Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

The government is best which governs least. I firmly believe this to be true, and I hope that one day this will be the case. In fact, it is my belief that the best government is that which doesn’t govern at all, and when the people are ready for it, hopefully this will be the type of government which they will have. What is government? Government is the people’s attempt to get things done which are common to all. Unfortunately, what I’ve noticed is that most of the time it is the government which gets in the people’s way.

Many people object to a country having a standing army. Well, in the same way, why should we have a standing government? The army itself is only part of the government, and notice how easily the government is able to be manipulated by the irreprehensible desires of a few. Just look at the war we have declared on Mexico. The American people would never have agreed to this atrocity, but here we find ourselves already set out on this war of conquest because of the misplaced ambitions of a few men who insist on using the government as if it were theirs alone.

What is the American government, other than a tradition, and a newly-created one at that. It seeks to become a permanent fixture in our lives, to exist forever, and yet as time goes by it has only become more cumbersome, ineffective and corrupt. Unlike a real man, the government bends to the will of whoever rises to power. Nevertheless, the people insist on it, desiring to hear the clicks and clanks of this great machinery, comforted by its cacophonous bellows that at least “something” is going on.

But the government does not do what it has been designed to do. The government does not keep our country free, or settle the West, or educate its people. It is the American people who have done these things, because of their character. All the government has done is get in the way, pitting man against man. For example, look at the way the government interferes with trade. With all its tariffs and taxes, is it not like a man who intentionally obstructs the railroad tracks?

Speaking practically as a citizen, I do not request that our government be abolished immediately, but rather that we immediately have a better government. Let us imagine what type of government is deserving of our respect, and perhaps one day we shall have it.

What is democracy? What does it mean to be ruled by a majority? Is “the majority” right because there are more of them than those who disagree? Of course not. The majority rule on the basis of strength, not because they are right. This is not justice. Can we not instead have a government which makes decisions on the basis of right and wrong rather than what “the majority” thinks? Should I be required to go against what I think is right just because the majority says so? Must I deny my own conscience? If so, then why do we have consciences in the first place? Should we not be men first, and only subjects afterwards?

Respect for “the law” does not make men just. All it does is make them agents for injustice. In the name of “the law,” man is willing to commit any atrocity. Just look at the soldiers, colonels, captains, and privates, all marching together out of an undue respect for the law rather than what’s right, in order to kill their fellow man. Having suppressed their own consciences, are they still men, or merely movable forts and magazines?

Most men serve their country not as men, but as machines. They serve with their bodies, not their consciences. The army, the jailors, and the tax-collectors all do their government’s bidding without ever questioning if what they’re doing is right or wrong. As if made of wood or clay, they unquestioningly fulfill these functions, and as a result are celebrated as “good citizens.”

Likewise, the law-makers, politicians, and office-holders, while using their heads instead of their bodies, nevertheless also do not make decisions on the basis of right and wrong. They are just as likely to serve the Devil as they are God. Only the very few, those true patriots and martyrs, serve the state with their consciences as real men. Unfortunately, these great heroes, who oppose the system when they believe it to be in the wrong, are considered enemies and treated as such by the state.

Our government does not want real men. It is not interested in our opinions, merely our obedience and unconditional support. But I say that an honest man cannot help but be disgraced by any government which support slavery. The wise man must resist conformity at all costs.

As Americans, we all recognize the right to revolt, to refuse allegiance and to resist when we think that we are being governed in an oppressive way. We revolted against Great Britain, and for what? Because they taxed our tea! Was this really such a tyranny? Could we not have done without the tea, or simply have paid the tax? Was this really a cause worth rebelling over?

In contrast, look at what we are doing right now. In this supposed “land of freedom,” we have allowed one sixth of our population to exist as slaves. At the same time, we are engaged in an unjust war. And for what? So that we may have more land? We have become the oppressors. It is our government which acts like a tyrant, and against which we must now rebel.

Some say that we should allow the government to do whatever it wants, since upsetting it would be too great a burden. But what right do we have to commit injustice simply because it would be “inconvenient” not to? We must put an end to both slavery and the war in Mexico. We must stop committing these injustices, even if it means the dissolution of ourselves as a people. Like having stolen a plank from a drowning man, we must give it back to him even if it means we will drown ourselves.

Here in Massachusetts, people claim that it is because of those Southern politicians that there is still slavery. But those politicians in the South are only allowed to continue what they are doing because we in the North support their actions from afar, having turned a blind eye toward humanity. My quarrel is therefore not with them, but with my fellow neighbor, those wealthy merchants and farmers who care neither about slavery nor the war, but are content to go on with “business as usual.”

There are thousands in the North who are opposed to both slavery and the war, but how many actually do something about it? All they do is read about what’s going on in the newspapers and mutter their opinions. They hope someone else will do something about it, so that they will have less to be regretful about. At best, they cast a vote. For every thousand people who claim to be a patron of virtue, there is only one man who is truly virtuous.

What is voting anyways? Voting is merely a gamble, the hope that your desire will be executed by someone else. But voting itself doesn’t change anything. Voting for what’s right doesn’t make it “exist.” People affect change, not votes. This is why the wise person does not leave important things to a vote, knowing that collectively people rarely act virtuously.

If the majority of American were to vote to end slavery, it would only be because slavery had already become of little importance to them. The majority will only vote to end slavery when “slavery” itself has all but come to an end, and the people themselves have become the new “slaves.” Let us therefore stand up against slavery while we are still free men.

I hear there is going to be a convention in Baltimore to determine who should be the next president. Basically, a group of politicians are getting together to decide who we should elect. But why should it matter who they nominate? Do we not have our own brains? Shouldn’t we be able to decide for ourselves who we want to lead our nation. Isn’t that what democracy is about?

Unfortunately, most people simply go along with this charade, electing whoever the convention says “should be” president. Very few people cast an independent vote, but rather allow their vote to be bought by one of the established parties as if they were no more than an ignorant foreigner coming off a ship and greeted with a pamphlet and a smile. In this way, the American people have shown that they are carefree and reckless, having abandoned their duty to cast their vote on the basis of a truly informed decision, and instead allowing themselves to be manipulated and victims of shameless demagoguery.

Now, I don’t believe we are required to correct all the evils in the world. However, I do believe that we have a responsibility not to personally commit acts of evil. But just just look at the hypocrisy that goes on in this country! The same man who says he would never resist a slave’s freedom goes ahead and pays allegiance to the government responsible for committing this very crime. Likewise, the soldier who refuses to fight in this unjust war nevertheless with his tax dollars pays the government to find someone else to take his place.

What’s going on when masses of men disagree with their government, but through some sense of “virtue” nevertheless feel compelled to support it? It is considered patriotic to support one’s government no matter what. But in truth, it is these “patriots,” who do not stand up for themselves, who are in fact the greatest obstacle to reform. These people petition the State to dissolve the Union, so that they will not be associated with slavery and the South. But why don’t they disassociate themselves from the State? Do they not stand in the same relation to the State as the State does to the Union?

How can people hold their opinions but do nothing of real value to effect change? If any man knew his neighbor stole from him even a 100 dollars, he would make sure to get it back, even going so far as to take the other to court in search of justice. But when it comes to slavery and the war, people rest content to mutter their opinions, all the while doing nothing. What people don’t understand is the power of right. When action is based on real principles, it has real force, capable of separating good from evil, and fueling a revolution.

Must we obey unjust laws, at least obey them until they can be changed? Must we wait for “the majority” before we can act conscionably? People think that resisting the law is some great evil, but why is it an “evil” in the first place? It is only evil because the government says so. The government resists reform at all costs. Instead of saying “Thank you” when an individual points out its faults, it seeks to suppress his voice. Why must the State always crucify Christ, excommunicate Luther, and declare Washington a rebel?

How come the government cannot acknowledge the validity of those who resist it? It’s as if this action was never thought of when the laws were created. If I steal from the State, there is a specific penalty. But, if I refuse to cooperate with the State, for example by not paying my taxes, I can be imprisoned for any length of time the State desires!

Every machine has its frictions, and the government is no different. But when you are asked to personally commit an injustice, this is going too far. At that point, I say resist the government and its laws. Allow yourself to be a “counter-friction,” to stop the machine, for it is now your integrity which is at stake.

The fact is, the State provides no real way of remedying these evils. First of all, going through the political process takes forever, and I have other things to do with my time. I was not created to spend my life struggling with government bureaucracies, endlessly petitioning the same politicians and law-makers which I myself seek to be free of. But on an even more fundamental level, the fact is that our very Constitution supports the institution of slavery.

I therefore proclaim that all those opposed to slavery in Massachusetts should immediately withdraw their support from the government. Let us not wait for a majority when we already have God on our side. Besides, any man more right than his neighbor already constitutes a “majority of one.”

I myself must deal with the American government once a year, in the form of the tax-collector. This man, who lives in my own town, is in fact the only person I can interact with to express my displeasure with the government. In turn, when I quarrel with him, he must decide how to treat me, whether as a free man exercising his conscience, or merely a “disturber of the peace.”

I tell you this: if a thousand men, if a hundred men… if even one man were to be locked up for not paying his taxes and refusing to participate in our government’s crimes, this would be the end of slavery in America. What matters is not how big or small the action is, but that there is a beginning. To all those who oppose slavery and proclaim this to be their sacred mission, how many are willing to put their own life on the line?

When the government is willing to imprison someone unjustly, the only place for a just man is in prison. The jailhouse is the only place where the State can put those who oppose it, and yet, it is here alone that a real man can now live with honor. To those who believe that in prison you cannot effect change, I tell you that you do not realize the power of casting your whole vote, not just a piece of paper but your whole person for the cause of righteousness.

The minority will always be drowned out by the majority when it accepts conformity. But, if it stands fast and resists the machine, its weight is unstoppable. The State cannot imprison every just man. If forced to choose, it will give up both slavery and the war in Mexico. Therefore, let a thousand men not pay their taxes this year, and see how it is possible to stop evil when one decides to no longer be a participant. Through peaceful revolution, we can stop the violence and bloodshed.

Furthermore, when you refuse to pay the tax-collector and he asks “What should I do,” tell him to quit his job. If he agrees and thus refuses to serve any longer as an agent of injustice, then the revolution is complete. We must resist both the injustices our government commits against others, as well as the violence it does against our own souls.

By resisting the government, you not only risk imprisonment, but also having your possessions seized. Therefore, those who are concerned with what is right will not spend their lives trying to acquire material things. The wise man realizes that he must be self-reliant, and able to do without when necessary. This allows him to be free of the State, for he has little to protect. His most guarded possession is his integrity, which he alone is in a position to defend.

The rich man, however, is indebted to the State for protecting his assets. In this way, he soon becomes its slave. Living a life of ease and ceasing to be concerned with matters of true importance, he becomes caught up in the question of how to best spend his money. The man who is most truly “alive” is therefore the one who has the least “means” for living. Let the rich man do what he would have done while he was still poor.

A few years ago, the State threatened to imprison me for not having paid dues to the local church. But why should I have to support the church when I wasn’t even a member? As it happens, someone else paid what was demanded and so the State left me alone. Nevertheless, I’d like to make one thing clear: I have no interest in being regarded as a member of any society or organization which I have not personally chosen to join.

I have also not paid the poll-tax, which our government requires of every person simply for existing, for the past six years. For this offense, I was put in jail where I stayed for one night. Inside that cell of wood and iron, I realized just how foolish the State is, for it thinks that I am merely flesh and blood. It thinks it can enslave me, but my soul remains free. They may have been able to separate myself from the rest of the town, but they cannot separate me from myself. Like children, unable to corrupt my soul, they instead choose to punish my body. I realized that the State does not know its friends from its enemies, and so I lost my remaining respect for it.

In this way, the State does not confront men as men, but merely as physical beings. It uses its superior physical force, not any greater moral force, to overwhelm its resistors. But I was born a free man, and I will breathe after my own fashion. Let’s see whose will bends first. Who can force me to obey except that which is truly a higher power?

The State is a flawed machine, this is clear, but it is not my duty to fix it. Nevertheless, I will not allow it to determine how I live my life. A man must live as a man. Like an acorn and a chestnut which fall next to each other, each must grow according to its own nature.

Being in prison was like traveling in a foreign land. I felt as if I had been transported to the Middle Ages. Although I was only there for one night, I came to see things with new eyes. I realized that no one really cared that I had gone to prison, and that my “friends” and neighbors were as quick to turn their back on me in times of trouble as they were to say hello on the street. The people of my town do not truly care about what’s right, nor do they risk themselves for what they supposedly believe in. Their only concern is to walk that straight line throughout life, with the occasional gesture and a prayer, and the hope that their souls will ultimately be spared.

I left the jailhouse, and continued with my affairs the same as if I had awoken from my own bed. That very afternoon I was hiking through a huckleberry field a few miles from town, a place from which the State was nowhere to be seen.

Sometimes I think, why should I allow myself or my possessions to be harmed by the State? I wouldn’t keep my hand in a fire, nor bash my head against a stone wall. I wouldn’t submit myself to cold or hunger, the winds or waves, so why do I not likewise protect myself from the folly of men? The difference is that unlike the laws of nature, the laws of men can be changed. Unlike the nature of earth and rock, men’s character can change. I therefore am not a fatalist when it comes to the actions of men, but remain hopeful for the future.

The truth is, I want to find right in the laws and in the society in which I live. I want to be obedient, to conform, and to pay my taxes. I’m not interested in creating unnecessary quarrels, splitting hairs, or causing a ruckus. I believe that one’s country should be revered as one reveres one’s parents, and one day, I hope that our government will be worthy of such respect. Unfortunately, at the present this is simply not the case.

I know that most politicians and law-makers disagree with me, claiming that one should work within rather than against the system. Naturally, their professions require them to take this position. But while the government and its laws are made for the sake of “expediency”, the world is a much larger and more magnificent creation. My concern is therefore not with expediency, but with what is right.

Those who know of no higher source of truth than the Bible and the Constitution are content to drink from these streams. But for those who are able to see that Truth comes from even greater heights, let them continue even further in their journey.

In truth, America has never been blessed with great law-makers. We love the orator, the speaker of eloquence, whose fine words soothe our ears despite being devoid of truth. Our country has yet to recognize the value of free trade, solidarity, and integrity. Left to their own devices, the legislators of our country will surely bring about its demise. Let us therefore always be on guard, and never take it for granted that those in charge of making the laws are in fact being guided by divine wisdom.

The government’s authority will always be unjust in so far as it has not been sanctioned and agreed upon by the people. Certainly, progress has been made in moving from monarchy to democracy, but I envision an even more just form of government, one that truly respects the individual. Is democracy the last possible improvement? Are there not further institutions to come capable of respecting the individual as the highest moral power? Is it not possible for a State to respectfully leave some alone, who choose not to be involved in its affairs? I like to think so, and I often imagine what such a glorious State might look like.