Celebrating “Civil Disobedience”

| History

image of a globe in dim lighting with words imposed over it: "When... 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. Henry David Thoreau, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" (1849)"Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago on July 12, 1817. His essay, “Civil Disobedience” (1849), has influenced thousands of protesters, war tax resisters, and direct action practitioners over the years. Part of the essay recounts his night in jail as a war tax resister, while other sections call on people to act in their own ways against state violence.

Today we celebrate the spirit of “Civil Disobedience,” also sometimes called “Resistance to Civil Government,” or “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” In the following passages, Thoreau calls us to disobey a state that commands us to kill, enslave, and subjugate – or to pay for others to do the same.

 

“How does it be­come a man to be­have to­ward this Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment to-day? I an­swer that he can­not with­out dis­grace be as­so­ci­a­ted with it. I can­not for an in­stant re­cog­nize that po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­za­tion as my gov­ern­ment which is the slave’s gov­ern­ment also.”

 

“In other words, 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; who, es­teem­ing them­selves chil­dren of Wash­ing­ton and Frank­lin, sit down with their hands in their pock­ets, and say that they know not what to do, and do noth­ing; who even post­pone the ques­tion of free­dom to the ques­tion of free-trade, and qui­etly read the prices-cur­rent along with the latest ad­vices from Mex­ico, af­ter din­ner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both.”

 

“I have heard some of my towns­men say, “I should like to have them or­der me out to help put down an in­sur­rec­tion of the slaves, or to march to Mex­ico, — see if I would go;” and yet these very men have each, di­rectly by their al­le­giance, and so in­di­rectly, at least, by their money, fur­nished a sub­sti­tute. 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; is ap­plauded by those whose own act and au­thor­ity he dis­re­gards and sets at nought; as if the State were pen­i­tent to that de­gree that it hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that de­gree that it left off sin­ning for a mo­ment. Thus, un­der the name of order and civil gov­ern­ment, we are all made at last to pay hom­age to and sup­port our own mean­ness.”

sepia-toned picture of the backs of early 20th-century soldiers with text superimposed: "I have heard some of my towns­men say, “I should like to have them or­der me out to help put down an in­sur­rec­tion of the slaves, or to march to Mex­ico, — see if I would go;” and yet these very men have each, di­rectly by their al­le­giance, and so in­di­rectly, at least, by their money, fur­nished a sub­sti­tute. Henry David Thoreau, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" (1849), nwtrcc.org/Thoreau200years

“Thus the State never in­ten­tion­ally con­fronts a man’s sense, in­tel­lec­tual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with su­pe­rior wit or hon­esty, but with su­pe­rior phys­i­cal strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe af­ter my own fash­ion. Let us see who is the strong­est.”

 

Check out additional readings and resources at our Henry David Thoreau Bicentennial page.

Learn more about war tax resistance.

Read the rest of “Civil Disobedience” at The Picket Line.

One thought on “Celebrating “Civil Disobedience””

  1. Ruth Benn says:

    Watching Jeopardy last night, the July 12 show, in the Thoreau category (honoring the bicentennial so that was cool) in response to a clue to name the essay that includes this quote – “That government is best which governs least”……
    2 answered with some version of Walden and the other person just looked lost.
    It was sad to see, so more people should share this link to this bog post!!

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