Thoreau's Civil Disobedience
Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience advocates the need to prioritize one's conscience over the dictates of laws. It criticizes American social institutions and policies, most prominently slavery and the Mexican American War. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau introduces the idea of civil disobedience that was used later by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In fact, many consider Thoreau as the greatest exponent of passive resistance of the 19th century. The usual title given this essay is Civil Disobedience but despite Gandhi's attribution of this term to Thoreau, Thoreau himself never uses the term anywhere in any of his works. When given as a lecture at the Concord Lyceum on January 26, 1848, the essay was titled "On the Relation of the Individual to the State." Only after Thoreau was dead for four years did the essay assume the title that finally stuck. (Click, 1973) Thoreau begins Civil Disobedience by arguing that government rarely proves itself useful and that it derives its power from the majority because they are the strongest group, not because they hold the most legitimate viewpoint. He argues that people should not follow the law dictated by the majority but rather do what they believe is right. He contends that when a government is unjust, people should refuse to follow the law and distance themselves from the government in general. According to Thoreau, if the government is an unjust institution than one does not have to be a member. He further argues that the United States fits his criteria for an unjust government, given its support of slavery and its practice of aggressive war. According to Thoreau, civil disobedience was preferable to pushing for reform from within government because he contends that one cannot see government for what it is when one is working within it. He also doubts the effectiveness of reform within the government arguing that voting and petitioning for change achieves...
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