In his essay “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau opens by saying, “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’” ( ), and then clarifies that his true belief is “‘That government is best which governs not at all’” ( ). In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau evaluates the federal government critically, contending that it is an artificial institution created by the powerful while acknowledging that it is believed to serve a purpose and is likely to remain a feature of American life. Given these circumstances, in his essay on civil disobedience Thoreau encourages, in one of the important quotes from “Civil Disobedience” by Thoreau that, “every man make known what kind of government would command his respect [as] one step toward obtaining it” ( ). Civil disobedience is the strategy for articulating one’s beliefs. As this thesis statement for “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau suggests, the author defines the act of civil disobedience by explaining the thoughts and emotions that should guide it, and these include having a sense of rightness and moral conscience.
A number of social as well as historical conditions provoked Thoreau’s thought and resulting essay on the subject of civil disobedience. One of the factors that influenced Thoreau to consider civil disobedience as a method of resistance was the poor treatment of Mexico by the United States. In ”Civil Disobedience” Thoreau is also disturbed by the way that the United States fails to take care of vulnerable people and why it embraces Christian ideals of sacrifice but “excommunicates Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce[s] Washington and Franklin rebels” ( ). Still more alarming to Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau, however, was the institution of slavery in the South; Thoreau declared in one of the important quotes from “Civil Disobedience” “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also” ( ). In fact, the practice of slavery in the United States is the single most hypocritical aspect of the government as far as Thoreau is concerned. He remarks in one of these particularly succinct quotes from “Civil Disobedience”: “[W]hen a sixth of the population…has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves… I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize” ( ). Thoreau considers civil disobedience a moral and social duty of American citizens. He defines civil disobedience as an act of willful resistance, achieved by not obeying laws he considers to be hypocritical. One act of civil disobedience may be not paying taxes. Another act, and one he deems more important still, is to avoid colluding with the government by refusing to play an active role in it. It is important to point out, though, that civil disobedience is, as its name suggests, peaceful. It does not involve taking up arms or using any other methods of violence to achieve its ends.
Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience is a seminal work in the American literary canon, and it is clear that his treatise on concentrated, thoughtful resistance has been influential in subsequent social and political movements which themselves have been recorded by writers. One of the movements that was marked by its insistence on civil disobedience is the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The man who was considered the leader of this movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated the kind of peaceful but assertive resistance defined by Thoreau as civil disobedience. Dr. King’s strategy for political change was to plan, facilitate, and implement as many acts of resistance as possible while avoiding violence at all costs. Even more than Thoreau, it seems, King wanted the actions of civil rights activists to provoke thought, critical evaluation of the government and of society at large, and a radical change in government’s and society’s processes and treatment of marginalized minorities. While Thoreau seems to have been more of an individualist in his essay “Civil Disobedience”, calling upon each citizen who felt so compelled to determine and implement his own act of resistance, which need not necessarily be coordinated with someone else, King mastered the power of civil disobedience by creating a critical mass of individuals to band together as a show of solidarity. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King addresses those individuals who criticize him for such a strategy, and what makes this letter so effective and powerful is that his audience, the people he is trying to convince, are eight ministers who criticized Martin Luther Kingfor bringing his movement to Alabama.
King intuits how significant it is that he lacks the support of his fellow clergymen, and he pens this letter in response, saying that he has come to Alabama because “injustice is here” and he considers injustice to be a threat to all people, irrespective of geographical, racial, or other artificially constructed demographic categories that divide people. King effectively traces his notions about civil disobedience all the way back to the Bible, an effective persuasive strategy because it appeals to what the eight clergymen know. He crystallizes his own definition of civil disobedience by explaining the four steps that comprise it in one of the important quotes from “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self- purification; and direct action” ( ). In this way, the reader sees that King has built upon Thoreau’s conceptualization of civil disobedience as a process of becoming right with oneself through an examination of conscience and values and then following up with action. The desired outcome of civil disobedience, King writes, is “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored” ( ). He, perhaps more than any other individual, understood the power of civil disobedience and wielded it effectively.
Other figures from the civil rights era engaged in civil disobedience as well, though their acts are, perhaps, more subtle. The poet Amiri Baraka, for instance, used his poems as a tool of active, non-violent resistance. While Baraka was considered to be politically radical, his poetry constituted an act of civil disobedience, as it called for attention to be directed to the plight of African Americans, just as Thoreau did more than a century earlier. In his poems “An Agony.As Now” and “A Poem for Willie Best,” among others, Baraka’s voice urges social change. “Give me / Something more / Than what is here,” he says in “A Poem for Willie Best.” Might the “renegade / behind the mask” in this same poem be Baraka behind, or within, his own poem? While there are images of violence in the poem, Baraka does not seem to advocate violence; rather, the discharge of strong emotion through poetry becomes his act of resistance, and one in which the reader can share.
Personally, there are definitely principles for which I would consider civil disobedience, although I would want, like King and the civil rights movement activists, to practice this form of resistance not just individually, but in community. I could see myself engaging in civil disobedience in an effort to bring greater attention to serious social problems that cause great debate: the persistence and pervasiveness of poverty and the war are two problems that come to mind immediately. In my opinion, however, I see less of an enthusiasm for civil disobedience today than in this readings from the past, which causes me to wonder whether civil disobedience remains effective as an instrument for social and political change. There are some contemporary examples of civil disobedience that are incredibly inspiring, including the actions of Cindy Sheehan in her one-woman protests against the War in Iraq, but I do not see the kind of widespread support for civil disobedience that there was at one time in this country’s history.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Narrative, Rhetoric, and Civil Disobedience in the Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. • Transcendentalism and the Poetry of Walt Whitman • Persistent Themes in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats • Summary and Analysis of the Poem “Departmental” by Robert Frost • Poem Analysis of “Traveling Through the Dark” by William Stafford • Romanticism in Poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge • An Analysis of Common Themes in Victorian Poetry
Baraka, Amiri. “A Poem for Willie Best.” In The Norton Anthology of American Literature.
Shorter 6th ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In The Norton Anthology of American
Literature. Shorter 6th ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” In The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter 6th ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.