What Is The Theme Of Thoreaus Essay Resistance To Civil Government

In his essay “Civil Disobedience," Henry David Thoreau opens by saying, “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’" ( ), and then clarifies that his true belief is “‘That government is best which governs not at all’" ( ). In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau evaluates the federal government critically, contending that it is an artificial institution created by the powerful while acknowledging that it is believed to serve a purpose and is likely to remain a feature of American life. Given these circumstances, in his essay on civil disobedience Thoreau encourages, in one of the important quotes from “Civil Disobedience” by Thoreau that, “every man make known what kind of government would command his respect [as] one step toward obtaining it" ( ). Civil disobedience is the strategy for articulating one’s beliefs. As this thesis statement for “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau suggests, the author defines the act of civil disobedience by explaining the thoughts and emotions that should guide it, and these include having a sense of rightness and moral conscience.

A number of social as well as historical conditions provoked Thoreau’s thought and resulting essay on the subject of civil disobedience. One of the factors that influenced Thoreau to consider civil disobedience as a method of resistance was the poor treatment of Mexico by the United States. In ”Civil Disobedience” Thoreau is also disturbed by the way that the United States fails to take care of vulnerable people and why it embraces Christian ideals of sacrifice but “excommunicates Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce[s] Washington and Franklin rebels" ( ). Still more alarming to Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau, however, was the institution of slavery in the South; Thoreau declared in one of the important quotes from “Civil Disobedience" “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also" ( ). In fact, the practice of slavery in the United States is the single most hypocritical aspect of the government as far as Thoreau is concerned. He remarks in one of these particularly succinct quotes from “Civil Disobedience”: “[W]hen a sixth of the population…has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves… I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize" ( ). Thoreau considers civil disobedience a moral and social duty of American citizens. He defines civil disobedience as an act of willful resistance, achieved by not obeying laws he considers to be hypocritical. One act of civil disobedience may be not paying taxes. Another act, and one he deems more important still, is to avoid colluding with the government by refusing to play an active role in it. It is important to point out, though, that civil disobedience is, as its name suggests, peaceful. It does not involve taking up arms or using any other methods of violence to achieve its ends. Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience is a seminal work in the American literary canon, and it is clear that his treatise on concentrated, thoughtful resistance has been influential in subsequent social and political movements which themselves have been recorded by writers. One of the movements that was marked by its insistence on civil disobedience is the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The man who was considered the leader of this movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated the kind of peaceful but assertive resistance defined by Thoreau as civil disobedience. Dr. King’s strategy for political change was to plan, facilitate, and implement as many acts of resistance as possible while avoiding violence at all costs. Even more than Thoreau, it seems, King wanted the actions of civil rights activists to provoke thought, critical evaluation of the government and of society at large, and a radical change in government’s and society’s processes and treatment of marginalized minorities. While Thoreau seems to have been more of an individualist in his essay “Civil Disobedience”, calling upon each citizen who felt so compelled to determine and implement his own act of resistance, which need not necessarily be coordinated with someone else, King mastered the power of civil disobedience by creating a critical mass of individuals to band together as a show of solidarity. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King addresses those individuals who criticize him for such a strategy, and what makes this letter so effective and powerful is that his audience, the people he is trying to convince, are eight ministers who criticized Martin Luther Kingfor bringing his movement to Alabama.

"That government governs best that governs least,"--these words of Thomas Jefferson are cited at the beginning of Thoreau's essay and set the tone for the remainder of it.  For, the Transcendentalist Thoreau holds with the ideal of self-culture; that is, the theme that the individual should carry the responsibilities of a good citizen within himself and, therefore, not need to be suppressed by an oppressive government.

Protesting a tax that he felt brought disgrace upon him if he...

"That government governs best that governs least,"--these words of Thomas Jefferson are cited at the beginning of Thoreau's essay and set the tone for the remainder of it.  For, the Transcendentalist Thoreau holds with the ideal of self-culture; that is, the theme that the individual should carry the responsibilities of a good citizen within himself and, therefore, not need to be suppressed by an oppressive government.

Protesting a tax that he felt brought disgrace upon him if he paid it, Thoreau spent a night in jail as a matter of principle. As an independent individual he perceived his acquiescence to this tax would make him a mere subject, whereas he should be "a man first."  Thus, Thoreau thought that people who are willing victims to a government become powerless:

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines with their bodies.

According to Thoreau an authoritative government [what today is called "big government"] has no respect for the individual. Thoreau held, instead, with self-culture, the acceptance of responsibility by the individual without interference from government:

I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor, which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it...who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow men.

Interestingly, in the final sentence of his letter from a Birmingham jail after having been arrested for his own social protest in 1963, Martin Luther King quoted directly from Thoreau's essay, citing the contention of Thoreau that one in good conscience must protest unjust laws.

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