Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience is one of the most influential works of American philosophy, but is more often misunderstood than understood.
Martin Luther King, Jr. called it his “first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance,” and wrote: “The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement.” Gandhi developed satyagraha under its influence, and said the essay was “written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable.”
Although the essay has strongly influenced the tradition of nonviolent direct action, Thoreau wrote it, in part, to distinguish his motives from those of firmly nonviolent resisters.
American pacifists at the time called themselves “non-resistants” because most based their pacifism on Jesus’s instruction to “resist not evil” but instead to turn the other cheek. During Thoreau’s lifetime, Civil Disobedience was published as “Resistance to Civil Government.” The title indicated Thoreau’s challenge to “non-resistance” theory.
A later reprint changed the title to “Civil Disobedience,” which made “civil” ambiguous — did it mean disobedience to civil authorities (as in the original title), or disobedience conducted in a civil manner? This, and the influence the essay had on nonviolent resistance leaders like Gandhi and King, causes many to mistake Thoreau for a pacifist and his essay as a manifesto of nonviolent resistance.
Thoreau’s actual views on war and pacifism show a remarkable evolution, and present a challenge to pacifists that is as relevant today as it was in the turbulent years preceding the Civil War when Thoreau was writing.
When Thoreau was in his early twenties he began writing a journal. Some of his earliest mentions of war show him fawning over soldiers during their annual drills, and holding romantic ideas that betray that most of what he knew of war came from the Greek classics.
War, to him, was “heartiness and activity,” while peace was “insincerity and sloth.” “I have a deep sympathy with war,” he wrote, “it so apes the gait and bearing of the soul.” “Every man is a warrior when he aspires.” “The whole course of our lives should be analogous to one day of the soldier’s.”
Peace he considered to be an ideal only for “puny men, afraid of war’s alarms.”
In the 1840s, Thoreau’s attitude matured. He stopped paying the poll tax, in what he later explained was a protest against a government that enforced slavery and that invaded Mexico in order to extend slaveholder territory. Around the time he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his taxes, Thoreau wrote:
There probably never were worse crimes committed since time began than in the present Mexican war… yet I have not learned the name or residence, and probably never should, of the reckless villain who should father them… [T]he villainy is in the readiness with which men, doing outrage to their proper natures, lend themselves to perform the office of inferior & brutal ones.… Any can command him who doth not command himself.
In this journal entry is the seed that would grow into Civil Disobedience.
In the years before Thoreau began resisting the poll tax, Massachusetts transcendentalists Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane were jailed for refusing to pay their taxes, in acts they justified as pacifist “non-resistance.” Thoreau followed their practice, but with a different theory, and his essay distinguished his tax resistance from theirs.
While the non-resistants based their practice on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and relied on a faith in the power of nonviolence, Thoreau’s argument was secular and applied equally to violent or nonviolent techniques.
But though he was distancing himself from pacifists, Thoreau was becoming increasingly cynical about war and soldiers. “Read the Englishman’s history of the French and Indian wars,” he wrote in his journal, “and then read the Frenchman’s, and see how each awards the meed of glory to the other’s monsters of cruelty or perfidy.” A few days later he took up his own challenge, and found it was just as he anticipated: The histories were irreconcilable — the savage brutes of one were the chivalric heroes of the other.
One day he observed a battle between two ant hives and wrote:
I should not wonder if they had their respective musical bands stationed on some chip and playing their national airs the while to cheer the dying combatants… I was myself excited somewhat, even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference. And certainly there is no other fight recorded in Concord that will bear a moment’s comparison with this.
To the extent that American patriotism is a religion, this is high blasphemy. “The Shot Heard ’Round the World” that began the American Revolution was fired at Concord, and every Concord child, Thoreau included, was brought up to revere the heroes of that battle. But:
I have no doubt [the ants] had as just a cause, one or even both parties, as our forefathers, and that the results will be as important and memorable. And there was far more patriotism and heroism.… I have no doubt it was a principle they fought for as much as our ancestors, and not a threepenny tax on their tea.
Thoreau had no respect for soldiers who fought not for a principle but as a career. When the militia of Massachusetts, a “free state,” cooperated with the Fugitive Slave Law to send Anthony Burns back into slavery in Virginia in 1854, Thoreau’s contempt for the government’s soldiers grew: “While the whole military force of the State, if need be, is at the service of a slaveholder to enable him to carry back a slave, not a soldier is offered to save a citizen of Massachusetts from being kidnapped.… The marines and the militia whose bodies were used lately were not men of sense nor of principle; in a high moral sense they were not men at all.”
The mid-1850s was the closest Thoreau approached to pacifism. He’d given up hope of finding heroes among the government’s uniformed “powder monkeys” and he felt that nations going to war were exhibiting something akin to insanity on a national scale. Might not war come to be thought of as a shameful relic of barbaric times, he wondered, “as duelling between individuals now is?”
But the most interesting evolution in Thoreau’s views on violence and nonviolence — and his most severe challenge to pacifism — was yet to come.
In , John Brown led a raid on the Harpers Ferry armory, hoping to distribute the arms captured there in order to start a slave uprising. The planned insurrection was crushed by government forces, and Brown was captured, tried, and executed.
Abolitionist leaders distanced themselves from Brown, many citing nonviolent principles. Horace Greeley, writing for the New York Tribune, an organ of the newly-formed, abolitionist Republican Party, wrote that “the way to universal emancipation lies not through insurrection, civil war, and bloodshed, but through peace, discussion, and quiet diffusion of sentiments of humanity and justice.”
Thoreau was furious at this timidity, and took the lead in defending Brown, calling out these abolitionists for defending a “peace” that was no peace at all:
It galls me to listen to the remarks of craven-hearted neighbors who speak disparagingly of Brown because he resorted to violence… They preserve the so-called peace of their community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy & handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows!…
If the government is enforcing injustice by force, then to cry “peace!” when someone tries to violently resist is not to side with peace, but to side with one variety of violence over another: to side with the victors over the vanquished. Thoreau asked those who pleaded for calm: “What is the character of that calm which follows when the law and the slaveholder prevail?”
The slave-ship is on her way, crowded with its dying hundreds; a small crew of slaveholders is smothering 4 millions under the hatches; & yet the politician asserts that the only proper way by which deliverance is to be obtained is by “the quiet diffusion of sentiments of humanity,” without any “outbreak”! And in the same breath they tell us that all is quiet now at Harper’s Ferry. What is that that I hear cast overboard? The bodies of the dead, who have found deliverance. That is the way we are diffusing humanity, & all its sentiments with it.
To truly side with peace you must renounce allegiance to the violent status quo — only then have you earned the right to criticize violent rebellion. This means not relying on those violent means like “the policeman’s billy & handcuffs” that maintain the government and enforce the legal privileges of its citizens.
Thoreau did renounce his government and its “protection.” He endeavored to eliminate his complicity with the violent status quo, and so he earned the right to criticize violent rebellion. But he would not do so: “I do not complain of any tactics that are effective of good,” he wrote, “whether one wields the quill or the sword, but I shall not think him mistaken who quickest succeeds to liberate the slave. I will judge of the tactics by the fruits.”
Thoreau challenged the pacifists of his time to make sure their non-resistance was not a disguised collaboration with violence, and also to make their action effective so that it would most quickly succeed to end injustice. These challenges still stand.