Thoreau and “Civil Disobedience”
Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862). (Wikimedia Commons)
Henry David Thoreau, the son of a Concord pencil-maker, graduated from Harvard in 1837. He worked a short while as a schoolmaster, but then began writing poetry. He soon joined a religious, philosophical, and literary movement called Transcendentalism. The leader of the movement was Ralph Waldo Emerson, a writer and lecturer.
At first, Thoreau agreed with Emerson’s teaching that social reform begins with the individual. In 1845, he built a hut at Walden Pond on property owned by Emerson. For the next few years, Thoreau lived simply off the land, meditated, and wrote about nature.
In 1846, the United States declared war against Mexico. Thoreau and other Northern critics of the war viewed it as a plot by Southerners to expand slavery into the Southwest. Thoreau had already stopped paying his taxes in protest against slavery. The local tax collector had ignored his tax evasion, but decided to act when Thoreau publicly condemned the U.S. invasion and occupation of Mexico.
In July 1846, the sheriff arrested and jailed Thoreau for his tax delinquency. Someone, probably a relative, anonymously paid Thoreau’s taxes after he had spent one night in jail. This incident prompted Thoreau to write his famous essay, “Civil Disobedience” (originally published in 1849 as “Resistance to Civil Government”).
Thoreau’s minor act of defiance caused him to conclude that it was not enough to be simply against slavery and the war. A person of conscience had to act. In “Civil Disobedience,” he proclaimed an activist manifesto:
In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation, which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty, are slaves, and a whole country [Mexico] is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.
Thoreau argued that the government must end its unjust actions to earn the right to collect taxes from its citizens. As long as the government commits unjust actions, he continued, conscientious individuals must choose whether to pay their taxes or to refuse to pay them and defy the government.
Thoreau declared that if the government required people to participate in injustice by obeying “unjust laws,” then people should “break the laws” even if they ended up in prison. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” he asserted, “the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
By not paying his taxes, Thoreau explained, he was refusing his allegiance to the government. “In fact,” he wrote, “I quietly declare war with the State....”
Unlike some later advocates of civil disobedience like Martin Luther King, Thoreau did not rule out using violence against an unjust government. In 1859, Thoreau defended John Brown’s bloody attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, during his failed attempt to spark a slave revolt.
For Further Reading
The Thoreau Reader The annotated works of Henry David Thoreau.
Thoreau, Henry D. The Portable Thoreau. New York: Penguin Books. 1964.
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Henry Thoreau’s Influence on Martin Luther King Jr. Essay
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Henry Thoreau’s Influence on Martin Luther King Jr.
Henry David Thoreau was a great American writer, philosopher, and naturalist of the 1800’s who’s writings have influenced many famous leaders in the 20th century, as well as in his own lifetime. Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817, where he was later educated at Harvard University. Thoreau was a transcendentalist writer, which means that he believed that intuition and the individual conscience “transcend” experience and are better guides to truth than are the senses and logical reason (Prentice Hall 1174). Thoreau is well known for writing Walden Pond, Excursions, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, and A Yankee in Canada. In 1849 Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay…show more content…
Thoreau refused to pay the poll ax because the money was being used to finance a war he was against. This war was over Texas, which was to enter the Union as a slave state. He wrote Civil Disobedience while in the Walden jail. Thoreau wrote how disappointed he was with the government by forcing him to pay a poll tax that supported a war and slavery. King would later go to jail acting on his beliefs. Martin Luther King and Henry David Thoreau used civil disobedience to change people’s ideas and beliefs to stop the injustice brought against them and their nation.
Civil Disobedience is defined as refusal to obey civil laws or decrees, which usually takes the form of direct action (Grolier’s Encyclopedia Online 2). Thoreau wrote that people practicing civil disobedience, break a law because they consider the law unjust. People want to call attention to its injustice. Thoreau voiced civil disobedience as, “An expression of the individual’s liberty to create change” (Thoreau 530). Years later Martin Luther King Jr. took the same idea of direct action to protest the injustices brought upon black Americans in the United States. One major example was the Birmingham bus boycott. Blacks where treated unjust and often had to give up their seats to whites, and had to listen to racial slurs made by the bus driver. King like Thoreau, did not take a violent approach, he often used sit-ins and rallies to unite the black community (Encarta