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Pt. 4, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

by Henry David Thoreau Monday, Dec. 23, 2002 at 10:41 AM

Thoreau's essay became the most influential of his writings, serving, for example, as a model for Ghandi's campaign of passive resistence in India, and as a handbook for the underground in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Part four: On the Duty of civil Disobedience



As for adopting the ways, which 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, but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not every thing to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong. It is not my business to be petitioning the governor or the legislature4 anymore 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 too harsh and stubborn and unconciliatory; but it is too treat with the utmost kindness and consideration the only spirit that can appreciate it, or deserve 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 withdraw their support, both in person and in 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 to i9f 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 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 nature of affairs, the indispensable mode of treating with it on its heads, of expressing your little satisfaction with and love for it, 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 parchment that I quarrel, and, he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of government. How shall he ever know well what he is and does as an officer of the government, or as a man, until he is obliged to consider whether he shall 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 his obstruction to his neighborliness 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, -aye, if one HONEST man, in this state of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be; that is once well done is done forever. But we love better to talk about it: that we say is out 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 threate4ded 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 pre4sent 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 the following winter.

Under a government, which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also 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 y 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 were not with her, but against her, - the only house in a slave-state in which a free man can abide with honor. If any that think 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 in slavery, the state will not hesitate to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would 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 his office, then the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of bloodshed 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 wont 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 religious comparisons- 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; and it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it. It puts to rest many questions 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 what 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.



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