Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience: Summary and Analysis

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  • 0:05 Thoreau's Civil Disobedience
  • 0:50 Instructions for Civil…
  • 2:07 Thoreau and American Identity
  • 3:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

Henry David Thoreau wrote the essay Civil Disobedience to show his opposition to slavery and American imperialism. His essay has influenced many prominent civil rights activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thoreau's Civil Disobedience

When you think of models of American civil disobedience, who comes to mind? Rosa Parks? Martin Luther King, Jr.? Did you think of Henry David Thoreau? His is not a name currently associated with the idea of civil disobedience but in the 1840s, he literally wrote the book on the topic...well actually, he wrote the essay.

Thoreau's essay Civil Disobedience or Resistance to Civil Government, published in 1849, is a call to arms similar to the stances that people like Parks and King would later take. Thoreau argued that people owed it to themselves and their fellow man not to blindly follow their government if they believe their rules and laws are unjust. This was partly motivated by Thoreau's dislike of slavery and the American government's support of it.

Instructions for Civil Disobedience

Though Thoreau begins the essay expressing his serious displeasure with the American government, he wasn't advocating for true anarchy. That's where the 'civil' part of 'civil disobedience' comes in. Instead, he argues in the essay that American citizens should really follow their own consciences, and that those who opposed slavery or the Mexican-American War should stop paying taxes, because paying taxes to a government that supported those things was basically offering them support. Civil Disobedience argued that what a person believed to be right is more important than what was mandated by the government. It states: 'Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.'

Which brings me to the question you're probably asking yourself, 'if you refuse to pay taxes, won't you go to jail?' In Thoreau's case, the answer is yes. He did briefly go to jail for refusing to the pay the poll tax, basically just a per-person tax that existed back then. But since Thoreau was a transcendentalist, he believed that if his soul and conscience was free, then he was free, even if he was technically behind bars. As we've covered in other videos, transcendentalists believe in freeing one's self from the material world and focusing on self-reliance, and that people could become more imprisoned by a desire for material wealth than by the bars of a physical jail.

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