journal on 26 January 1848.

Heard Thoreau's lecture before the lyceum on the relation of the individual to the State—an admirable statement of the rights of the individual to self-government and an attentive audience.

His allusions to the Mexican War, to Mr. Hoar's expulsion from Carolina, his own imprisonment in Concord Jail for refusal to pay his tax. Mr. Hoar's payment of mine when taken to prison for a similar refusal, were all pertinent, well considered, and reasoned. I took great pleasure in this deed of Thoreau's.

Amos Bronson Alcott, The Journals of Bronson Alcott (Boston: Little, Brown, 1938), p. 201.

Given these impediments to reform, the final recourse should be a direct appeal to the people themselves. What discouraged Thoreau about his night in jail, however, was what it revealed about his neighbors' indifference. They seemed unwilling to acknowledge, much less to desire to reform, the government's injustice. Looking out at Concord by moonlight through the jail bars, Thoreau came sadly to realize that his neighbors neither knew about his protest nor would care about it if they did. He understood "to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; . . . that they did not greatly purpose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me" (p. 83).

His night in jail forces Thoreau to reconsider one individual's power to leaven the whole loaf of society. He continues to believe that one person can make a difference and that "action from principle . . . changes things and relations" (p. 72). But what if the individual leads and no one follows? Then one must at least refuse to condone the evil and must withhold one's vote or obedience: "If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting on another man's shoulders" (p. 71). Noncompliance was Thoreau's preferred approach to most social injustice.

Thoreau was not a pacifist. "Resistance to Civil Government" is viewed by many as the source for modern passive resistance, but even in this essay he acknowledges the need for violence in extreme cases. He points out the hypocrisy of praising the American Revolution, a violent rebellion, while refusing to acknowledge violence to remedy contemporary injustices such as slavery. "All men recognize the right of revolution," he says, "but almost all say that such is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of '75" (p. 67). Resisting injustice includes not only the right "to refuse allegiance" but also to "resist the government," presumably by violence if necessary (p. 67).

Elsewhere in his life and writing, both before and after this essay, Thoreau is even more explicit about using violence to resist extreme injustice. As early as 27 January 1841, Thoreau and his brother John participated in a debate for the Concord Lyceum on the question "Is it ever proper to offer forcible resistance?" Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888), a Concord philosopher and the father of Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888), argued the negative; Henry and John argued the affirmative. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published the same year as "Resistance to Civil Government," Thoreau protests the effects of a dam near Billerica on the fish and farmers along the Merrimack River. Siding with the fish and farmers, he issues this threat: "I for one am with thee, and who knows what may avail a crow-bar against that Billerica dam?" (p. 37).

It was against slavery, however, that violence seemed most necessary. Outraged by an incident in Boston in which a runaway slave, Anthony Burns (1834–1862), was seized and shipped back to his southern owner, Thoreau issued this call to violent action in his essay "Slavery in Massachusetts" (1854): "I need not say what match I would touch, what system endeavor to blow up,—but as I love my life, I would side with the light" (Reform Papers, p. 102). He was also an enthusiastic supporter of John Brown's (1800–1859) raid on Harpers Ferry. In "A Plea for Captain John Brown" (1860), Thoreau explicitly asserts that violence can be justified: "I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable" (Reform Papers, p. 133). Of Brown's men he says admiringly, "I think that for once the Sharps' rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause" (p. 133). Of Brown himself he says: "It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him" (p. 132).


Thoreau's ideas about resistance to social injustice must be seen in the context of his time. One source of his attitude was transcendentalism and Ralph Waldo Emerson's suspicion of society as a "joint-stock company" requiring that every individual sacrifice part of himself or herself for the general good ("Self-Reliance") at the expense of conscience. Emerson's concern about the tyranny of the majority over the individual was one that Thoreau shared.

More specifically, Thoreau imbibed the spirit of the debate that was in the air over how best to respond to injustice. He was not the first Concordian to risk jail by nonpayment of taxes. There were local examples available to him. In January 1843 Thoreau's friend Amos Bronson Alcott had been arrested by Sam Staples for nonpayment of the poll tax. He was held only briefly and not jailed because "Squire" Samuel Hoar (1778–1856), a leading Concord citizen, quickly paid Alcott's tax to save the town's reputation. In December of the same year Alcott's fellow idealist, Charles Lane (1800–1870), was also arrested briefly for nonpayment. Thoreau intended to follow in their footsteps even more emphatically.

There were several theories about "resistance" and "nonresistance" known to Thoreau. The issue of how best to resist injustice was of particular interest to abolitionists, who were split into several groups. One group, led by Nathaniel P. Rogers, argued that an ideal society could be achieved only through self-reformation of each individual, not through collective action. "Resistance" in this context meant self-culture as opposed to conformity to the majority, a view consistent with transcendentalism. In an essay in The Dial in 1844 Thoreau explicitly endorsed Rogers's views.

Another group, the New England Non-Resistance Society led by William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), endorsed more systematic resistance through antislavery societies. As Lawrence Rosenwald points out, the term "nonresistance" for Garrison meant noncooperation with an unjust government by refusing to pay taxes to, vote for, or hold public office in the offending government. Garrison also advocated a pacifism that condemned both individual and state violence, even for self-defense. Although Thoreau was suspicious of organized societies, even those supporting worthy causes, he found some of Garrison's ideas pertinent to his own situation. He would try passive resistance first, but he would also serve as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), a former slave and an abolitionist, offered an even more aggressive form of resistance. In his autobiographical Narrative (1845), with which Thoreau was probably familiar, Douglass recounts how as a young slave he defied an overseer who was beating him and fought back effectively, after which the overseer no longer dared to beat him. "Resistance" for Douglass thus means individual resistance by returning injury with injury; Thoreau's use of the word in his title points toward this interpretation, but from its first paragraph the essay itself backs off from Douglass's more aggressive stance. It would surface again, however, in Thoreau's defense of John Brown.

Throughout his career Thoreau made use of all of these approaches to reform. If there is a trend, it is his shift from pure self-culture toward more active, even violent, resistance.


These nineteenth-century ideas of resistance to injustice find their way through Thoreau's essay to twentieth-century social reformers. Leo Tolstoy read Thoreau's essay and expressed admiration for Thoreau's idealistic refusal to pay the tax. Although Mohandas Gandhi denied that his strategy of "civil resistance" was derived from Thoreau's essay, he expressed admiration for "Civil Disobedience" and kept Thoreau's ideas about resistance in mind while implementing Garrison's concept of collective passive resistance.

In America, Martin Luther King Jr. listed Thoreau's "Essay on Civil Disobedience" as one of the books that most influenced his thinking. He viewed Thoreau's philosophy as a "spiritual strategy" of nonviolence that provided a valuable supplement to the NAACP's strategies of legal resistance. Thoreau's essay has also inspired environmental activists. The concept of "monkey wrenching" or "eco-sabotage" proposed by Edward Abbey (1927–1989) in his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) and used by such activist groups as Earth First! borrows from the more aggressive side of Thoreau's ideas of resistance. Thoreau's threat in A Week to take a crowbar to the dam on the Merrimack River is one that these groups are quite willing to carry out. Thus Thoreau's essay continues to influence the world in the early twenty-first century. As Edward Abbey says in "Down the River with Henry Thoreau," "wherever there is liberty and danger . . . Henry Thoreau will find his eternal home" (p. 48).

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; Concord, Massachusetts; Harpers Ferry; Mexican-American War; Walden


Primary Works

Thoreau, Henry David. Letters to Various Persons. Edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1865.

Thoreau, Henry David. Reform Papers. Edited by Wendell Glick. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. Includes "Resistance to Civil Government," "Slavery in Massachusetts," and "A Plea for Captain John Brown."

Thoreau, Henry David. "Walden" and "Resistance to CivilGovernment." 1854, 1849. Edited by William Rossi. New York: Norton, 1992.

Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord andMerrimac Rivers. 1849. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Secondary Works

Abbey, Edward. Down the River. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982.

Buranelli, Vincent. "The Case against Thoreau." Ethics 67 (1957): 257–268.

Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau. 2nd ed. New York: Dover, 1982.

Herr, William. "A More Perfect State: Thoreau's Concept of Civil Government." Massachusetts Review 16 (1975): 470–487.

Kritzberg, Barry. "Thoreau, Slavery, and 'Resistance to Civil Government.'" Massachusetts Review 30 (1989): 535–565.

Meyer, Michael. "Thoreau, Abolitionists, and Reformers." In Thoreau among Others: Essays in Honor of Walter Harding, edited by Rita K. Gollin and James B. Scholes. Geneseo, N.Y.: State University College of Arts and Sciences, 1983.

Oehlschlaeger, Fritz. "Another Look at the Text and Title of Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience.'" ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 36, no. 3 (1990): 239–254.

Rosenwald, Lawrence A. "The Theory, Practice, and Influence of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience." In A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau, edited by William E. Cain, pp. 153–180. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Van Dusen, Lewis H., Jr. "Civil Disobedience: Destroyer of Democracy." American Bar Association Journal 55 (February 1969): 123–126.

Richard J. Schneider