5 November 2008
Henry Thoreau & Civil Disobedience
Henry Thoreau wrote an essay “Civil Disobedience” (Resistance to Civil Government) which was first published in 1849. David Henry Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American author, naturalist, transcendentalist, tax resister, development critic, sage writer and philosopher. The essay by Thoreau argues that people should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that people have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. Thoreau was motivated in part by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War.
The word “civil” has several definitions. The one that is intended in this case is “relating to citizens and their interrelations with one another or with the state,” and so “civil disobedience” means “disobedience to the state.” Sometimes, people assume that “civil” in this case means “observing accepted social forms; polite” which would make “civil disobedience” something like “polite, orderly disobedience.” Although, this is an acceptable dictionary definition of the word “civil,” it is not what is intended here. This misinterpretation is one reason the essay is sometimes considered to be an argument for pacifism or for exclusively nonviolent resistance. For instance, Gandhi used this interpretation to suggest equivalence between Thoreau’s civil disobedience and his own Satyagraha.
Thoreau’s teachings through his essays came alive during 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. Most Civil Rights activists launched a campaign of civil disobedience.
The peace process...