In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau conveys his ideas that the existence of the American democracy-based government is ill fated, as it is bound either to oppress the minority within the society, or to be "abused and perverted before the people can act through it". He believes that it is a man's duty to resist all he does not agree with. In "Bartleby, the Scrivener," Bartleby always acts in resistance to the rest of the office. Thoreau would view Bartleby as a model practitioner of his ideas of civil disobedience, as he constantly stands firm against the will of the majority.
Thoreau strongly believes that the political system of ruling by majority is flawed, as the rights of the minority are ignored, such as when Bartleby is forced from his first job, as well as his treatment in the Wall Street office. According to him, "why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted... to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, ...but because they are physically the strongest." He implies that such a system where the will of the majority is the rule is often the same as the power of a dictatorship, where one person forces his beliefs on all others, only in this case, a larger group of people force their beliefs on the smaller group (or on a single person). Thoreau also views the workings of such a society as "a mass of men [that] serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies".
The Wall Street environment in which Bartleby works fits this description very closely. The scriveners work in a dull, monotonous environment "deficient in what landscape painters call 'life'" (Melville par. 5), doing nothing more than replicate volumes of text, a task that in the modern day actually is relegated to machines. The narrator even states that the task "would be altogether intolerable" (Melville par. 19) to those of hopeful nature. The workers serve as nothing more than pieces of equipment intended to serve a purpose, according to expectations. Thoreau believes that "in most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense" in such a society. The various workers in the Wall Street Office all suit this description, drearily replicating the various documents. When Bartleby chooses, or actually "prefers," not to follow the usual procedures of checking his work for errors, the narrator questions him as to whether he is "decided to not comply with [the] request - a request made according to common usage and common sense" (Melville par. 38), as if he is expected to obey simply because everyone else says that he must do so. When the reader is told that Bartleby "prefers not to" obey the instructions, it becomes apparent that the will of the majority is forcibly being imposed on the single man, who does not wish to abide as such. Almost instantly, the others threaten some form of violence against Bartleby, attempting to force his acceptance of the "common" and accepted procedure of reproducing the texts, when Nippers threatens that he should "be kicked out of the office" (Melville par. 44) for not following instructions. Bartleby acts just as Thoreau states that one should act when he is being forced to act outside of his will, as "a minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority". Bartleby's only power over the others is his passive resistance to their will.
Bartleby's disagreements with society most likely serve as a protest of his loss of employment at the Dead Letters department, "from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration" (Melville par. 250). Most likely, Melville intentionally creates a paucity of past information of Bartleby's life in order to emphasize the injustices imposed upon him by that newly risen democratic majority. Rather than violently protest his expulsion from the post office, Bartleby passively resists the wishes of those around him. The effects of this portray the possibility for passive resistance to change the outcome of political events, just as Thoreau states that a minority "is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight," forcing the majority to reform because of their presence. Bartleby is described as "a man of so singularly sedate an aspect, which might [be thought to] operate beneficially upon the flighty temper of Turkey and the fiery one of Nippers" (Melville par. 16). Already, the narrator, upon hiring Bartleby, realizes that a lack of force can be a more effective at reaching a goal than the excitability prevalent in the other two characters. Thoreau believes that "nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance," just as Bartleby's resistance agitates the narrator. Ironically, the effectiveness of the sedate nature of Bartleby is not used in the narrator's favor as he hopes to calm the tempers of Nippers and Turkey, but rather in promoting Bartleby's rebellion against the office and society in general.
A rather comic incident is the influence of Bartleby's use of the word "prefer" on the language of the other office workers. The narrator states that simply by stating that he prefers not to do work, Bartleby succeeds "in some degree [to turn] the tongues, if not the heads, of myself and clerks" (Melville par. 125). After the narrator tries unsuccessfully to force Bartleby out of the office, he simply leaves the office behind, with Bartleby in it. The reader would assume that this would be then end of any real troubles for the narrator, but in fact, the passive resistance of Bartleby becomes even more effective. Bartleby's presence in the office building serves to destroy the reputation of the lawyer, who is "fearful then of being exposed in the papers" (Melville par. 190) just for the fact of being formerly associated with a man who would not quit an office building. At this point, Thoreau's ideas of civil disobedience are most applicable: the narrator, in fear for his own reputation throughout the society in general, is forced to take action simply because of the passive presence of a single man, who no longer has any relation to him whatsoever, as society "has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will" (Thoreau). Even after Bartleby is taken to prison, the lawyer still feels a moral obligation to help Bartleby, simply out of pity. Bartleby has completely succeeded in making his disobedience of the majority's will effective.
When Bartleby refuses to follow the orders of the narrator, he is rebelling against the majority, which seems caused him to lose his job. Thoreau views this as the just and proper action, as he believes that the individual is most important in determining the morality of a law, rather than to "resign his conscience to the legislator" (Thoreau). Bartleby succeeds in making the reader aware of Thoreau's idea that "there will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly". After all, even though Bartleby "silently acquiesces" (Melville par. 215) to being sent to prison for not obeying others, Thoreau strongly believes that "under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."