Henry David Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience in 1849. Although Thoreau’s work in general was underrated at the time, this work in particular became massively influential in the next century.
One of Thoreau’s main points is that a government is comprised of the people within that government. It is useless to whine and complain about the government, because that government is you. You have chosen it. It is a government for the people, by the people. Thoreau believed that a government’s primary purpose is to uphold morality and justice for its citizens. If a government is acting unjustly, then it is the fault of the people, and the only course of action is to change it.
Thoreau wrote this essay when slavery was a hot issue, and slavery is a prominent theme throughout this work. Thoreau thought that slavery was wrong, and a government which behaved immorally by allowing it was not a government that acted in his best interests. Because of this, he refused to pay taxes as a demonstration of his idea of civil disobedience.
For refusing to pay taxes, Thoreau was placed in jail. This was when he uttered his famous line: “Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
Thoreau says that voting isn’t enough. He doesn’t think that majority rule is the best way to get things done. He compares this process to a neighbor who has cheated you out of a dollar. Would you go from door to door collecting signatures saying that your neighbor should give your dollar back? Would you hold a vote amongst your neighbors? Would you stand on the side of the road holding up a sign urging people to honk if your neighbor should give the dollar back? No, you wouldn’t do any of these things. You would demand that he give the dollar back, and if he refuses, then you would never do business with him again. Thoreau says that this is how we should approach our interactions with the government.
When you hear the term “Civil Disobedience”, you may think of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi. This is for good reason. These men were influenced by Thoreau’s work and used the principle of civil disobedience to completely change the way that their respective societies operated. Martin Luther King saw injustice. He knew that if we just waited on people to vote for African Americans to have equal rights, they might never get them. So he organized bus boycotts, and he urged people to disobey. The results speak for themselves.
Civil Disobedience is not about anarchy or disobeying authorities for its own sake. It is about a love of government and making it the best that it can be. Above all, Thoreau teaches that if there is something you don’t like about our government, then take action and change it!