Civil Disobedience and Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) remains one of the great American writers of the 19th century. A leading voice among the Transcendentalists, Thoreau is perhaps best remembered for his book Walden, but it was an earlier essay Civil Disobedience (formally titled Resistance to Civil Government) that brought Thoreau into national prominence. First published in 1849, in Civil Disobedience, Thoreau argues that individuals have a duty to acquiesce when governments commit injustice.
The immediate incident that eventually sparked Civil Disobedience occurred while Thoreau was living at Walden Pond. In the summer of 1846, Thoreau was jailed for failing to pay his poll tax for the previous six years. Thoreau had refused to pay out of his opposition to both slavery and the Mexican War. From this experience, Thoreau delivered a lecture at the Concord Lyceum entitled “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to the Government,” which he later revised into Civil Disobedience.
In the essay, Thoreau asserts that governments are, for the most part, more harmful and therefore cannot be justified. Government is an agent of corruption and honest men should rebel against it. People need to be just, and not simply vote for justice, and that by paying taxes people are collaborating in injustice. Unjust laws should be broken, according to Thoreau. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau wrote: “That government is best which governs least.”