Civil Disobedience

By Henry David Thoreau

Synopsis: This booklet published by the Libertas Institute, as part of an inexpensive pass-along series of literature, contains the classic work by Thoreau about the right of a person to dissent from the dictates of a government when they feel that it is the right thing to do. Thoreau wrote his essay in 1849 a few years after spending a night in jail for refusing to pay a tax that would go to support slavery and the war in Mexico. This essay has been influential on Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Also contained in the booklet, after the essay, are several interpretative essays commenting on Thoreau’s work.

Strong Points: This book is a quick read, and very inexpensive ($1.00 apiece), and therefore is great for buying up in bulk and passing out to friends. I tip my hat to the Libertas Institute for initiating a series like this, and hope to see future additions to it. It is great to have a classic in freedom literature in such a handy and accessible format. As for Thoreau’s work itself, there are some profound moments in it. The writings seem to conflict somewhat with the 12th Article of Faith, wherein, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” On the other hand, it goes a long way toward justifying Church members and Authorities defying anti-polygamy laws in the nineteenth century for as long as they did: If a law goes against something that is right, it should be ignored.

Weak Points: While there were profound moments in the essay, Thoreau’s writing was wordy, rather uninteresting, and not always very clear, which I felt caused the message to suffer. He did not write with the lucidity of Bastiat (who, incidentally, also has a book in this series, The Law). For that reason, I wonder if it might have been better to have had the interpretative essays appear first, before Thoreau’s, to prep the reader better as an introduction. (The bookmark study guide provided with the booklet was helpful, too.) Also, I wondered about the practicality of Thoreau’s message; not everyone can put themselves as risk of imprisonment by the state because they object to what the state does. However, as one of the explanatory essays stated, Thoreau would have acquiesced to the impracticality of that.

Interesting: 3/5

Must Read: 3.5/5

Overall: 3.5/5

Pages: 70

Selected Quotes: “Law never made men a whit more just, and by means of their respect for it, even the well disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.” (p. 3).

“The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense, but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones – and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the state chiefly with their heads, and as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.” (p. 4).

“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? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?
“But if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.” (p. 12, 13).   

“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 a superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.” (p. 20).

“…to be strictly just, it [the government] must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it.” (p. 29).

“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.” (p. 30).


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