I have been meaning to read “Civil Disobedience” for a very long time, and finally finished about a month ago. As you might know from some of my other posts, I am passionate about liberty, self-ownership, and non-aggression. If you’re passionate about something – and really believe in it – then Thoreau’s essay will certainly challenge you to act on your beliefs. He spent a night in jail after refusing to pay a poll tax, believing that it meant he condoned the Mexican-American war, slavery, and other transgressions undertaken by the government. In any case, he was a man of his word and put his money where his mouth was – an incredibly inspiring example of someone throwing down the gauntlet and challenging the reader to live as he/she believes.
So, I’ll share with you some of the quotes that compelled me to get a pencil and underline them. These are roughly in order as they appear in the essay.
But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? – in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.
When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is that fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.
There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them…There are nine hundred and ninety-patrons of virtue to one virtuous man.
Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.
The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war.
Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?
I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to nature, it dies; and so a man.
It is for no particular item in the tax bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually.
That’s just a small sample of Thoreau’s writing, but I find it eloquent, compelling, and intelligent. The essay is short, and I’d recommend it for anyone.