In Henry David Thoreau’s Essay called “Civil Disobedience”, Thoreau explains the need to prioritize a person’s conscience over the ordinance of the government. It criticizes American social institutions and policies, most immediately slavery and the Mexican-American War. He was an outspoken opponent of slavery and reluctantly opposed the Mexican-American War, in which he viewed as an act of American aggression.
In protest, Thoreau refused to pay his poll taxes that supported the war. After spending the night in jail, he published “Civil Disobedience”, sparking controversy and disagreement about resistance against justice. In his essay, Thoreau focuses on the individual’s ultimate responsibility to live consciously and to absorb meaning from his or her own life. Thoreau begins his essay with an argument that stated that government rarely proves itself useful, and that it acquires its power from the majority because they are the strongest group, not because they hold the most legitimate viewpoint. Government is only an expedient, or as Thoreau called it, “A means of attaining an end”.
He stated, “That government is best which governs least…That government is best which governs not at all”. He speaks in support of the part of the government that does not invade the lives of societal figures. Thoreau saw government for the sole purpose of attaining individual freedom. Government constitutionally lends itself to fraudulent uses because it allows only few men to impose their moral will on the majority, and to profit economically from their own position of authority.
A man is held accountable to act according to the direction of his conscience, even if it goes against the majority’s opinions, the laws of society, or the opposing leadership. This, in Thoreau’s opinion, was the definition of resistance. Although Thoreau was not an anarchist, and did not support the idea of the non-existence of a government, he did strongly believe in the improved government being reinforced throughout the United States. He did not believe that the government should be ruled by a majority based authority, instead he thought that Individual conscience should rule, and civil government should confine itself to those matters that are appropriately fit to decision by the majority rule. Thoreau’s approach to an engagement of resistance was simple. He believed that one should engage with peace and non-violence.
In his essay, he stated, “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, but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support”. Thoreau believed that the expression of opposition to slavery was meaningless, and the only action that could alter the minds of others without force, were acts of resistance and peace. Despite his stance and strong opinions on civil disobedience and the questions of slavery and the Mexican war, Thoreau claimed to have great respect and admiration for the ideals of American government and its fellow associates. Thoreau values the contributions of statesmen, politicians, legislatures and other parts of the government to society.
He respects their advisabilities and their diplomacy, but feels that only someone who stands outside of government is truly able to speak the truth about it.