The Theory, Practice & Influence
of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience (1)
By Lawrence Rosenwald,
Professor of English and of Peace and Justice Studies, Wellesley College.
From William Cain, ed., The Oxford Historical Companion to Thoreau,
used with the author's permission.
See also:  Henry Thoreau & 'Civil Disobedience' by Wendy McElroy

Thoreau Reader:  Home - Civil Disobedience


"I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives." This is an excellent principle of Thoreau's, and I shall begin by giving at least an account of the viewpoint from which I have written it.
[2]     I myself have been a war tax resister for twelve years, and became one partly through reading Thoreau's essay and feeling its pressure.(2) What matters to me in the essay, therefore, is chiefly the complex relation between text and action. The essay emerges from Thoreau's action, interprets that action, is read and then turned back into action again by its readers. As noted, I say this from my own experience; but I would not be saying it so emphatically if Thoreau's essay had not mattered so much to the action of so many of its readers. The list of them is astonishing. It famously includes Tolstoy,(3) Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. It also includes the anarchist Emma Goldman, the English educator Henry Salt, the German-Jewish philosopher and activist Martin Buber, the American peace activist Ammon Hennacy, a deliberately anonymous fighter in the Danish Resistance, the World Fellowship Center director Willard Uphaus, the African National Congress founder Trevor N. W. Bush, the Freedom Rider William Mahoney, and such notable contemporary tax resisters as Errol Hess and Randy Kehler.

[3]     There is a paradox here, in the fact of the essay's influence Thoreau seems on the face of it a man unlikely to have influenced anyone, and unlikely in particular to have influenced the people he demonstrably did influence. The essay is individualist, secular, anarchist, elitist and anti-democratic; but it has influenced persons of great religious devotion, leaders of collective campaigns, and members of resistance movements. How could this have happened?

[4]     The following analysis is focused chiefly on the backgrounds of Thoreau's essay, and in that context on the argument the essay makes. Both of these accounts, however, have been shaped to respond to the question of the essay's influence on action. And it has turned out, for me at any rate, that the question of its influence is best answered precisely by an investigation of its history and argument.
 

I.  The Nature of Thoreau's Action

[5]     The bare facts of Thoreau's tax resistance are these.

1839: Thoreau's name is added to the Concord tax rolls.
1840: Thoreau's name is added to the First Parish Church tax rolls; Thoreau is assessed the church tax, refuses to pay it, is threatened with jail; someone else pays the tax; Thoreau requests that his name be removed from the church tax rolls, and his request is granted.(4)
1842: Thoreau stops paying the poll tax.(5)
1846: July 24th or 25th, Sam Staples arrests Thoreau and puts him in jail; someone, probably Maria Thoreau, pays the tax and Thoreau is released the next day.
[6]     But what do these actions mean? Thoreau himself explains why he refused to pay the church tax:
did not see why the schoolmaster should be taxed to support the priest, and not the priest the schoolmaster ... I did not see why the lyceum should not present its tax-bill, and have the State to back its demand, as well as the church.(6)
[7]     Thoreau denies the church's right to tax. He does not object to any particular church policy or practice; he is not saying, "change this policy and I will pay." He suggests that the schoolmaster and the lyceum have as much right to tax as the church does, and that if all institutions could present their tax-bills, then he would feel at ease in paying them; again, what matters is not a particular policy but the underlying structure.

[8]     Similar reasoning evidently underlies the nearest precedent for Thoreau's 1842 refusal to pay the poll tax, namely, Bronson Alcott's refusal to pay the same tax in 1840.(7) Alcott was arrested on January 17th, 1843; he was brought to the town jail that Thoreau was later to spend a night in, held there for two hours, then released when Samuel Hoar paid his tax for him. Ten days later, in a letter to William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator, Alcott's friend Charles Lane gave a rationale for Alcott's action:

This act of non-resistance, you will perceive, does not rest on the plea of poverty ... Neither is it wholly based on the iniquitous purposes to which the money when collected is applied. But it is founded on the moral instinct which forbids every moral being to be a party, either actively or permissively, to the destructive principles of power and might over peace and love.(8)
[9]     In a subsequent letter, published on March 3rd, 1843, Lane elaborated:
Because this citizen as a man, as a Christian, has conscientious scruples in doing aught in support of a government which spends the people's money in prisons, gunpowder, halters, and the like civilized gear, that very government lays violent hands upon him, and imprisons him for a term, only shortened by its good will and pleasure.(9)
[10]     To make sense of this, we have first to know what Lane meant by calling Alcott's tax refusal an "act of non-resistance." "Non-resistance" was then a resonant and precise term; it referred to William Lloyd Garrison's New England Non-Resistance Society, founded in 1838, and to that society's doctrines. Like modern pacifism, non-resistance forbade both individual violence and state violence, even state violence intended for self-defense. But Garrison and his colleagues were more systematic than most modern pacifists, and non-resistance as they articulate it forbids not only all violence but all cooperation with violence, e.g., holding office in a state that maintains a standing army, or a standing police force, or a jail. It even forbids voting, as Adin Ballou proclaims in Christian Non-Resistance:
I will hold office on no such conditions, I will not be a voter on such conditions. I will join no church or state, who hold such a creed or prescribe such a covenant for the subscription of their members.(10)
[11]     All of this is called non-resistance because, for thinkers like Garrison and Ballou, the central moral question is, how are we to respond to injury and evil? The "almost universal opinion and practice of mankind," writes Ballou, "has been on the side of resistance of injury with injury". And it is this answer that non-resistants reject, claiming instead that
by adhering to the law of love under all provocations, and scrupulously suffering wrong, rather than inflicting it, they shall gloriously "overcome evil with good," and exterminate all their enemies by turning them into faithful friends.
[12]     To call Alcott's tax refusal "an act of non-resistance," then, means that by it Alcott refuses to cooperate with a potentially violent state, one that spends money on "prisons, gunpowder, [and] halters." Alcott's grounds for refusing to pay the poll tax are thus a little more specific than Thoreau's for refusing to pay the church tax, but only a little. Thoreau objects in principle to the church's having the right to tax, not to any church practice. Alcott does object to particular state practices: "prisons, gunpowder, [and] halters." But prisons and halters, and "the destructive principles of power and might," are the practices and principles of nearly every state; in practice, objecting to them is objecting to the state in general.

[13]     At its beginning, then, it seems that the Thoreau's tax refusal meant pretty much what Alcott's meant. Alcott defends Thoreau's tax refusal "on the grounds of a dignified non-compliance with the injunction of civil powers."(11) Thoreau himself, in describing Alcott's arrest, associates himself with Lane, and lays emphasis on "the State" rather than on state policies. And as late as January 26th, 1848, in a Lyceum lecture on "The Rights & Duties of the Individual in relation to Government," Thoreau is still presenting his action and Alcott's as alike. Alcott describes the event as follows:

Heard Thoreau's lecture before the Lyceum on the relation of the individual to the State an admirable statement of the rights of the individual to self-government, and an attentive audience.

His allusions to ... his own imprisonment in Concord Jail for refusal to pay his tax, to Mr. Hoar's payment of mine when taken to prison for a similar refusal, were all pertinent, well considered, and reasoned. I took great pleasure in this deed of Thoreau's.


II. The First Title of Thoreau's Essay

[14]     By May of 1849, however, when his revised lecture comes out in Elizabeth Peabody's Aesthetic Papers, Thoreau has changed its title to "Resistance to Civil Government" and dropped all reference to Alcott. And these changes suggest that Thoreau has rejected much of what his tax refusal must originally have stood for.

[15]     The title as a whole is strikingly at odds with the non-resistant position on citizenly conduct. The chief documents of non-resistance forbid not only government based on violence but almost all forceful resistance to it. "We advocate no jacobinical doctrines," Garrison writes:

the spirit of jacobinism is the spirit of retaliation, violence and murder. ... If we abide by our principles, it is impossible for us to be disorderly, or plot treason, or participate in any evil work: we shall submit to every ordinance of man, for the Lord's sake.(12)
[16]     He does provide an escape clause, with potentially wide-reaching implication: "we shall ... obey all the requirements of government, except such as we deem contrary to the commands of the gospel" (1st ed. 29). But the text emphasizes the rule rather than the exception, and does not specify the cases in which the rule would not apply.

[17]     Thoreau's title, then, implicitly rejects Garrison's non-resistance. But it also evokes the existing positive meanings of "resistance," and thereby associates Thoreau with Garrison's colleague and antagonist Frederick Douglass. (Thoreau knew who Douglass was, refers to him in a March 1845 letter to the Liberator, and had probably read Douglass' 1845 Narrative by the time he wrote the essay.) Consider a notable passage from the Narrative on Douglass' "resistance" to the slavebreaker Covey:

Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at this moment from whence came the spirit I don't know I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose. He held on to me, and I to him. My resistance was so entirely unexpected that Covey seemed taken all aback. ... He asked me if I meant to persist in my resistance. I told him I did, come what might; that he had used me like a brute for six months, and that I was determined to be used so no longer. ... Covey at length let me go, puffing and blowing at a great rate, saying that if I had resisted, he would not have whipped me half so much. The truth was, that he had not whipped me at all.(13)
[18]     Douglass' "resistance" means self-defense, a refusal to cooperate with Covey's attempts to beat and subdue him. It does not mean leading a rebellion like Nat Turner's, or a raid like John Brown's; but it does mean, in Ballou's phrase, "resistance of injury with injury." And Thoreau's new title clearly associates him with resistance in that sense.
 

III. Transformation of the Action in the Essay

[19]     After the confrontatory title, the first two paragraphs of the essay are disappointing. In them, Thoreau argues derisively and predictably against government in general. He subscribes to the motto, "that government is best which governs not at all," and claims that "when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government they will have". He does address one particular governmental policy, namely, the Mexican War, but only abstractly, treating it not as an act of wickedness but as a violation of procedure: "witness the present Mexican War, the work of comparatively few individuals using the standing government as their tool". His objections to government are as general as Lane's or Garrison's, but less fervent; he portrays it as something comically weak, "a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves", an obstacle to enterprise and trade and commerce. Everything in these paragraphs could be agreed to by a modern-day Republican.

[20]     But then Thoreau changes ground:

To speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step towards obtaining it.
[21]     By "no-government men" Thoreau means non-resistants, and here he turns earnestly away from them. He is now a citizen, not an outlier. He acknowledges the possibility of a government that would command his respect; and he asks that citizens like himself specify what that sort of government would be, and how the existing government falls short of it.

[22]     There are more changes, too. In the next paragraph, Thoreau makes clear that citizens' demands on their government must be based, not on the opposition between government and enterprise, or between government and character, but on the opposition between government and conscience. And he casts himself and other witnesses of conscience not as no-government men but as super-government men:

The mass of men serve the State ... not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. ... A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the State with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated by it as enemies. ...

He who gives himself entirely to his fellow-men appears to them useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.(66-67)

[23]     Then, finishing the turn, he specifies how the existing government falls short of his ideal:
When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country 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.
[24]     When a government supports slavery and wages unjust wars in its support, it is time for "honest men to rebel and revolutionize"; should that government do away with slavery, it might command Thoreau's respect.

[25]     Thoreau maintains this position till the end of the first section of the essay. That is why it makes sense for him to cut all reference to Alcott. His resistance in this part of the essay is local rather than global, and contingent rather than absolute. He is not saying, "I separate myself from a state I do not recognize, and shall therefore pay it no tax"; he is saying, "I join myself as a citizen to a state I wish to improve, and shall therefore pay it no tax until, wishing to conciliate me, it does away with slavery and stops waging unjust wars."

[26]     Thoreau's radical change of position has large consequences. Associating himself with "resistance" puts him, as noted, at a distance from the "no-government men," and from the Christian pacifism out of which non-resistance grows; associating his resistance with particular evils puts him nearer to more combative traditions. Barbara Andrews, whose 1974 Goddard College thesis remains the most comprehensive and illuminating account of war tax resistance in the United States, associates Thoreau with the tradition of "selective tax resistance" focused on particular social change; she thereby links him to the Algonquin Indians who refused to pay taxes to the Dutch for strengthening Fort Amsterdam, and to the American Revolutionists who refused to pay the Stamp Tax to the British in the 1760s. Staughton and Alice Lynd make a similar linkage, describing Thoreau's essay as:

a subtle and ambiguous synthesis of the previously disparate Quaker and Lockean traditions. Thoreau ... affirms the peril of coercion in spiritual matters; he refused to pay a tax for the support of the established church several years before his more celebrated refusal of the Massachusetts poll tax. At the same time Thoreau breaks with Garrison's disavowal of jacobinism, and flatly declares that "all men recognize the right of revolution" and that "it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize."(14)
[27]     To link the Christian pacifism associated with the Quakers to the political liberalism and support for revolution associated with John Locke is indeed a "subtle and ambiguous synthesis"; but it is this synthesis that makes Thoreau's argument useful. It, and not the nonresistant rejection of government or coercion generally, is what has mattered to the activist leaders whom Thoreau has influenced. Take two celebrated examples. Martin Luther King took comfort in Thoreau's essay on the eve of the Montgomery bus boycott:
I remembered how, as a college student, I had been moved when I first read this work. I became convinced that what we were preparing to do in Montgomery was related to what Thoreau had expressed. We were simply saying to the white community, "We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system."(15)
[28]     In speaking of "an evil system," King, like Thoreau, is thinking locally rather than globally; what makes the system evil is not the nature of a system of transportation but the particular injustices practiced on the Montgomery buses. Hence the goals the bus boycotters agreed on: "courteous treatment by the bus operators; ... passengers ... seated on a first-come, first-served basis ... Negro bus operators ... employed on predominantly Negro routes". Thoreau's stated goals are grander than these, but they are equally particular.

[29]     Mohandas Gandhi's first important encounter with Thoreau's essay came in 1906, in South Africa; he was then fighting the "Black Act," which required Asians to register with the government and have their fingerprints recorded, as if they were criminals. What Gandhi got from Thoreau is clear from what he printed in Indian Opinion, the newspaper in which he conducted part of his political and spiritual campaign; the passages he selected present Thoreau's local protest, not his global one. Consider, for example, "under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also prison". For non-resistants, anyone imprisoned is unjustly imprisoned;(16) for Thoreau and Gandhi, the crucial distinction is precisely that between just imprisonment and unjust. And the actual campaign against the "Black Act" showed Gandhi making the same sort of local distinction; he was imprisoned for refusing to register, left prison when the government agreed to make registration for Indians voluntary, and returned to prison for burning registration certificates when the government failed to abide by its agreement.

[30]     But Thoreau's "subtle and ambiguous synthesis" is founded on a fiction. His account of his tax resistance in the essay revises his tax resistance in the world, in his community of Concord. In the essay, Thoreau cites the Mexican War as a reason for refusing to pay the poll tax. In the world, Thoreau's action predated the war by four years. In the essay, Thoreau refuses the tax because, as he writes, "I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also". In the world, he apparently began refusing taxes out of an unwillingness to recognize any political organization whatsoever.

[31]     And this revision undermines the essay's argument. If government in general is the problem, then it does not matter which government one refuses to pay taxes to, or what those taxes are funding. If the Mexican War and slavery are the problem, though, then the taxes one refuses have to be funding those things in particular. And that was, in a strict sense, not the case. The poll tax Thoreau refused to pay was a composite tax; it could include state tax, county tax, and town tax. It was not a federal tax. (The federal government was not in any case collecting direct taxes; the Mexican War was financed by customs duties, sales of public land, and loans.) Only once in the decade, in 1845 i.e., three years after Thoreau started refusing the tax was it even a state tax; and Massachusetts had in any case passed a personal liberty law, forbidding the use of state resources for executing the laws regarding fugitive slaves. Most of the time, then, Thoreau was refusing to pay tax to Middlesex county and the town of Concord, neither of which could plausibly be called the slave's government. Thoreau boldly writes, "I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man, or a musket to shoot one with" (84). The problem is, though, that it would be hard to trace the course of Thoreau's dollar to either point. What men was Concord buying?

[32]     It is important to acknowledge this problem, but important also to assess it justly. In linking the slave's government and the poll tax, Thoreau was strictly wrong but broadly and prophetically right. There was no easy separation between levels of government, no firewall between Washington and Concord, and one thing that made that clear was what happened whenever a fugitive slave was apprehended in Massachusetts. Consider the 1851 case of Thomas Sims. Sims was apprehended in April by federal Deputy Marshal Asa Butman, and held in the United States Court House because he could not, by the personal liberty law, be held in a state jail. But the guards stationed around the Court House were Boston policemen, and State Supreme Court Justice Lemuel Shaw, appealed to for a writ of habeas corpus, denied jurisdiction. When Boston policemen defend a fugitive seized by a federal marshal, and a Massachusetts justice defers to the federal government's jurisdiction over that slave, how feasible is it to separate town and state from country? Thoreau prophetically intuited their interdependence in 1849.

[33]     As for Thoreau's belated rewriting of his 1842 motives to make them accord with his 1849 concerns the fact is that sometimes responses to particular issues and events supersede principles, or rather become principles. That is what Simone Weil means when she writes that our ideas of injustice have to start from the moment when someone says, on me fait du mal ("they're hurting me"); it is also what has happened to many leftist intellectuals in the 1990s, when they have come to believe that the need to stop genocide in Bosnia outweighed, indeed substituted for, their skeptical systemic analysis of American military intervention. And probably that is what happened to Thoreau between 1842 and 1849. In 1842, it seemed right to refuse taxes as a means of separating oneself from government, in response to the nature of government generally. In 1849, after the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War, i.e., after a clear demonstration of the expansive power of the slave interests, it still seemed right to refuse taxes, but now as a means of engaging with government, to combat those interests. Thoreau foregrounded his later motives rather than his earlier ones, even at the cost of inconsistency, because, at the later moment, they made better sense.
 

IV. Meanings of the Action in the Essay

[34]     Thoreau in his essay thus revises the meaning of his action, making it local, contingent, and resistant. But he also gives the action numerous new meanings, interpreting and reinterpreting it through the arguments he uses to defend it.

[35]   1)  We might summarize some of these meanings by saying that once he has turned away from the "no-government" men, Thoreau turns away from Emerson not from Emerson in particular or by name, that is, but rather from all those who share Thoreau's beliefs on slavery and the war, and on the sovereignty of conscience, without taking a similar course of action. One meaning of his action, then, is precisely that it is action, and not something else. Thoreau first opposes action to opinion:

There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them.
[36]     Then he opposes it to voting and electoral politics in general:
Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. ... The respectable man, so called, ... forthwith adopts one of the [Presidential candidates selected at the Baltimore convention] as the only available one, thus proving that he is himself available for any purposes of the demagogue.
[37]     And he might have gone on to oppose action to words. Emerson's words about resistance, in "The American Scholar" and more specifically in "Politics," are more vivid than holding an opinion and more resonant than casting a vote; indeed, Emerson's emphasis on putting forth "[our] total strength in fit actions"(17) is, in words, a precise account of Thoreau's program. But an account is all that it is; the familiar notion that Thoreau did what Emerson talked about doing is on the mark here. As Staughton Lynd writes, "what was central for Thoreau was neither nonviolence nor civil disobedience but direct action:the absolute demand that one practice right now, and all alone if necessary what one preaches."(18)

[38]   2)  But why, among all the direct actions one might do, does Thoreau single out tax resistance? The implicit answer says a lot about the nature of civil disobedience:

It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it,(19) and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's shoulders.
[39]     Like Emerson, Thoreau disliked doing politics. John Jay Chapman's remark, that "Emerson represents a protest against the tyranny of democracy,"(20) says something about why; Emerson and Thoreau saw in the politics of a democracy a force likely to absorb and decenter them. That is why Emerson in "Self-Reliance" tells the philanthropist who may perfectly well be an abolitionist to go away and stop bothering him. Thoreau was no fonder of philanthropists than Emerson was, and in working out a rationale for his own action he posits a life in which political action is a limited obligation, and a person may "properly have other concerns."

[40]     But Thoreau also sees what Emerson does not, namely, that with regard to paying taxes, it is impossible not to act, in one way or another. One can pay the tax, and thereby support the state, or refuse the tax, and defy the state. Thoreau's civil disobedience, then, is the choice he makes when he has no choice but to act; it is not only action, but necessary action, unwilling action, action that is thrust upon the actor. The tax collector comes to the door, and Thoreau has to choose whether to pay. What he does has much in common with what Rosa Parks did in 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a white bus rider in Montgomery, Alabama. It has less in common with many more recent actions of civil disobedience. Consider, for example, the occupation of an Army recruiting station in Boston at the start of the Gulf War, in January 1991. I myself was a support person in this action, and approved of it; but Thoreau might not have. The people who occupied the station went out of their way to get there, coming from their various homes to the station expressly in order to occupy it, and to be arrested for their action. Rosa Parks, on the other hand, committed civil disobedience without going a single step out of her way; in fact, she committed it precisely by trying to proceed along her way, seeking not to be arrested but simply to go home.

[41]     3)  Thoreau's action is also male action. I say this not because of such explicitly misogynist remarks as that the State is as "timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons", but rather because Thoreau emphatically associates acting from conscience with being a man:

Oh for a man who is a man, and, as my neighbor says, has a bone in his back which you cannot pass your hand through! ... How many men are there to a square thousand miles in this country? Hardly one. Does not America offer any inducement for men to settle here?
[42]     This association between conscience and manhood is pervasive and uncontradicted. At crucial passages in the essay, "man" is the crucial word e.g., "if ten men whom I could name, if ten honest men only, aye, if one HONEST man". Like Emerson, Thoreau imagined resistance in relation to maleness; both of them depicted the pressures of democracy on the individual as threats to manhood. Others did too; one of the most vivid accounts of that position is in fact given by Alexis de Tocqueville, in a notable passage on the tyranny of the majority that Thoreau might have subscribed to:
In that immense crowd which throngs the avenues to power in the United States, I found very few men who displayed that manly candor and masculineindependence of opinion which frequently distinguished the Americans in former times ...(21)
It is no accident that Thoreau's essay has influenced so few women. Women like Rosa Parks can act in Thoreau's spirit; but few women activists make much of Thoreau's essay.(22)

[43]   4)  Thoreau spent the night in prison by accident, at least according to local history; a veiled woman brought the money to pay his tax the evening of his arrest, but the jailer had already taken his boots off, and said that he wasn't going to put them back on. Thoreau in the essay, though, makes his imprisonment a moral necessity, and probably no sentence of it has been quoted more than the one in which he does so: "under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison".

[44]     It would be going too far afield here to describe Thoreau's role in the history of the meaning of imprisonment, though certainly he contributed to our sense of the prison as a place of vision, from which it is possible to see social truths ordinarily hidden. Thoreau in the essay links his imprisonment to his voluntary poverty:

I have contemplated the imprisonment of the offender, rather than the seizure of his goods, though both will serve the same purpose, because they who assert the purest right, and consequently are most dangerous to a corrupt State, commonly have not spent much time in accumulating property.
[45]     And that link is important. Tax resisters in the historic peace churches did not practice voluntary poverty; they often sought only to pay money into non-military funds, and sometimes when the government denied their petition to do this, it punished them only by fining them, its goal after all being chiefly to raise money. Thoreau contributes to a different image of the dissident: not the revolutionary but the ascetic, or rather the revolutionary as ascetic, whose political action is in accord with, is almost a consequence of, what we would now call his or her lifestyle.

[46]   5)  Thoreau's action is resistance. I have discussed this term earlier, in reference to the public meanings given it by Garrison and Douglass. In the essay, though, Thoreau gives the term a more idiosyncratic meaning, in relation to the symbol of machinery.

[47]     Leo Marx, in The Machine and the Garden, has famously demonstrated the power of this symbol, and its association with strong American self-images. He has also demonstrated the complexity of Thoreau's relation to it, though chiefly with reference to passages in Walden. "Resistance to Civil Government" dramatizes an equally complex relation. In it, Thoreau is asking two questions. First, in the large symbol of the machine as government, what sub-symbols represent injustice, in particular slavery and unjust wars? And then, what sub-symbols represent resistance? It seems at first that the answer to the first question is "necessary friction" or at most some particular submachine, "a spring ... exclusively for itself" in other words, something construable as part of the normal functioning of the metaphorical machine.

[48]     But then Thoreau stands back, as if to say, No the scale of this comparison is wrong. Slavery is not construable as necessary friction, as the unavoidable imperfection that keeps every mechanical device from being a perpetual motion machine. Slavery is something bigger and more perverse, an impediment to efficient action intendedly built into the machine; it is something that implies a lack of respect for the basic mechanical principles that Thoreau the pencil-maker knew and cherished, something that leads Thoreau to break his own metaphor: "but when the friction comes to have its own machine, . . . I say, let us not have such a machine any longer". Machines have friction, but friction cannot metaphorically describe slavery; to describe slavery, Thoreau needs the paradoxical image of friction having a machine.(23)

[49]     Then, having ascertained that slavery is not friction but the machine itself, Thoreau takes over friction to describe the right mode of dissenting action: "let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine". If slavery is the machine, then the individual's job is to stop it; and Thoreau's respect for good mechanical design becomes a resistance to mechanism.

[50]     "Resistance," pun intended. Among the positive meanings of the word are some that make it a synonym of "friction." Friction means, among other things, "the resistance which any body meets in moving over another body" (OED1). An 1840 OED1 citation speaks of "the friction and resistances of the engine." "Resistance" thus offers a vivid mechanical image of what political opposition should be: a clog on the action of the machinery of government, when that machinery has been taken over for a counter-mechanical purpose. Thoreau devised an ingenious machine for grinding fine graphite; it must have cost him something to imagine political action as a means of making a machine grind to a halt.

[51]     6)  Finally, I should note what specific meanings Thoreau does not give his action, what meanings he leaves open. He does not associate it either with a secular or a religious perspective; though he alludes to the New Testament as a document of political use, he draws authority not from it but from "conscience." Not, though, from individual, arbitrary conscience, from Emersonian whim. Let Emerson act on whim, let Garrison and company fulminate as intensely against the sabbath as against slavery; like King and Gandhi, Thoreau presents his action in relation to practices condemned by a broad consensus: slavery, the Mexican War, the Jim Crow Laws, the South African Black Act. That is why one reproach made against Thoreau's program, namely, that it gives too much liberty to the individual conscience, is invalid; Thoreau might in theory give the conscience too much liberty, but the action he describes is directed against things condemned not only by his conscience but also by his community.

[52]     Most importantly, Thoreau does not associate his action with a position on violence. Tolstoy and Gandhi and King have of course associated Thoreau's essay with a rejection of violence. An anonymous member of the Danish resistance learned a different lesson from it:

Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" stood for me, and for my first leader in the resistance movement, as a shining light with which we could examine the policy of complete passivity which our government had ordered for the whole Danish population. ... I lent Thoreau's books to friends, told them about him, and our circle grew. Railroads, bridges, and factories that worked for the Germans were blown up.(24)
And though they contradict each other, both readings of Thoreau are right.

[53]     Thoreau speaks of a "peaceable revolution", and brilliantly describes an action that has a long history of association with nonviolence. Moreover, his need to economize on action, to leave room in his life for "other concerns," attracts him to certain nonviolent actions on the ground of their simplicity. But nonviolence is not a first principle for him; it is at most a practical preference. The essay takes almost no position on the matter. (That too distinguishes it from nonresistant writing, which is always deriving particular positions from an axiom of nonviolence.) Thoreau criticizes the Mexican War not as a war but as an unjust war; he criticizes not prisons, but unjust imprisonments. He says that if we are cheated "out of a single dollar by [our] neighbor ... [we] take effectual steps at once to obtain the full amount, and see that [we] are never cheated again", and does not stipulate that the effectual steps be nonresistant ones. In the one passage that considers that matter explicitly, he accepts the possibility of violence with equanimity:

But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? ... I see this blood flowing now.
[54]     This is somewhat evasive Thoreau does not make clear, though he could have, whether the blood that might flow belongs to resisters or slaveholders. What is clear is that Thoreau is willing to have someone's real blood flow, because, in his view, metaphorical blood is flowing already.

[55]     It is thus almost an accident that the essay depicts a nonviolent action. Between 1842 and 1849, the direct action that Thoreau found himself called to do was a nonviolent one. But as Thoreau himself wrote, that was only his "position at present":

One cannot be too much on his guard in such a case, lest his action be biassed by obstinacy, or an undue regard for the opinions of mend. Let him see that he does only what belongs to himself and to the hour. (84)
[56]     Later, then, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, and still more after John Brown's raid, Thoreau defends violent actions on the same grounds as those on which he defends nonviolent action in the essay because, by that time, what belonged to the hour had changed, and the actions he found himself called to defend were violent. Consider this passage from "A Plea for Captain John Brown":
It was [Brown's] peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him. ... I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable.(25)
[57]     Both the earlier essays and the later ones explain and defend the direct action that Thoreau found appropriate to the moment. And that pragmatic focus on a particular action makes Thoreau's essay legitimately available to sharply opposed readers; both King and Gandhi, on the one hand, and the anonymous fighter in the Danish Resistance on the other, are reading Thoreau rightly.(26)
 

V. On the Second Title

[58]     "Civil Disobedience," the name given Thoreau's essay for its posthumous publication in 1866, may or may not have been Thoreau's title; the evidence leaves both possibilities open.(27) But whoever devised the title had an influence on the afterlife of the essay.

[59]     Most people take "civil" in "civil disobedience" to mean "citizenly" rather than "courteous." The standard French translation is "Désobéir aux lois," "Disobeying the laws." That takes "civil" as referring to the object of disobedience; "civil" disobedience means disobeying the laws governing citizens. A German translation, "Über die Pflicht zum Ungehorsam gegen den Staat" ("On the Duty of Disobedience to the State") emphasizes the same meaning (Timpe Thoreau Abroad 89). Martin Buber refers to Thoreau's "Traktat über den 'bürgerlichen Ungehorsam'" ("tractate on 'civic/bourgeois disobedience'"), adding a connotation of "middle-class," though still removing the suggestion of "civility."(28) And certainly most accounts of Thoreau's essay push "civil" towards "civic," in accord with Thoreau's own claim that he is speaking "practically, as a citizen".

[60]     But when the phrase was new and it seems to have been used for the first time as the 1866 title (29) "citizenly" and "courteous" might have had equal claim, and almost all actions that American protestors call "civil disobedience" are nonviolent actions, though in theory a citizen's disobedience could be as violent as the Boston Tea Party, or as John Brown's raid. In one famous case, moreover, we can watch the "civility" sense having an effect. This is Gandhi's comment in Young India for March 23rd, 1921:

Civil Disobedience is civil breach of unmoral statutory enactments. The expression was, so far as I am aware, coined by Thoreau to signify his own resistance to the laws of a slave state. ... But Thoreau was not perhaps an out and out champion of non-violence. Probably, also, Thoreau limited his breach of statutory laws to the revenue law, i.e. payment of taxes. Whereas the term Civil Disobedience as practised in 1919 covered a breach of any statutory and unmoral law. It signified the resister's outlawry in a civil, i.e., non-violent manner . . . Until I read that essay I never found a suitable English translation for my Indian word, Satyagraha.(30)
[61]     It was then the "civility" sense that made it possible for Gandhi to name his movement after Thoreau's term. No doubt Thoreau's work would have affected Gandhi even under a different title; but the particular words mattered. If they were not Thoreau's, then it seems that accident, too, has helped to give Thoreau's essay its influence.
 

VI. Conclusion

[63]     Emerson wrote of "the severity of [Thoreau's] ideal,"(31) and suggested that "it was easy to trace to the inexorable demand on all for perfect truth that austerity which made this willing hermit more solitary even than he wished." This is a common reproach, though not usually so well formulated. But looking closely at Thoreau's most inexorably demanding essay hints at another truth as well: that Thoreau undogmatically sorted through all the traditions available to him, rejecting what he could not use and holding fast what was good. The non-resistance of Garrison and Ballou and Alcott, the revolutionary action of 1775, the Transcendentalist emphasis on conscience, the large historical events and small personal accidents of Thoreau's own time, his mechanical expertise, his masculine insecurity are all sifted for use in the essay. What has made the essay capable of exerting so great an influence is not only the severity of its ideal but also its concreteness and its unsystematic pragmatism.


Notes

1. My very great thanks to Bill Cain, Lewis Hyde, and Taylor Stoehr, for exhilarating and edifying conversations about the matters treated in this essay. - back

2. I have discussed this in "On Wartax Resistance," Agni 35 (1992).- back

3. Tolstoy is actually a questionable case; Clarence Manning's "Thoreau and Tolstoy," New England Quarterly 16 (June 1943), sets out the differences between the two men rather than their similarities. Jerzy Krzyzanowski's "Thoreau and Russia" (in Eugene Timpe ed., Thoreau Abroad) sets out the basic facts: in 1894 Tolstoy read an article on Thoreau by John Trevor in Labour Prophet; this led to his ordering a copy of "Civil Disobedience," then arranging for its translation in 1898, for publication in the journal Free Word. Passages from Thoreau, like passages from Emerson, turn up in Tolstoy's A Circle of Reading, and Tolstoy sometimes refers to Thoreau, but almost always as part of a formulaic list including Adin Ballou, Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, and Theodore Parker. - back

4. Robert Gross, in a personal communication (2/8/99), points out that it may be a mistake to "accept at face value Thoreau's account of his first act of tax resistance, his refusal to pay the 1840 First Parish Tax." He suggests, convincingly, that "Thoreau's claim that he was told to pay the tax or go to jail is questionable." On January 1, 1834, church and state were formally disestablished in Massachusetts. Thereafter, nobody was required by law to pay a tax in support of a local church. To be sure, for a decade or so, many towns continued to collect parish taxes, and if a person did not want to pay, he had to give formal notice that he was "signing off" the parish. That is what Thoreau did in 1840 and what more than half the tax-payers in Concord had already done by that date. (See John Sweet's essay on the Concord church in the Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings CIV [1992], 73-109.) This was the routine procedure, known to one and all. Jail for non-payment, as I understand it, no longer existed as a legal sanction.

So, why did Thoreau represent the episode the way he did? Maybe he was misinformed, though that seems unlikely. His aunts had signed off the First Parish in order to join the new Trinitarian Church, and his mother had first left, then returned to the First Parish. These acts had taken place before formal disestablishment, but they do indicate a familiarity with the legal procedures in the Thoreau family. A likelier reason is Thoreau's desire to dramatize himself. Had he noted that he was just another one of many score who had been signing off the First Parish rolls, he would have undercut the persona he assumed in the text. The "state" would have dwindled in its force, and he would have appeared less heroic. And that reduction of the first act of tax resistance might have affected his account of the subsequent ones.

This seems to me exact and convincing, and I thank Professor Gross for his erudition and generosity.- back

5. The poll tax Thoreau refused to pay was a composite tax; it could include state tax, county tax, and town tax. It was not a federal tax. Only once in the decade, in 1845 i.e., three years after Thoreau started refusing the tax was it even a state tax. On all this, see John Broderick's excellent "Thoreau, Alcott, and the Poll Tax." - back

6. Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government," in Wendell Glick ed., Reform Papers, p. 79. Page numbers for subsequent quotations will be given parenthetically in the text. - back

7. Barbara Andrews, in "Tax Resistance in American History," sets out the wider background of tax resistance, focusing on resistance in the historical peace churches; but it does not seem from Thoreau's account that this wider background was relevant to his action. - back

8. Charles Lane, "State Slavery," Liberator 27 January 1843, p. 16. - back

9. Lane, "Voluntary Political Government," Liberator 3 March 1843, p. 36. - back

10. Adin Ballou, Christian Non-Resistance, in Staughton Lynd, Nonviolence in America, p. 52; page numbers for subsequent quotations will be given parenthetically in the text. - back

11. Bronson Alcott, Journals, p. 184. Page numbers for subsequent quotations will be given parenthetically in the text. - back

12. William Lloyd Garrison, "Declaration of Sentiments, 1838," in Staughton and Alice Lynd, Nonviolence in America, p. 16.

Note that Garrison's choice of the term "jacobinism" tendentiously associates resistance with the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, and thereby discredits it. - back

13. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life, in Michael Meyer ed., The Narrative and Selected Writings, pp. 80-81. - back

14. Staughton and Alice Lynd, "Introduction" to Nonviolence in America, p. xix. - back

15. Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom, in James Melvin Washington ed., A Testament of Hope, p. 429. Page numbers for subsequent quotations will be given parenthetically in the text. - back

16. However improbable this seems, it is true; Garrison writes, "to extort money from enemies, or set them upon a pillory, or cast them into prison, or hang them upon a gallows, is obviously not to forgive, but to take retribution" ("Declaration of Sentiments," p. 28; emphasis added). - back

17. Emerson, "The American Scholar," in Stephen Whicher ed., Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, p. 71. - back

18. Staughton Lynd, "Henry Thoreau: The Admirable Radical," quoted in Michael Meyer, Several More Lives to Live, p. 165. - back

19. As if in half-conscious self-criticism, Thoreau links himself by this phrase to Pontius Pilate, who, refusing to resist the multitude's call to crucify Jesus, "washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it" (King James Bible, Matthew 27:24). - back

20. John Jay Chapman, "Emerson," in Edmund Wilson ed., The Shock of Recognition, p. 601. - back

21. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1:266. - back

22. On all this see also the excellent essay by Dana Nelson, in William Cain ed., Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau (New York: Oxford, 2000) - back

23. My thanks to my mathematician neighbor and friend, Louis Piscitelle, and to my chemist colleague and friend, William Coleman, for illuminating conversations on this point.

Lewis Hyde pointed out to me that in a strict sense there is nothing paradoxical about a friction having its own machine Thoreau's own graphite grinding machine, to say nothing of any coffee grinder, is a friction that has its machine. But Thoreau's phrasing suggests that he wants the image to be understood as a paradox nonetheless. - back

24. "Thoreau and the Danish Resistance," in John Hicks ed., Thoreau in Our Season, p. 20. - back

25. Thoreau, "A Plea for Captain John Brown," in Reform Papers, pp. 132-33, Princeton University Press, 1973 - back

26. Gandhi knew all this, I think; at one point he writes with dry irony, "Thoreau was not perhaps an out and out champion of non-violence" (Gandhi, Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha), p. 3). - back

27. Wendell Glick, "Textual Introduction," in Reform Papers, p. 320.
Princeton University Press, 1973. - back

28. Martin Buber, "Man's Duty as Man," in John Hicks ed., Thoreau in Our Season, p. 19. - back

29. Wendell Glick, "Textual Introduction" in Reform Papers, p. 320. - back

30. Gandhi, Non-Violent Resistance, pp. 3-4 and 14. - back

31. Emerson, "Thoreau," in Selections, p. 392. The subsequent quotation from the essay is drawn from the same page. - back


Thoreau Reader:  Home - Civil Disobedience