Henry David Thoreau & Civil Disobedience

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Denise Rodriguez
Professor Kayser
English 230A
December 6, 2012
Henry David Thoreau & Civil Disobedience
What comes to mind when the name Henry David Thoreau comes up? Writer? Philosopher? Civil disobedient? How about anarchist? Henry David Thoreau was naturalist, a transcendentalist and a natural philosopher. As an anarchist and revolutionary he used the idea of rebellion in his writings and in life to challenge many unjust laws. In one of his most influential works Civil Disobedience, he posed the argument for individual resistance to a civil government, where he morally opposes an unjust state. By means of dialogue with nature and not with God; Thoreau attempted to overcome the isolation of his radical views. Characteristics as aforementioned made him important during his lifetime and still remain significant today.

Thoreau was born in Concord Massachusetts to John Thoreau and Cynthia Dunbar. He left Harvard College in 1837 without a diploma for refusing to pay a fee to receive it. As a teacher he didn‘t believe in corporal punishment and quit his job as a teacher for refusing to flog his students. In 1841 he quit teaching for good and turned writing into a full time career. In his early years he followed Transcendentalism which was the idea that “an ideal spiritual state transcends, or goes beyond, the physical and empirical, and that one achieves that insight via personal intuition rather than religious doctrine“ (Wikipedia) and that it was better to be more individualistic and not conformed. Taking an interest in nature he also became a naturalist and believed in a simple lifestyle in natural surroundings.

In Concord Thoreau met Ralph Waldo Emerson through a mutual friend. For Thoreau, Emerson would become a close friend and mentor. Emerson encouraged him to contribute some of his writings to The Dial, a magazine that was the top publications of transcendentalists.

On July 28, 1846 Henry was put into jail for one night for refusal of paying his general taxes. His refusal was based on his feelings toward the Mexican War. He successfully paid his school and medical taxes but not his general which were generally going to support the war effort. He did not wish for his money to support something he did not believe in. Although his incarceration lasted only one night, this one night in jail began his treatise of civil disobedience. His arrest was the first encounter he had with state power and as Thoreau would often do, he analyzed it: “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” Thoreau viewed his protest as an individual act. He did not want to or tried to encourage others to end the war but felt that it was every citizen‘s duty to oppose and resist their government when it supported something evil such as war, slavery, or a war to extend slavery. His protest was forever immortalized in his essay Resistance to Civil Government or better known as Civil Disobedience.

Civil Disobedience was first published in 1849 in Boston Aesthetic Papers under the title Resistance to Civil Government. Four years after Thoreau’s death it was published under the title Civil Disobedience. It was an essay that he wrote as an attempt to persuade the readers to go against unjust government policies, the Mexican War, and slavery.

In the essay, Thoreau opens by quoting Thomas Jefferson “That government is best which governs least.” He then takes this on step further: “Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I 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...
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