activism books

Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau

Since stepping up my activism somewhat last year, I’ve been reading a bit more about civil disobedience, and this essay is something of a classic. When we think of civil disobedience, the first two examples that come to mind are often Martin Luther King and Gandhi, and both of them cited Henry David Thoreau as an influence.

Henry David Thoreau wrote his essay on Civil Disobedience in 1849, detailing his philosophy and his experiences of resisting a government he didn’t agree with. There were two principle reasons for his disavowal. The first was slavery. Thoreau was an abolitionist, and Massachusetts was a slave state at the time. The second was the expansionist war against Mexico.

For Thoreau, the only morally acceptable stance to take on an oppressive government was to have nothing to do with it. He was frustrated with how many people would say they were against the war or against slavery, and do nothing – they “sit down with their hands in their pockets”, as he puts it. “They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret.”

Thoreau didn’t see stopping the war as his responsibility, but he wanted no part of it. And in order to ‘wash his hands of it’, he decided he wouldn’t pay his taxes. He continued to pay local and specific taxes, because “I am as desirous of being a good neighbour as I am of being a bad subject.” But for six years he refused to pay the poll tax. That seems to have been more of an embarassment to the local authorities than anything else. In some cases people paid it for him to avoid trouble. He spent a total of one night in prison for non-payment.

Compared to the violence suffered by the civil rights or Satyagraha activists, this is small potatoes, but Thoreau believed that if more people were willing to go to jail over the issue of slavery, it would have brought about abolition. Unlike the movements that came later, he acted alone and his impact was smaller. Not that Thoreau minded. “It matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever. But we love better to talk about it.”

What his essay offers today is Thoreau’s moral clarity on the legitimacy of civil disobedience. If a political system “requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

(As a sidenote, when I hear debates about civil disobedience, people who object to it often say that Gandhi and King didn’t have the vote. Those that do should use their vote to effect change. Thoreau, who had the vote, would have no time for this argument. At no point to you cede your own conscience to the state, regardless of electoral outcomes.)

The ways to resist will vary, and civil disobedience campaigns have used all kinds of tactics that Thoreau never thought of. The issues change too, but the principle is the same. The big injustice of our era is climate change, which will affect those least responsible for it. Our government continues to promote fossil fuels, and insists that economic growth is more important than climate justice. What should our response be? At what point do we conclude that resistance is the right thing to do? For Extinction Rebellion, the youth strikes and others, that time is now.

  • Civil Disobedience usually comes packaged in the ‘and other writings’ bit at the end of Walden, or Hive has it as an ebook.

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