Civil Disobedience

During the nineteenth century, much revolution and reform took place, particularly in the methods of government. In America, a fresh republic was in the process of weathering through its first century. Perhaps the most progressive form of government in place at the time, this democratic republic distributed governmental power and influence more equally than any government in western culture had done thus far. In spite of that fact, the American government at that point was still lacking, according to many who lived during that time. Henry David Thoreau, for example, felt that there were still improvements to be made. Being a rugged individualist, he longed for more individual liberties than were permitted by that method of government. As evidenced by his essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”, Thoreau believes that there is a higher law than the laws of humanity that presides over life, and that it is the responsibility of the individual to interpret and abide by that higher law, meaning that the government is to be but a resource for the individual.

Thoreau does not approve of the American style of democratic government. He does not believe that it is in the best interest of justice to let one group of people, the majorities in this case, decide for all the meaning of justice. A true majority is attained between a person and God, Thoreau maintains, “I think that it is enough if they have God on their side” (ODCD paragraph 5). Basically, Thoreau does not like the idea that too often the truth will not be found in the majority opinion. Worse than that, though, is that the minority must submit to the majority rule regardless of the truth or face government sanction as a result of the failure to do so. “Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter [the laws]” before they violate unjust laws (ODCD paragraph 1). Our government, in its inability to be consistently just, often subjects the governed to unjust laws thereby forcing them to make a choice between disobeying God and disobeying their government. The government, though, operates under the impression that it is the ultimate authority. “a deliberate and practical denial of its authority was the only offence never contemplated,” Thoreau observes of the American government (ODCD paragraph 2). He believes, contrary to the government, that truth and justice lies not with the majority but rather with themselves. “To be strictly just, [the government] must have the sanction and consent of the governed,” (ODCD paragraph 8). Thoreau’s government did not have that. He goes on to explain that government might someday reach that point where “the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its power and authority are derived,” (ODCD paragraph 8). At that point, and not before, we will have a “free and enlightened State”.

Thoreau is unhappy with the American government. This government allows for the legalization of injustice and the outlaw of justice, should that be the will of the majority. If the government recognized the ability of the individual to understand justice on his or her own, then we could really be free. If only we were all justice-oriented.

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