The essay Civil Disobedience or Resistance to Civil Government was a speech delivered by David Thoreau in response to a particular event-the Mexican War, which occurred on May 1846. This war was probably expected to result in the expansion of slave territory.
Thoreau examining the consequences of the rule of the state was satisfied with the fact that too much intervention and interference of laws of a government and silence of its subjects can be very dangerous as it will make the people follow even those rules of the government, which its makers have made for their own sake and profit.
This is why, he begins his speech as, and “I heartily accept the motto-‘That government is best which governs least’.”
But he considers the motto to be lacking something and goes on to the extent saying-“That government is best which governs not at all.” Thus Thoreau is highly critical of the extent to which a government interferes in the life of commoners.
Inherent Problems With Government
Thoreau, in order to justify the rightness of Civil Disobedience and the need for the rule of supreme individualism or transcendentalism, explains the inherent problems with the government.
According to Thoreau, the American Government “has not the vitality and force of a single man can bend it to his will.” Further, he says, “Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed on even impose on themselves, for their own advantages.”
Thoreau wants to show that the government does not have the power to maintain justice in the country because the makers of the government have made the justness of the government towards its subjects obsolete.
A single man, who is ruling the country can mould the laws framed by the government to meet his own ends. The government which is supposed to do better for its subject has forgotten its duty. “It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the west. It does not educate.”
Neglection of Duties
Thoreau explains that all the duties of the government that it was supposed to do, it has neglected and thus he comes to the conclusion that one should resist government though he may be arrested.
And “under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Here Thoreau used the term “just man” that means a person who distinguishes between just and unjust laws using his conscious.
Hence, it is quite clear that his essay does not focus on individualism (i.e. one’s personal interests) but on the “supreme individualism” i.e. the collective conscious of a person over the rules and laws of the unjust government.
Thoreau believes that there is a higher law than the laws of one’s land, which is the law of conscious, the “inner voice”, the “over-soul”, or in other words, he believes in Transcendentalism.
But it does not mean that he believes in anarchy. In his words, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.”
Thoreau also resists Democracy, “when the power is in the hands of 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 be minority, but because they are physically the strongest.”
Here he criticises “individualism” of the majority because, for him, the democracy which is popularly known as “the government of people” is in reality “the government of the majority.”
Majority vs Minority
Hence, whether the majority is fair or foul, the minority is supposed to accept and adopt the decision. Thoreau doesn’t consider the minority to be powerless.
“A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority.” Here again Thoreau, through these lines, wants to say that if the minority does not put some resistance to the unjust laws made by the majority, it is powerless.
In the next lines, he says, “it is not even the minority then, but it is irresistible when it clogs its whole weight.” “Whole weight” here depicts the power of resistance of the minority.
The minority, if, is willing and determined, can make serious changes. And “when the subject has refused allegiance and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.”
Thoreau believes that revolution is not accomplished by gathering ample of masses but requires firm determination and thus even ten men can change the system with their stern will.
In his words, “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 co-partnership, and be locked up in the country jail, therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery America. For it matters now how small the beginning may seem to be, what is once well done is done forever.”
It signifies his belief in strong determination for resistance against the state. For Thoreau, under the rule of an unjust government, prison is a better place for a person believing in supreme individualism.
In his words, “under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Thoreau gave this statement probably because he also resisted the policies of the government.
His Own Story
He narrates his own story of spending a night in jail in his speech as he did not pay the poll tax that was meant for army funding. However, “the night in prison was novel and interesting enough.” It does not mean that he did this like a miser. He did pay other taxes that in his opinion were just.
For him, thus, a state is not good at superiority but at the strength and so decisions based on supreme individualism is better than the laws forced upon by the state and so in his words, “I was not born to be forced, I will breathe after my own fashion.”
He challenges the makers of government asking them to judge who is stronger, their forced unjust laws or his firm determination to resist them.
He desires that every citizen of America should have the courage, like him, to live his own life and do whatever he likes. He should follow what conscious says him to do.
In the conflict between conscious and state laws, he should follow his conscience. If a state uses force, he should resist it and go to jail. Hence supreme individualism guides the whole text of Thoreau that is based on resistance.