A Summary and Analysis of Henry David Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience'

Henry David Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience': Summary and Analysis
David Henry Thoreau's essay Civil Disobedience argues that if a government is being unfair, it is an individual's duty to stand up against it. This Penlighten post briefs you on the Civil Disobedience summary for you in an effort to explain Thoreau's ideas better.
Penlighten Staff
Last Updated: Feb 10, 2018
Inspirational
Henry David Thoreau's thoughts in his essay inspired Mahatma Gandhi's Satyagraha or non-violent resistance against the British government.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an American writer, philosopher, abolitionist, and historian. He was outspoken against slavery and American imperialism. He was truly disgusted with the American government. As a result, he refused to pay his poll taxes in 1848. He had to spend a night in jail for his actions. However, he was released from jail the next morning when a friend paid his taxes.
Henry david thoreau
Henry David Thoreau
In the same year, he gave lectures in schools in Concord, Massachusetts. The lectures were titled as The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government. These lectures formed the base of his 1849 published essay Resistance to Civil Government. The essay was published in an anthology called Æsthetic Papers. The word "Resistance" from the title was apt for Thoreau's metaphor of comparing the government to a machine. According to him, if the machine is producing injustice, citizens should work as a resistance to stop the machine.

The essay was reprinted in 1866, four years after Thoreau's death, in the collection of his work named A Yankee in Canada: With Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers. The essay was printed with a new title called Civil Disobedience. The essay appears under titles On the Duty of Civil Disobedience and On Civil Disobedience as well.

The essay primary deals with slavery crisis in America in the 1840s and 1850s. It also condemns the Mexican-American war. Let us find out more about it.
Summary and Analysis
► Thoreau opens his essay with a saying "That government is best which governs least," which he believes to be true. He speaks favorably about a government that does not intrude in citizens' lives. The government is chosen by people to achieve certain ends. According to Thoreau, it is in existence to execute citizens' will. It exists to ensure an individual's freedom. However, it is prone to be misused. Thoreau gives examples of slavery practice and the Mexican-American war to establish his point further. He asserts that the government itself becomes an obstacle between achieving its purpose, the purpose for which it was created.

► However, Thoreau makes it clear that he is against abolishing the government, but wished for a better one. He did not believe that there should be no government at all. He believed that if the government fails to improve, people should not support it. According to Thoreau, a person cannot accept the government's authority unquestioningly.

► Thoreau introduces common people's right to revolution against an unjust government. To establish this thought, he compares the government with a machine. As a machine, the government may not do a good job in producing justice. Instead, it might produce injustice only. He encourages people be a counter friction or a resistance to stop such a machine. He encourages rebellion. He believes that mere expression of objection is not enough; it requires action. Thoreau asserts that an individual must not support the government structure. An individual must act with principle and break the law if necessary.

► To establish this thought further, he gives his own example. He recalls the time when he was imprisoned for non-payment of taxes on his part. With his own example, he establishes that non-payment of taxes is a means to withdraw support from the government. It constitutes "peaceable revolution." Thoreau also advocates a simple and self-reliant lifestyle to achieve individual freedom. He urges people to be free from the corrupting powers of money and property. He goes on to describe details about his stay in the jail and the treatment meted out to a person by the state as if he is only a physical entity and not an intellectual individual.

► Thoreau maintains that he does not want to quarrel. He says that he wants to honor the laws of the land. However, he states that the current laws are not honorable. He believes that the government is in transition from absolute monarchy to democracy. However, he also notes that democracy may not be the final stage of the process. In the end, he again lays emphasis on respecting an individual. A state cannot be absolutely free and enlightened until the government recognizes the importance of an individual.

Thoreau's essay revolves around three main themes: (i) civil government vs. higher law, (ii) government vs. an individual, and (iii) materialism vs. simple life. He uses logos, ethos, and pathos to explain and peruse the readers to support his ideas of the government. The essay explains to us the intentions and principles of the government. However, the principles turned into actions, which are called laws, are often unjust. Unjust laws do not work for people, whether they are in majority or minority. To change unjust laws and the unjust government, people should stand up. It is every citizen's duty to resist unfairness shown by the government.
Thoreau's thoughts were never restricted to the Massachusetts area. They spread across the world, inspired several movements, and influenced leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, etc. Thoreau's essay definitely brought about a change in the state of affairs to turn them into the world as we know it today.