On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (Part One of Two)
by Henry David Thoreau
1849, (original title): Resistance to Civil Goverment
I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best
which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up
to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally
amounts to this, which also I believe--"That government is
best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared
for it, that will be the kind of government which the will have.
Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments
are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.
The objections which have been brought against a standing army,
and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail,
may also at last be brought against a standing government.
The standing army is only an arm of the standing government.
The government itself, which is only the mode which the people
have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused
and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the
present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals
using the standing government as their tool; for in the outset,
the people would not have consented to this measure.
This American government--what is it but a tradition,
though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself
unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its
integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single
living man; for a single man can bend it to his will. It is
a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves. But it is
not the less necessary for this; for the people must have
some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to
satisfy that idea of government which they have.
Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed
upon, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage.
It is excellent, we must all allow. Yet this government
never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the
alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep
the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not
educate. The character inherent in the American people has
done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done
somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in
its way. For government is an expedient, by which men would
fain succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been
said, when it is most expedient, the governed are most let
alone by it. Trade and commerce, if they were not made of
india-rubber, would never manage to bounce over obstacles
which legislators are continually putting in their way;
and if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of
their actions and not partly by their intentions, they would
deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievious
persons who put obstructions on the railroads.
But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike
those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not
at once no government, but at once a better government. Let
every man make known what kind of government would command
his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.
After all, the practical reason why, when the power is
once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted,
and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they
are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems
fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the
strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in
all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men
understand it. Can there not be a government in which the
majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but
conscience?--in which majorities decide only those questions
to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the
citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign
his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a
conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and
subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a
respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only
obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any
time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a
corporation has no conscience; but a corporation on
conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law
never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their
respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the
agents on injustice. A common and natural result of an
undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of
soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates,
powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over
hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against
their common sense and consciences, which makes it very
steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart.
They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in
which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined.
Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and
magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?
Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an
American government can make, or such as it can make a man
with its black arts--a mere shadow and reminiscence of
humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already,
as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniment,
though it may be,
"Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where out hero was buried."
The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly,
but as machines
, with their bodies. They are the standing army,
and the militia
, posse comitatus
In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the
judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves
on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men
can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.
Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt.
They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs.
Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens.
Others--as most legislators
and office-holders--serve the state chiefly with their heads;
and, as the rarely make any moral distinctions
, they are as
likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God
A very few--as heroes
great sense, and men--serve the state with their consciences
also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and
they are commonly treated as enemies by it. A wise man will
only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be "clay,"
and "stop a hole to keep the wind away," but leave that
office to his dust at least:
"I am too high born to be propertied,
To be a second at control,
Or useful serving-man and instrument
To any sovereign state throughout the world."
He who gives himself entirely to his fellow men appears
to them useless
; but he who gives himself
partially to them in pronounced a benefactor
How does it become a man to behave toward the American
government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace
be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize
that political organization as my government which is the
slave's government also.
All men recognize the right of revolution; that is,
the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist,
the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are
great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not
the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the
Revolution of '75. If one were to tell me that this was a
bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities
brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should
not make an ado about it, for I can do without them.
All machines have their friction; and possibly this does
enough good to counter-balance the evil. At any rate, it is
a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction
comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are
organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.
In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation
which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves,
and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a
foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it
is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.
What makes this duty the more urgent is that fact that the
country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.
Paley, a common authority with many on moral questions,
in his chapter on the "Duty of Submission to Civil
Government," resolves all civil obligation into expediency;
and he proceeds to say that "so long as the interest of the
whole society requires it, that it, so long as the established
government cannot be resisted or changed without public
inconveniencey, it is the will of God. . .that the
established government be obeyed--and no longer. This
principle being admitted, the justice of every particular
case of resistance is reduced to a computation of the
quantity of the danger and grievance on the one side, and of
the probability and expense of redressing it on the other."
Of this, he says, every man shall judge for himself.
But Paley appears never to have contemplated those cases
to which the rule of expediency does not apply, in which
a people, as well and an individual, must do justice, cost
what it may. If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a
drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself.
This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient.
But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it.
This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war
on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.
In their practice, nations agree with Paley; but does
anyone think that Massachusetts does exactly what is right
at the present crisis?
"A drab of stat,
a cloth-o'-silver slut,
To have her train borne up,
and her soul trail in the dirt."
Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in
Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the
South, but a hundred thousand merchants
who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than
they are in humanity
, and are not prepared to do justice to
the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may. I quarrel not
with far-off foes, but with those who, neat at home,
co-operate with, and do the bidding of, those far away, and
without whom the latter would be harmless. We are
accustomed to say, that the mass of men are unprepared; but
improvement is slow, because the few are not as materially
wiser or better than the many. It is not so important that
many should be good as you, as that there be some absolute
goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump.
There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery
and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end
to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington
, sit down with their hands in their pockets,
and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who
even postpone the question of freedom to the question of
free trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with
the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may
be, fall asleep over them both. What is the price-current
of an honest man and patriot today? They hesitate
, and they
, and sometimes they petition
; but they do nothing in
earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for
other to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to
regret. At most, they give up only a cheap vote
, and a
, to the right, as it goes by
them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of
virtue to one virtuous man. But it is easier to deal with
the real possessor of a thing than with the temporary
guardian of it.
All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or
backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with
right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally
accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked.
I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not
vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am
willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation,
therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting
for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only
expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.
A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance,
nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.
There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men.
When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of
slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery,
or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished
by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his
vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own
freedom by his vote.
I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or
elsewhere, for the selection of a candidate for the
Presidency, made up chiefly of editors, and men who are
politicians by profession; but I think, what is it to any
independent, intelligent, and respectable man what decision
they may come to? Shall we not have the advantage of this
wisdom and honesty, nevertheless? Can we not count upon
some independent votes? Are there not many individuals in
the country who do not attend conventions? But no: I find
that the respectable man, so called, has immediately drifted
from his position, and despairs of his country, when his
country has more reasons to despair of him. He forthwith
adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only
available one, thus proving that he is himself available for
any purposes of the demagogue. His vote is of no more worth
than that of any unprincipled foreigner or hireling native,
who may have been bought. O for a man who is a man, and,
and my neighbor says, has a bone is his back which you
cannot pass your hand through! Our statistics are at fault:
the population has been returned too large. How many men
are there to a square thousand miles in the country?
Hardly one. Does not America offer any inducement for men
to settle here? The American has dwindled into an Odd
Fellow--one who may be known by the development of his organ
of gregariousness, and a manifest lack of intellect and
cheerful self-reliance; whose first and chief concern, on
coming into the world, is to see that the almshouses are in
good repair; and, before yet he has lawfully donned the
virile garb, to collect a fund to the support of the widows
and orphans that may be; who, in short, ventures to live
only by the aid of the Mutual Insurance company, which has
promised to bury him decently.
It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to
devote himself to the eradication of any, even to most
enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns
to engage him; 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. If I devote myself to
other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at
least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's
shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his
contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated.
I have heard some of my townsmen say, "I should like to
have them order me out to help put down an insurrection
of the slaves, or to march to Mexico--see if I would go";
and yet these very men have each, directly by their
allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money,
furnished a substitute. The soldier is applauded who
refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse
to sustain the unjust government which makes the war;
is applauded by those whose own act and authority he disregards
and sets at naught; as if the state were penitent to that
degree that it hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but
not to that degree that it left off sinning for a moment.
Thus, under the name of Order and Civil Government, we are
all made at last to pay homage to and support our own meanness.
After the first blush of sin comes its indifference; and from
immoral it becomes, as it were, unmoral, and not quite unnecessary
to that life which we have made.
The broadest and most prevalent error requires the most
disinterested virtue to sustain it. The slight reproach to
which the virtue of patriotism is commonly liable, the noble
are most likely to incur. Those who, while they disapprove
of the character and measures of a government, yield to it
their allegiance and support are undoubtedly its most
conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious
obstacles to reform. Some are petitioning the State to
dissolve the Union, to disregard the requisitions of the
President. Why do they not dissolve it themselves--the
union between themselves and the State--and refuse to pay
their quota into its treasury? Do not they stand in same
relation to the State that the State does to the Union? And
have not the same reasons prevented the State from resisting
the Union which have prevented them from resisting the State?
How can a man be satisfied to entertain and opinion
merely, and enjoy it? Is there any enjoyment in it, if his
opinion is that he is aggrieved? If you are cheated out of
a single dollar by your neighbor, you do not rest satisfied
with knowing you are cheated, or with saying that you are
cheated, or even with petitioning him to pay you your due;
but you take effectual steps at once to obtain the full
amount, and see to it that you are never cheated again.
Action from principle, the perception and the performance of
right, changes things and relations; it is essentially
revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything
which was. It not only divided States and churches, it
divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating
the diabolical in him from the divine.
Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or
shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have
succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men,
generally, under such a government as this, think that they
ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to
alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the
remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of
the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil.
It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and
provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority?
Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not
encourage its citizens to put out its faults, and do better than
it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and
excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington
and Franklin rebels?
One would think, that a deliberate and practical denial
of its authority was the only offense never contemplated by
its government; else, why has it not assigned its definite,
its suitable and proportionate, penalty? If a man who has
no property refuses but once to earn nine shillings for the
State, he is put in prison for a period unlimited by any law
that I know, and determined only by the discretion of those
who put him there; but if he should steal ninety times nine
shillings from the State, he is soon permitted to go at
If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of
the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance
it will wear smooth--certainly the machine will wear out.
If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a
crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider
whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if
it is of such a nature that it 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 for adopting the ways of the State has provided for
remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too
much time, and a man's life will be gone. I have other
affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly
to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it,
be it good or bad. A man has not everything to do, but
something; and because he cannot do everything, it is
not necessary that he should be petitioning the Governor
or the Legislature any more than it is theirs to petition me;
and if they should not hear my petition, what should I do then?
But in this case the State has provided no way: its very
Constitution is the evil. This may seem to be harsh and
stubborn and unconcilliatory; but it is to treat with the
utmost kindness and consideration the only spirit that can
appreciate or deserves it. So is all change for the better,
like birth and death, which convulse the body.
I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves
Abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw
their support, both in person and property, from the
government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they
constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right
to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they
have God on their side, without waiting for that other one.
Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes
a majority of one already.
I meet this American government, or its representative,
the State government, directly, and face to face, once a
year--no more--in the person of its tax-gatherer; this is
the only mode in which a man situated as I am necessarily
meets it; and it then says distinctly, Recognize me; and
the simplest, the most effectual, and, in the present
posture of affairs, the indispensablest mode of treating
with it on this head, of expressing your little satisfaction
with and love for it, is to deny it then. My civil
neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the very man I have to deal
with--for it is, after all, with men and not with parchment
that I quarrel--and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent
of the government. How shall he ever know well that he is
and does as an officer of the government, or as a man,
until he is obliged to consider whether he will treat me,
his neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a neighbor and
well-disposed man, or as a maniac and disturber of the peace,
and see if he can get over this obstruction to his
neighborlines without a ruder and more impetuous thought or
speech corresponding with his action. I know this well,
that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I
could name--if ten honest men only--ay, if one HONEST man,
in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were
actually to withdraw from this co-partnership, and be locked
up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of
slavery in America. For 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: that we say
is our mission. Reform keeps many scores of newspapers in
its service, but not one man. If my esteemed neighbor, the
State's ambassador, who will devote his days to the
settlement of the question of human rights in the Council
Chamber, instead of being threatened with the prisons of
Carolina, were to sit down the prisoner of Massachusetts,
that State which is so anxious to foist the sin of slavery
upon her sister--though at present she can discover only an
act of inhospitality to be the ground of a quarrel with
her--the Legislature would not wholly waive the subject of
the following winter.
Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true
place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place
today, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for
her freer and less despondent spirits, is in her prisons, to
be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as
they have already put themselves out by their principles.
It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican
prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs
of his race should find them; on that separate but more free
and honorable ground, where the State places those who are
not with her, but against her--the only house in a slave
State in which a free man can abide with honor. If any
think that their influence would be lost there, and their
voices no longer afflict the ear of the State, that they
would not be as an enemy within its walls, they do not know
by how much truth is stronger than error, nor how much more
eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has
experienced a little in his own person. Cast your whole
vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.
A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority;
it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when
it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep
all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the
State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men
were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be
a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them,
and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent
blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable
revolution, if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer,
or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, "But
what shall I do?" my answer is, "If you really wish to do
anything, resign your office." When the subject has refused
allegiance, and the officer has resigned from office, then
the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood shed
when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man's
real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an
everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.
I have contemplated the imprisonment of the offender,
rather than the seizure of his goods--though both will serve
the same purpose--because they who assert the purest right,
and consequently are most dangerous to a corrupt State,
commonly have not spent much time in accumulating property.
To such the State renders comparatively small service, and a
slight tax is won't to appear exorbitant, particularly if
they are obliged to earn it by special labor with their hands.
If there were one who lived wholly without the use of money,
the State itself would hesitate to demand it of him.
But the rich man--not to make any invidious
comparison--is always sold to the institution which makes
him rich. Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less
virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and
obtains them for him; it was certainly no great virtue to
obtain it. It puts to rest many questions which he would
otherwise be taxed to answer; while the only new question
which it puts is the hard but superfluous one, how to spend
it. Thus his moral ground is taken from under his feet.
The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as
that are called the "means" are increased. The best thing a
man can do for his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to
carry out those schemes which he entertained when he was
poor. Christ answered the Herodians according to their
condition. "Show me the tribute-money," said he--and one
took a penny out of his pocket--if you use money which has
the image of Caesar on it, and which he has made current and
valuable, that is, if you are men of the State, and gladly
enjoy the advantages of Caesar's government, then pay him
back some of his own when he demands it. "Render therefore
to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God those things
which are God's"--leaving them no wiser than before as to
which was which; for they did not wish to know.