Civil Disobedience (Thoreau)

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Civil Disobedience (Resistance to Civil Government) is a text by Henry David Thoreau. It was first printed in 1849. It says that people should not allow a government to order them to do wrong things.

About "Civil Disobedience"[change | change source]

In 1848, Thoreau lectured at the Concord Lyceum (a place for people to meet and learn in the town of Concord, Massachusetts). The words of the lecture were later printed with the name Resistance to Civil Government in 1849. Now many people call it "Civil Disobedience" which means: "not doing what the government orders you to do."

In the early 1840s Thoreau stopped paying his "poll tax" (a tax that is the same amount for everybody). He was angry that the government used tax money to make people slaves and to war with Mexico. Thoreau did not want to help them do these things. In 1846 the tax agent put Thoreau in prison for one night. Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience to say why he would not pay.

Summary[change | change source]

Thoreau says governments are more bad than good, and society without government would be more good. Letting people vote does not make government good, because people may vote for bad things. One person with their conscience (their feeling of right and wrong) may make decisions that are more good than decisions made by governments or by most of the people who vote.

Thoreau says the United States government, because it makes people slaves, cannot be his government. People should end such a government. To end a government is difficult, but because the government is so bad, we must end it anyway.

Most of the people Thoreau was talking to also did not like slavery or the war with Mexico. But Thoreau said they must do more than to dislike these things, or to vote against these things, or to hope these things will end. They must also stop supporting these things by paying taxes. If the government puts you in prison because you do not pay taxes, then it is good to be in prison because, if the government is bad, prison is the right place for good people. If the government attempted to put all good people in prison, the government would end first, and this would be a revolution of peace.

It is easier to be brave if you have less that the government can take from you. So Thoreau suggests that people own less, and that they value what is good and not value property only.

Some people who liked "Civil Disobedience"[change | change source]

Mohandas Gandhi[change | change source]

Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi (or Mahatma Gandhi) liked what Thoreau wrote. In 1907, when Gandhi was starting his first satyagraha fight in South Africa, he printed a short outline of Civil Disobedience that he wrote in an Indian language. He said that Civil Disobedience was the largest cause for the end of slavery in America, and that Indians in South Africa should learn from that example.

Martin Luther King, Jr.[change | change source]

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also liked what Thoreau wrote. In his autobiography, he wrote that Thoreau taught him that it is as important not to help bad people as it is to help good people. He said that Thoreau's lessons "came alive" in the civil rights movement.

References[change | change source]