University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Henry David Thoreau and Resistance to Civil Government
Henry David Thoreau was the most active participant in the Transcendentalist movement. He was a student and mentee of Ralph Waldo Emerson. While Emerson had transcendental ideas, Thoreau would act on them and fully practice them. Hence, he felt that he and others should resist America’s Civil Government. 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. (Thoreau) Thoreau starts out his famous essay with the statement that government should be weak and the people strong.
He was a strong advocate of the individual the rights of the individual. To him, a person should be self reliant, as Emerson taught. He felt that the more citizens relied on their government for their needs, then the stronger the government would become and that could be dangerous. He felt that being controlled by a government, or anything else for that matter, was a tragedy in a person’s life. The main reason that Thoreau wrote Resistance to Civil Government was because he was completely tired of a government that could allow slavery to exist.
Slavery was an institution in the Southern states where people actually owned African Americans. He felt that if it was wrong for a government to have to much power over the individual and his/her rights, then surely it was wrong for another human to own another. In the institution of slavery, the slave has no rights at all. Slaves were made to work extremely hard. Thoreau had nothing against hard work for an individual’s own self-reliance, but the slave did not benefit from his/her work.
The owner reaped all of the profit. They did not get to choose their profession, it was illegal to teach them to read or write, many owners beat them, and they could be sold away from their families at any time. The owner controlled everything about them even life and death. Slavery went against everything that Thoreau believed about government and the individual. If it was true that it government should have as little control as possible, then it was an abomination that this kind of power could control another.
Thoreau was so appalled that a government that claimed in its constitution that all men were created equal, could turn a blind eye to the institution of slavery. He decided that since his tax dollars went to a government that supported such an institution, he would no longer pay his taxes. He hoped that he could inspire others who proclaimed abolitionist thoughts would do the same. However, they did not. In fact when Emerson came to the jail to post his bond, he asked Thoreau why he was in jail. Thoreau responded by asking Emerson why he was not in there with him.
Thoreau’s idea of civil disobedience to a government that is not of the people has been successful for several generations after Thoreau’s death. He impacted the lives of such great men as Ghandi and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. King used Thoreau’s method and turned a nation around and forced it to recognize the civil rights of all people by Resistance to Civil Government. Thoreau and his idea of peaceful protest will remain an affective way to change governments for generations to come.