On May 14, 1849 an essay called Resistance to Civil Government was published in an anthology called Æsthetic Papers. It would be a gross overstatement to claim that it immediately shook the world, or even that it attracted much attention at all beyond a narrow audience of New England intellectuals known collectively as the Transcendentalists. The author, a dreamy 32 year old sometime handy man for his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson and the operator of a small pencil factory, was obscure. The works that would bring Henry David Thoreau a measure of fame and notoriety as a hermit philosopher and naturalist lay in the future. But despite such an unpromising beginning the little essay, which would later variously published under the titles Civil Disobedience, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, and On Civil Disobedience would influence generations yet unborn and helped inspire movements which changed history.
Thoreau was an intellectually curious, somewhat socially inept, son of a local pencil maker of French descent and a mother of established New England stock. He was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12, 1817. He was reared in the historic Concord Unitarian church served by Rev. Ezra Ripley until 1841. When the beloved and liberal Ripley died that year and the pulpit was assumed by a new minister who he considered insufficiently in touch with the divine and over concerned with doctrine, Thoreau resigned his membership and never returned, except for funerals and rites of family and friends. He remained, however within the broader intellectual life that encompassed many Unitarian ministers and lay people and which was the hatching ground for the Transcendentalist movement.
He was educated at Harvard, but did not settle into one of the expected respectable careers of law, medicine, ministry or business. Instead he became a school teacher and tutor—the occupation of a gentleman without prospects. After a brief stint as a public school teacher in Concord, which he resigned because he would not administer required corporal punishment, he and his beloved older brother John began their own Concord Academy in 1838. The school shocked folks by taking students out of the classroom for frequent walks through the meadows and woods to explore nature and visits to local shops and businesses like the blacksmith where middle class students were shown how things were actually made. The school ended when John died in his brother’s arms of tetanus in 1842.Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau's friend, mentor, some-time employer, and landlord at Walden Pond.
During these years Thoreau fell in with Emerson’s circle when the Sage of Concord returned to his ancestral home after his unsuccessful turn at a Boston pulpit. He became one of the first members of the group that regularly congregated at the philosopher’s home. Emerson enticed his friends to join him in Concord, and many did. Others frequently made the short trips from Boston and Cambridge. Among those regularly in this circle were Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May), the poet Ellery Channing, Margaret Fuller (editor of The Dial), Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia and Sophia’s accomplished sisters Elizabeth and Mary Peabody.
Although only a few years older than Thoreau, Emerson became a friend and surrogate father. He encouraged Thoreau to publish his first work in The Dial and instructed him to start a personal journal. From 1841-44 he actually lived most of the time in Emerson’s home functioning as a tutor to his children, an editorial assistant for the busy writer, and a handyman.
Later, he would enter the family pencil business, working side by side with his employees. He continued this, with the notable exception of his two years at Walden, for most of the rest of his life. He was on one hand alienated by the distractions of day-to-day business, and on the other quite diligent. He adopted new methods of pencil manufacture which mixed clay as a binder with graphite for improved stability and longer life, and in his last years pioneered the use of graphite to ink typesetting machines.
He often spoke of establishing a small subsistence farm to get away from business and concentrate on his writing. His move to Emerson’s woodlot in April of 1845 was sort of an experimental half-step to that dream. Emerson agreed to allow Thoreau to build his cabin and cultivate a small garden in exchange for clearing part of the woodlot and continuing to do other chores for the Emerson family.
During the 26 months Thoreau spent mostly at Walden, he worked on the manuscript of an account of an 1839 hiking trip with his brother John and kept a notebook, as Emerson had suggested, about his experiences and musings. During his time there he was hardly the recluse of later myth. He regularly made the short walk into town.A medal commemorating the night he spent in jail issued by the Thoreau Society.
On one trip into the village in July of 1846, Thoreau had a chance encounter with the local tax collector, who demanded payments for six-years-in-arrears Poll Taxes. He refused to pay in protest to the Mexican War and the Fugitive Slave Law and was arrested. He was released the next day when, against his will, his mother paid his arrearage. He later used this experience as the basis for a lecture at the Concord Lyceum in 1848, The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government, which he amended into the essay published by Elizabeth Peabody in the Æsthetic Papers.
The essay came at a time when members of his circle were becoming increasingly agitated over slavery and particularly its extension into additional territories. The inevitability that the War with Mexico following the annexation of Texas would bring more slave states into the Union had fueled fierce and vocal opposition from Emerson and most of his friends. But beyond making speeches and publishing blistering articles, they had not put together any effective opposition to the war or impeded its execution in the slightest.
The Lyceum lecture, delivered as the war still raged, was effectively a gauntlet hurled down at the feet of his closest friends charging them with hypocrisy and complicity in not only the war but the continued existence of slavery itself by not acting positively and personally regardless of the consequences and costs.
Culturally even the most radical of the Transcendentalists were inheritors of Federalism—the conservative political doctrine that because humanity was inherently wicked it required the constraint of government to uphold public morality and promote common good. That government was best when conducted sober, educated, and “disinterested” individuals—a natural aristocracy of virtue to which all sensible men owed allegiance. By its nature it posited a common, over-riding morality.
Thoreau would have none of it. It many ways he was the inheritor of the despised democrat Thomas Jefferson. He distrusted government—all government and held that by its very nature it was coercive and the agency of more harm than good. It was Thoreau, not Jefferson as commonly supposed who wrote in the published version of the lecture that:
I heartily accept the motto,—“That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,—“That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.
In this Thoreau went far beyond Jeffersonian agrarian democracy. Jefferson had believed that the democratic voice of the people was the antidote to tyranny and aristocracy and that from time to time the democratic people would have to “water the Tree of Liberty with blood” to restore a government that respected their rights. Thoreau had little confidence in democracy which simply by virtue of being ruled by majorities does not also gain the virtues of wisdom and justice. Instead, he placed his faith in individual conscience to oppose tyranny and corruption in whatever guise.
Jefferson was often a theoretical revolutionist. Thoreau was frank in supporting an immediate upturning of all oppressive government. It is “not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.” He acknowledged that revolutions have dire consequences of suffering and expense. But in the face of an evil as monumental as slavery, any sacrifice and travail was worth it. “This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.”
While he didn’t appeal for an armed insurrection, he never ruled one out—something his later pacifist admirers overlook or ignore. He did not even seem to recommend collective action of any kind. Instead he advocated action by each moral individual to refuse to cooperate in any meaningful way with the state which by its very existence fosters slavery and other ills. He dismissed ordinary political action to achieve change while obeying the law until it is changed as cowardly. An unjust law, he argued, has no validity and a citizen owed no allegiance to a Constitution that enshrined and enabled slavery.
Thoreau’s refusal to pay the poll tax was an example of that individual action done regardless of personal consequences. The poll tax supported the machinery of the government of Massachusetts which out of concern for profits and business was complicit in Southern slavery. He exhorted abolitionists to do the same regardless of the consequences. In fact, he argued, under such circumstances prison would be the only just home. He also argued that refusal to pay taxes was a way in which a moral minority might effectively make revolution:
Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.… where the State places those who are not with her, but against her,– the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.… Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.
In citing his own experience, which cost him only one famous night in jail he complained that, “Someone interfered and paid that tax,” a pointed jab at his friend/benefactor Emerson.
In the end, Thoreau acknowledged that the government in the United States was not as bad as many systems and even had some admirable qualities. But he insisted it was possible to do better and that there was no reason for blind loyalty to the current system simply because others were worse.
The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual.… Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.Thoreau was not the pacifist sometime pained by his modern admirers. He supported and spoke out in favor of John Brown.
By the time the lecture was transformed to the printed page, the War with Mexico was over. But the issue of the expansion of slavery that it caused was about to boil over. The Compromise of 1850 which included the Fugitive Slave Act was about to bring the issue of compliance with unjust laws front and center. In Massachusetts and elsewhere Abolitionists set out to defy the law in all of its particulars and to shelter runaway slaves, even to rescue them from proper and legal authority. This was often done with violence. Thoreau approved of and supported that. For him it was Civil Disobedience in action, as was the attempt to lead a slave rebellion by John Brown a few years later.
The dreamy Thoreau was not a pacifist like the Universalist Adin Ballou who expressed similar ideas in Christian non-Resistance in 1846 and broke with former Abolitionist associates like William Lloyd Garrison over support of Brown and violence to end slavery. Thoreau’s essay gained influence, especially after the publication of Walden in 1852 made him a better known figure.Thoreau's contemporary Universalsit pacifist Adin Balou developed the concept of Christian Non-Resistance which later thinkers including Tolstoy and Gandhi would combine with his civil disobedience.
As for Thoreau himself, after leaving his cabin at Walden in September 1847 he unsuccessfully sought a publisher for the manuscript he had been working on and finally took Emerson’s advice to print it at his own expense. He commissioned 1000 copies of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers from Emerson’s publisher, but was only ever able to sell 300. He had to work for years at the pencil factory to pay off this debt, which somewhat cooled his relationship with Emerson.
While working at the factory, Thoreau polished his Walden journal notes into a manuscript compressing his two year experience into a single year for the book, divided in symbolic seasonal quarters. It was finally published in 1854.
Thoreau became a prolific writer and essayist. He produced books on local history and became an increasingly skilled naturalist. His later books on nature helped inspire the ecology movement more than a century later. He also remained a defiant abolitionist and became one of the few writers who publicly came to the defense of John Brown after the failed raid at Harper’s Ferry.
He never married, although he claimed to be an admirer of women. Louisa May Alcott believed his lopsided features and the scraggly neck beard he wore in his Walden period repelled women who might otherwise have been interested. Modern biographers refer to him as largely asexual.
He suffered from consumption—tuberculosis—from at least 1836, which left him in fragile health despite his frequent extended tramps in the woods and fields. He contracted bronchitis while trying to count tree rings of recently felled old growth trees in a cold rainstorm in 1859 and never recovered his strength. He spent his last years bed ridden and editing his final manuscripts.
He died at peace with himself on May 6, 1862 at the age of 44. Bronson Alcott arranged the funeral service where Ellery Channing read an original elegy and Emerson, almost beside himself with grief, delivered the eulogy. He was buried in a family plot which was later moved to Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
Thoreau’s reputation grew posthumously, especially after his journals and other private writings were published in the late 19th Century. Walden became required reading in many high school English classes and influenced the emerging counter-culture of the 1960s.The 1967 U.S. postage stamp commemorating Thoreau came out during the era of the anti-Vietnam War movement and hippie counter culture. Both the image and the man outraged conservatives./////////
When the Post Office, at the height of the Hippy movement in 1967 issued a Thoreau commemorative showing his misshapen face and scraggly appearance, it set off a firestorm of invective from the right. Henry David would have been proud.
The influence of On Civil Disobedience since the writer’s death has been profound and widespread. The great Russian writer Count Leo Tolstoy, who held the cause of freeing the serfs as dear as Thoreau felt Abolitionism, was an early admirer. He had also read Adin Ballou. He was the first to graft Ballou’s pacifism onto Thoreau’s individual revolutionary resistance.Via Tolstoy Mohandas Gandhi developed the ideas of Thoreau and Ballou and applied them to a mass movement.
Tolstoy in turn was the gateway through which Mohandas Gandhi was introduced to Thoreau. He discovered the American while organizing exploited and oppressed Indian workers in South Africa and explicitly acknowledged him for inspiring his first campaigns of passive resistance in his book For Passive Resisters in 1907. Later as a nationalist out to win independence for his people, Gandhi was not much interested in either Tolstoy’s outright anarchism or Thoreau’s extreme skepticism of government. It was always his aim to establish a parliamentary democracy on the English model he had long admired. His interpretation of Thoreau was, however, overlaid with Tolstoy’s pacifism with more than a dollop of Ballou.
In incorporating Thoreau’s idea of civil disobedience into his philosophy of Satyagraha Gandhi effectively expanded the idea from individual action to a conscious and disciplined mass movement which changed it from being theoretically revolutionary, to being a highly practical revolutionary strategy. Not without great cost and sacrifice it ultimately drove the British out of India and gave birth to a nation.
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously encountered Thoreau as a seminarian in Boston. He later described the experience in his autobiography:
During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.
I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.
Actually they are a fusion of Thoreau and Gandhi. But echoes of Thoreau’s call to personal responsibility echo particularly in King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail which like the New Englander’s Lyceum lecture boldly challenged “good people” to lay aside both fear and the complacent view that the situation will work itself out in the long run and make a personal commitment to moral action.The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. recognied mass civil disobediance coupled with non-violence as a revolutionary strategy.
King emphasized Gandhian non-violence in his campaigns both out of sincere religious conviction and out of the practical conviction that armed violence or rebellion would so awaken the deep seated fears of White Americans rooted in the slave rebellions that they would crush such a rebellion with overwhelming force and wreck terrible collective punishment on his people. Instead he hoped to use non-violent defiance of Jim Crow laws to provoke violence, over reaction, and mass arrests to gain the sympathy and support of the White Americans, particularly in the North, who would pressure Congress for basic change. Despite his rhetoric of hoping to win over the hearts of his immediate oppressor, King held little hope in magically transforming hardened Southern attitudes. As a strategy mass civil disobedience worked extremely well and led to the passage of a series of landmark Civil Rights bills.
Perhaps the most direct heirs of Thoreau’s individual conscious disobedience were the radical Catholic anti-nuclear, anti-Vietnam War, and anti-draft movements epitomized by the likes of the Berrigan Brothers and their raids on Draft Boards and nuclear missile sites. Along with draft card burning, wide spread refusal of induction, and a movement to refuse to pay war taxes those actions represented just the kind of personal action and self-sacrifice Thoreau was talking about.Were the insurrectionists who besieged the Capitol in January the unwitting heirs of Thoreau's civil disobedience?
Ironically today perhaps those who most encompass the whole of Thoreau’s message are elements of the far right who share his almost complete distrust of government and especially resonate with his refusal to pay taxes beginning with the Tea Party Movement before it was co-opted into an Astroturf front for billionaire worshipers of Ayn Rand. A lot of their quasi-libertarian rhetoric had a familiar ring. Remnants of it could even be found among those who stormed the Capital in insurrection. Few of those, however, recognized the source. Of course some of the movement’s “intellectuals” know about Thoreau and may consciously have internalized his methods, the rank and file has been taught to distrust him because his causes were abolitionism and anti-militarism and expansionism. Moreover he was a nature worshiping heathen who has inspired the despised environmental movement. And the religious right has long viewed the whole Transcendentalist movement as the beginning of the downfall of their supposed Christian American utopia and as a nest of Eastern elitist atheism. So Thoreau will get no chops from them.
You can also see the roots of civil disobedience unhitched from the absolute pacifism of Gandhi and King in many of the world mass movements of the last decades including all of the color coded revolutions in Eastern Europe, the Arab Spring, in Palestinian resistance in Israel, Western European anti-austerity movements, and the Occupy Movement and Black Lives Matter Movement in this country.
You have to hand it to him. One way or another Henry David really started something.