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Author: Komal, 1st year student of B.ALLB (Hons.) from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law,Punjab

From Concord, Massachusetts, came the American author Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), educated at Harvard University, born in a middle-class intellectual family. Thoreau wanted to be a writer. He met Ralph Waldo Emerson, who supported him in his pursuits. For most of his life, Thoreau wrote books, essays, and extensive study of nature was his passion. In 1848, Thoreau gave a lecture “Civil Disobedience” at the Concord Lyceum, a popular place for public instruction. He continued to research his subject and initially published the essay in 1849 issue of Aesthetic Papers under the title “Resistance to Civil Government”.

This happened about the time when the Mexican-American war was coming to a conclusion. The Mexican-American war (1846-1848) was an attempt of the United States to acquire the territory of Mexico under its doctrine of “Manifest Destiny”. Given that Mexico gained freedom only two decades back, the Mexican soil was unprepared and politically divided when the United States’ army pitted in. It was caused by a disagreement about where Texas officially ended (the Mexican claim) and the annexation of the Republic of Texas by the United States in 1845. (the U.S. claim). [i] The Mexican-American Conflict, fought between 1846 and the beginning of 1848, cost the United States $2.72 billion, making it the eleventh-most expensive war in American history. [ii] The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was finally signed on February 2, 1848, designating the Rio Grande (rather than the Nueces River) as the border between the United States and Mexico. Mexico agreed to sell California and the remainder of its territory north of the Rio Grande for $15 million in exchange for the assumption of certain damage claims, and Mexico recognised the annexation of Texas by the United States.

Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience advocates prioritising ones judgement of right and wrong over the dictates of law. He begins by thinking about the best type of government. He admits that, in his view, a government that accomplishes "nothing at all" [iii] is the ideal. Then he encourages his audience to think about what a standing government, such as the one the United States currently has, is for. He argues that a standing government, like a standing army, may be corrupted and hijacked to serve the interests of a select few powerful people rather than that of the entire American population. He goes on to say that success in America has been a result of the American people, not the American government. He claims that because the US supported slavery, it met his criteria for an unjust government.

To an extent I agree with what the author contends that there is a chance that the government can indulge in corrupt practices. Also, like he said, it is the people who make the nation succeed. However, it is practically not possible to represent and take into account each and every notion. So, it is through the elected representatives only, that form the government that can put forth the larger interest of the people of the nation. So, the government has much larger role to play in the prosperity of the nation and same goes for the United States. In present day context as well, fast developing countries like Finland, Denmark, Sweden, France, enjoy their status because of the functioning of their government in an accountable and transparent manner.

However, the countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Sri Lanka lag behind in every aspect of development majorly because of the instability in the respective governments.

I totally agree with Thoreau on the fact that people must act for themselves "as men first and subjects afterwards" [iv] because the people have the power to govern. As he makes the point that his fellow citizens must embrace the risk of breaking the law and becoming "bad" citizens in the pursuit of justice, Thoreau exhorts his audience to carefully assess the law and its propensity to foster injustice. He frequently reminds his audience that they have the right to overthrow an oppressive government, claiming that it is just and legal to topple any "machine" that engages in robbery, tyranny, and enslavement.

Thoreau mentions William Paley's teachings in "Duty of Submission to Civil Government" as a counterargument, although he eventually rejects Paley's notion that one should not oppose a government if it will be a "inconvenience" to the populace. Thoreau's dissenting reaction is succinct: the people should always seek justice, however how uncomfortable and dangerous it may be. Even if doing so causes the country's disintegration, he contends, the populace must reject slavery and put an end to the conflict in Mexico.

It is universally agreed upon that people have to fight for justice whenever their rights are being curtailed. However, not at the cost of the nation. As they themselves are represented through the nation, so, it would not be suitable to have the rights and justice with no nation left to dispense them. Also, the notion of justice differs from person to person. The acquisition of Afghanistan by Taliban, in recent times, also testifies that the demand for justice and equality may take brutal forms that puts the very existence of the nation and the people at stake.

The residents of Massachusetts, in Thoreau's opinion, are not prepared to bear the costs of justice, so he then turns his attention to them. He berates his fellow citizens of Massachusetts for being more concerned with commerce and agriculture and for doing nothing to put an end to the Mexican-American War and slavery. Thoreau is concerned about the passive and "odd" nature of American citizens, and he questions why people find these channels of change worthwhile. By stating, “all voting is a sort of gaming” [v] , he emphasises that casting a ballot is merely a way to voice ones feeble desire for a particular result with which I also agree. In my opinion as well voting represents the will of majority as the one who gets the maximum votes is the one who then, represents the voice of all those who voted for him, that is to say, the majority opinion and the minority’s demands go unaccounted.

The nineteenth century was marked with significant expansion of the colonial rule. Be it the United States or the Great Britain, every major power attempted to gain as much territory as they could. Mexico successfully became independent in the year 1821, but nationhood was a difficult journey for the country since it had to face some harsh realities in terms of inter-border conflicts as well as internal political and economic instability. [vi] the government was characterized by instability leaving it ill-prepared for a major International conflict with the US in 1846. Massachusetts' residents had a limited role to play as the geographical, political, and social factors were not in favour of such a war. It was totally their choice to choose peace over war. Although the army was involved, but for the sustenance of life, the commercial and agriculture activities are irreplaceable.

Thoreau and I are on the same page when he acknowledges that even while he does not think that people should work to eradicate all injustices in the world, he nevertheless believes that they have a duty to at the very least condemn the establishments that support immoral behaviour. In light of this, he reiterates his criticism of individuals who oppose petitioning the government. Thoreau questions why citizens petition the state to dissolve the union when they have the authority to do so. He contends that men shouldn't limit their opinions to that (by petitioning). Instead, they must take action to turn that belief into reality. He claimed that the only way to avoid encouraging the wrongs one despises is to break the law. Thoreau observes that these initiatives cannot be carried out via government-run channels. He contends that slavery would cease to exist if just a small number of "honest" men stopped assisting the government, refused to pay taxes, and went to jail.

He also emphasises how difficult it is for the wealthy to engage in civil disobedience since they are always more devoted to the organisation that safeguards their interests and their possessions. His words, “the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects,” [vii] coincide with the Marxist idea of capitalism which states that social change is possible through economic class struggle as Marx interprets the inequalities between the economic conditions of the people in a society as the source of every conflict.

Thoreau's argument about the rich is true to life. One cannot bite the hand that feeds him. Moreover, they have the power to influence the state, be it through the money or by corrupt practices. It is only the common man who is racked with pain and oppressed brutally in every possible manner, be it paying hefty taxes, slavery, forced displacement, racial or class discrimination and so on.

Thoreau mentions Confucius saying, “If a state is governed by reason, poverty and misery are subjects of shame; if a state is not governed by the principles of reason, riches and honors are the subject of shame.” [viii] It is totally justified as acting upon mere reason would mean that every person should get benefits proportionate to his labour. This would lead to the rich becoming richer and poor becoming poorer. On the other hand, if the state is not governed by reason then, guided by the moral principles, the state would try to bring the poor at par with the rich. Ultimately, there will be no distinction between people.

Thoreau continues by citing instances of his own attempts to engage in civil disobedience. He relates how he was imprisoned and forced to spend the night with another prisoner who was accused of setting a barn on fire because he refused to pay taxes to a religious congregation and a pole tax. For Thoreau, the experience was deforming. He nevertheless has a clear view of his surroundings and leaves with a profound grasp of the area where he has spent the most of his life. After his incarceration, he starts to view his neighbours as frail individuals who are so afraid of taking risks that they don't care about doing what is morally right.

Each and every, even smallest of the small, sacrifices is worthy of veneration and so is Thoreau. When all these actions were combined, then only civil disobedience emerged as a national movement that baffled the British government. It was a frivolous thought to levy tax on salt, the primary essential of food. However, ultimately, the government ended the oppressive salt tax. In addition, the movement prepared the people of India for great sacrifices and laid down the foundation of the freedom struggle.

Thoreau returns to the topic of civil disobedience, asserting that it is the responsibility of the individual and the citizen to examine the deeds of the state and, in light of those deeds' morality, to reject or agree to pay taxes. People shouldn't follow the law just because it is the law, he claims, adding that this is not always the case. To address important moral problems, individuals should instead seek for "purer resources of truth." By emphasising that the person is a "higher and independent force," Thoreau reminds his audience that in order for the government to rule justly, the people must give their assent. This, in his opinion, is the secret to a liberated, wise, and magnificent society that treats all people fairly and with respect. Thoreau has examined the philosophy of law by offering his understanding to the questions like 'What is law?', 'What are the criteria for legal validity?' He endorses that law should be based on morals and that morals should guide the behaviour of people in everyday life as well as the government in policy making. However, it is important to note that sometimes morals are shaped by law. For instance, slavery was once considered to be respectful but, owing to the legal reforms, it is not legally and morally acceptable now.


This essay by Henry David Thoreau is one of the most powerful texts ever written. Revolving around the themes of moral self-reliance, limited government and necessity of government, it states some of the basic ideas of being a human being and is full of insights about the way one should live one's life. Thoreau's literary style blends close observation of personal experience, nature, historical lore, and symbolic meanings. The essay has been beautifully carved out in a reflecting manner rather than a purely logical one.

Some ideas of Thoreau are supremely individualistic that made me doubt their application on a larger scale. I agree with Thoreau on the benefits of "Civil Disobedience" for the purpose of promoting social change and as a form of protest. At some points, I felt that he got extremely critical about the idea of submission to oppression, but taking into account the conditions prevalent at that time, it may seem apt for him to do.

Thoreau’s work has been recognised all over the world which marks notable achievements of his ideals. Thoreau’s ideas about civil disobedience were first spread in the late 1900s by Henry Salt, an English social reformer who introduced them to Gandhi and Russian author Leo Tolstoy was important to spreading those ideas in continental Europe, wrote literature scholar Walter Harding. [ix] Civil Disobedience is still prevalent in the modern world which is evident in the countries like Iran where people are fighting for justice by acting against the unjust government policies. Many NGOs and pressure groups use civil disobedience as a means to challenge the national and international concerns. Despite the fact that it was written centuries age, this short essay still has the ability to challenge, even as its language delights. It is a glorious celebration of what is possible and it will continue to inspire the uprising, against the unjust, in the future.

[i] “Mexican-American War | Significance, Battles, Results, Timeline, and Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/event/Mexican-American-War ,October 7, 2022

[ii] John Harrington and Grant Suneson, “Cost of War: The 13 Most Expensive Campaigns in U.S. History.” USA TODAY, www.usatoday.com/story/money/2019/06/13/cost-of-war-13-most-expensive-wars-in-us-history/39556983/#:~:text=Mexican%2DAmerican%20War&text=Fought%20between%201846%20and%20the,expensive%20war%20in%20U.S.%20history, June 13,2019.

[iii] Henry David Thoreau, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”, United Kingdom, Simple Life Press, 1903.

[iv] ibid

[v] Henry (n 3)

[vi] Mexican War of Independence: Summary and Results. study.com/academy/lesson/mexican-war-of-independence-summary-timeline.html.

[vii] Henry (n 3)

[viii] Henry (n 3)

[ix] Kat Eschner, “’Martin Luther King and Gandhi Weren’t the Only Ones Inspired by Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’” Smithsonian Magazine, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/martin-luther-king-and-gandhi-werent-only-ones-inspired-thoreaus-civil-disobedience-180963972 , July 12, 2017