Paradoxes In The Essay Civil Disobedience Author

“I would prefer not to.”
“You will not?”
“I prefer not.”

1“Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) is a story of passive resistance. And as the narrator is forced to admit, “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.” Refusing to kow-tow to the demands of his employer, and working to his own individual rule, Bartleby represents a challenge to capitalist, corporatist ideologies. He declines to do what is asked of him over and above the basic task of copying documents. He is an unostentatious figure, “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn”, who works “silently, palely, mechanically”, but he exercises enormous power by refusing to comply with simple and undemanding requests. On the third day of being installed in a legal office in Wall Street, he is asked by his boss to examine a paper with him, but “without moving from his privacy”, he replies “I would prefer not to”. Towards the end of the story, he is discovered occupying the office at weekends. Bartleby’s verbal obstruction becomes physical.

2The phrase “prefer not to”, or what Gilles Deleuze has called the “Formula”,2 recurs throughout the story and its repetition drives Bartleby’s colleagues to combative fury. In their simplicity and politeness, these five words -“I would prefer not to”- and the use of the verb “prefer” most notably - achieve a paradoxical significance within the narrative. The statement juxtaposes a conditional with a negative sense, and this lends the reply its force. On the one hand, Bartleby refuses politely, using the conditional form “would” suggesting that there might be a choice in the matter. On the other hand, this choice and therefore expression of politeness is an illusion, for Bartleby blatantly refuses to do anything asked of him. What we witness in the story is a form of resistance based on the paradox of appearing to yield while yielding not at all.3 Bartleby’s politeness is browbeatingly powerful, disarming both the reader and the narrator. How could one fault such a genteel reply? Even when challenged “You will not?” Bartleby counters with a quiet “I prefer not.” Like the semblance of choice in his response, “prefer” is both illusive and allusive. Unspecific in what it refers to, the word alludes to a choice which it denies. The implicit suggestion that there might be something Bartleby would prefer to do is an illusion. The use of the word, “prefer”, then, appears contradictory and strikes an ambiguous note in the story. A comparative verb is articulated by Bartleby as an absolute. The narrator declares that he is “More a man of preferences than assumptions”, but Bartleby effectively turns the expression of preference into a statement which has the force of an assumption. This small verbal paradox is just one of a whole set of tensions which shape the narrative.4

3Bartleby’s loss of appetite and his increasingly pallid and deathly demeanour offer valuable clues to our understanding of his character. Bartleby does not like change. “I would prefer not to make any change” he says, and a little later states “I like to be stationary”. In fact, he prefers not to go very far at all, working, eating, sleeping all in the same place. He is unable to move out of his private world and make public aspects of himself. He copies documents, but refuses to compare them for that would mean working with someone, and his aim is to remain autonomous and self-contained. This neurotic behaviour is underlined by Bartleby’s anorexic characteristics. Ultimately he refuses to take in any nourishment, but this is prefigured in the text by his refusing to take on more work.

4Melville uses the metaphors of eating and digestion repeatedly. Before Bartleby’s arrival we are apprised of the alimentary economy of the law office. The work habits of Turkey, whose “clothes were apt to look oily, and smell of eating houses” complement those of his colleague, Nippers, whose “brandylike disposition” rendered him irritable for a morning’s work. In spite of these idiosyncracies, they perform their roles “like guards”. The lawyer-narrator informs us that he “never had to do with their eccentricities at one time.... When Nippers’[fit] was on, Turkey’s was off; and vice versa.” Bartleby disrupts this economy. When he arrives at the office he appears to be breaking some kind of fast:

At first, Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion.

5He nourishes himself on paperwork to such an extent that he becomes identified with the document copies, and we might consider the ambiguity in the statement, “I like to be stationary”. Bartleby is and is not what he eats. He feeds on documents and is “stationery”, but in general he eats very little. It is not surprising that the narrator observes “he never went out to dinner”. Bartleby survives on handfuls of gingernuts which are then consumed alone. The spicy biscuits have no effect on Bartleby’s mild nature and passivity, unlike the Englishman, Turkey, whose feisty, aggressive behaviour after a liquid lunch stands in contrast to his subdued efforts in the morning. The contrast between Bartleby’s self-denial and the epicureanism of the other characters, whose behaviour is influenced by what they eat and drink, is made explicit. The “energetic”, “noisy” insolence of Turkey is induced by his noonday tipple, while Nippers, afflicted by the “two evil powers” of “ambition and indigestion”, is calmed after a good lunch.5 The twelve-year-old Ginger Nut nibbles throughout the day and one of his duties is as “cake and apple purveyor” for the other clerks. The word play (stationary/stationery), verbal repetition (gingernut/Ginger Nut) and references to food which cannot be eaten (Turkey), without implications of the ultimate taboo, cannibalism, create a kind of linguistic indigestion at this point in the story, which worsens as Bartleby repeats his refusal, “I would prefer not to”. The phrase is, we might say, regurgitated, burped, repeated, in the text, and this calls to mind the impossibility of digestion and satiation for Bartleby. He refuses, in effect, to be fed, except insofar as he feeds (on) himself.

6In the course of the story Bartleby concedes a few biscuits and a morsel of cheese, and accordingly expends little energy. Repeatedly he is described as “motionless”, “sedate” and “still”. This reliable serenity is described at one point as an attractive feature, but the narrator becomes only temporarily “reconciled” to Bartleby’s “unalterableness of demeanour”. By refusing to move, take on more work and take in more food, Bartleby achieves an ascetic purity, and this is borne out by significant references to his “hermitage”, a place of silence and solitude for him. By the end of the story, the constant refusals wear everyone down. Locked away in prison, Bartleby refuses to eat:

'I prefer not to dine today,' said Bartleby, turning away. 'It would disagree with me; I am unused to dinners'. So saying, he slowly moved to the other side of the enclosure and took up a position fronting the dead-wall.

7This is portentous, for the man who “lives without dining”, gives up living. Even in death -the ultimate defence- Bartleby is mild and courteous. He politely refuses to eat, and simply so to live. Curled up, foetus-fashion, he becomes identified with the object against which his head rests -the prison wall. We are prepared for this early on by references to his pallid complexion, his withdrawal from social life and refusal to take anything- food, money and even the offer of human empathy. The emptiness of Bartleby’s life is alluded to in the paradoxical references to Egypt. There might be a regal dignity to Bartleby’s last moments, but unlike Egyptian kings, he is buried without sustenance for the afterlife, but this is appropriate since he is a man without power, appetite or desire.

8Bartleby’s disengagement from life is not presented as disagreeable. Indeed, his exit is quiet and contained. For the time he survives he does so on nothing. He makes no demands, and is constantly in the position of reaction. Bartleby does not revolt in terms of a physical attack, but through a repeated set of verbal refusals, he achieves the effect of revolt. In anorexic style, he is able to live while taking no nourishment, either physical or spiritual. His is a quiet battle, concerned less with attack than defence.6 He might be a small component in the relentless law machine of Wall Street, but he brings significance and power to his position as a copyist in the office. The small man in his small way interferes with processes which are repetitive and uncreative.

9An absent figure in so many ways (he says little, does little, is little), Bartleby has a powerful presence, and we are astonished, I think, at how so slight a character can represent, in F.O. Matthiessen’s words, “a tragedy of utter negation” (493). The haunting reality of Bartleby’s situation is real enough, and his increasing isolation combined with his determination not to comply creates the most intriguing and perplexing psychological profile of passive resistance in nineteenth-century literary history. In 1978, Q.D. Leavis, declared of “Bartleby” that in spite of “plenty of critical attention... there is no disagreement as to its meaning and the nature of its techniques... present no difficulty” (199). This characteristically dogmatic view is not only outmoded, but is demonstrably inaccurate. The proliferation of critical readings of “Bartleby” testify to the story’s complexity and significance. Some critics, like Morris Beja, have warned against an “either/or approach”, but the tendency has been to view the story as either a socio-economic parable or a psychological study. This probably accounts for why much of the critical work on “Bartleby” is disappointing. Some readings overemphasise aspects or elements of the story at the expense of others. In 1962, when the psycho-critics were refining their notions of doppelgangers and split selves, Marvin Felheim, in an article in College English, tried to categorise the various treatments of the story. His categories were not helpful, but his project highlighted two readings of the story that were particularly popular.

10The first, political, reading locates the story within the context of America’s capitalist expansion. Bartleby refuses to accept the structures imposed on him by a modernising world interested more in collective strategies and “Yes” men than the individual seeking to live outside mainstream ideals. The lawyer-narrator’s chambers become, so to speak, Everyoffice. Bartleby becomes the archetypal clerk, a figure bowed to his task and of whom it is demanded absolute compliance and reliability. His preference “not to” becomes the insistent and impeccable articulation of resistance in the wilderness called Modern America. He fights by refusing to fight and so he has become an icon for various Peace Movements in the twentieth century. Thus “Bartleby” is an allegory of modern America and the failure of democracy to preserve the individual’s right and freedom to choose. It is a story about the failure of modern social life. It is also the story of political unrootedness, of the consequences of living in a society operating at an alienatingly high level of production and consumption.

11It is not surprising that many critics sought to locate the source of this political reading in the writings of H.D. Thoreau. As Michael Paul Rogin comments in Subversive Genealogy, although Bartleby’s “I prefer not to” is an echo of Thoreau’s “I simply wish to refuse allegiance, to withdraw”, it is not a straightforward debt to the author of Walden. Rather, Melville’s tale inverts Thoreau’s notion of passive resistance. Thoreau went to jail for not paying his poll-tax (because it contributed to slavery), but unlike Bartleby whose sense of self is dramatically reduced by confinement, Thoreau felt that to be physically immured was not to lose his sense of personal civic liberty:

I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar.

12In Thoreau’s confinement, he retains the idea that he is “free”, and he goes on to say that imprisonment is a mere physical restriction. He insists that a part of him cannot be imprisoned and this resistance has no cost because it is not part of the civil or political domain. Confinement in his view does not inhibit a man’s sense of his own intellectual or moral worth. “I was not born to be forced”, Thoreau insists, “I will breathe after my own fashion.” His sacrifice is never more than partial because his virtue has only to be civic or public. In fact, his psychological freedom could even be thought of having been enhanced by his corporeal imprisonment. This is not the case for Bartleby, however, whose sacrifice is so much the greater because these binary divisions are abandoned. After Bartleby is en-Tombed,7 his withdrawal is severe, and this leads to his self-destruction. This is paradoxical and inverts the whole notion of defence which is to keep out the dangerous object: “Hence what was designed in the first instance as a guard or barrier to prevent disruptive impingement on the self, can become the walls of a prison from which the self cannot escape” (Laing 150). At the end of the story Bartleby walls himself out of his own life, and he thereby destroys himself while conserving others. The denial of others, for Bartleby, necessarily involves self-denial and withdrawal, and the punishment of himself. This takes us a long way from the political ideal of passive resistance, behind which the idea is to “save the adversary as well as to triumph over him” (Rogin 195), and brings us closer to a psychological reading.

13The psychological reading presents a more disturbing view. Bartleby’s lifelessness is both the product and outcome of a sterile bureaucracy which as an external reality has little to do with the natural impulses and desires of the individual. This reading offers an image of neurotic vulnerability. Such is the incurable isolation of individuals whose personal histories are lost in and to the System. Desks and chairs may be repositioned and partition doors may fold down, but there is little change or hope for the individual like Bartleby whose internally-constructed walls are more impermeable than any person can understand. His elegant and economical “I would prefer not to” becomes the mantra of the dispossessed and unlocated. It becomes another wall between him and external reality.

14Both readings have their merits, but are often presented as mutually exclusive; whereas the political-allegorical reading hails Bartleby as a hero, the psychological spin demonstrates the ways in which he fails. Might there be a way of transcending the distinction between a political and a psychological reading? Might there be an alternative, paradoxical, reading of the text, which puts the psychology at the heart of the politics rather than treating them as discrete? The language of anorexia is helpful here, because, as an illness with which we are becoming increasingly familiar, that condition operates extremely successfully as a form of resistance. The nature of the resistance, however, is paradoxical and tragic. In many cases, as in Bartleby’s, it is withdrawal in extremis, a slow suicide. By keeping everything and everyone out, the anorexic is able to achieve a state of ascetic purity, but this purity leads ultimately to death and is quite literally short-lived. When Bartleby is at his most resistant, the office becomes his “hermitage”. He changes working space into a space of retreat, as he does with his own inner life. As many studies show, anorexics prefer to retreat from social life and seek out places of silence and solitude, where they are able to regulate meagre meals and live on virtually nothing. This is how the narrator describes Bartleby’s routine. The paradoxical nature of anorexic behaviour, the diligence and energy involved in not eating, in not consuming, in not complying, is also represented in Melville’s text by character of Bartleby and his recurring phrase, “I would prefer not to”. As I explained earlier, the force of this refusal derives from the way in which the comparative statement is turned into an absolute. At a social and political level, this mode of resistance is highly effective, and capable of undermining oppressive governments and military regimes. When adopted by the individual, the consequences can be self-destructive. Melville offers both possible outcomes in “Bartleby” and by so doing reveals the contingent nature of the distinction between private and public realms and thus of denial.

15It would be a mistake to treat Bartleby as a case study of anorexia, as it has been to see him simply as a schizophrenic with various compulsion neuroses. Although some early critics have identified Bartleby with Melville himself (Mumford 238), Bartleby is a literary construct, and provides only an abstract version of a psychological case study. However, the paradoxical condition of anorexia is a useful model in analysing the complexity of Melville’s characterisation, and is suggested by the metaphors of feasting and fasting, the recurring statement “I would prefer not to”, and also by what Leo Marx has called the “controlling symbols of the story”: the walls.

16In his study of the relationship between Melville’s politics and art, Rogin makes reference to the various walls in the text. He describes the way in which Bartleby is confined in his work, screened and “bounded” by a “white wall” at one end and a “lofty brick wall” at the other, and the way in which he withdraws to “dead-wall reveries” when he is sick of copying. And Wall Street, of course, provides the appropriate backdrop. More concerned with the political resonances of Bartleby’s character for Melville, Rogin merely alludes to the psychological significance of these walls. He refers to them in the mode of leitmotifs, as boundaries, partitions, parameters, which create the idea of isolation and the breakdown of “rooted relationships” (194). Bartleby, according to Rogin, is a cog in the political machine; he is “Tocqueville’s democratic individual, cut off from family, class, and community” (196). This is a useful reading but it does not take into account the screen and the walls within walls which constitute Bartleby’s paradoxical and tragic condition.

17A wall is defined as a structure which defends, holds back, fortifies, encloses, and by its very nature, separates and divides. In “Bartleby”, there are two kinds of wall: the physical boundaries of Wall Street, the law offices and the internal partitions, and the psychological walls which Bartleby erects in order to defend himself from entreaties to change. He says to the lawyer-narrator, “I like to be stationary. But I am not particular”.8 As long as he can stay in one place, he is content and quite literally “contained”. The walls which surround him give him a sense of place if not identity, and there is a certain security in this. These external and inner walls are of course interrelated. Bartleby’s physical environment metaphorically figures his psychological barricades. The lawyer’s office is a walled block surrounded by walls. At one end there is light afforded by a “spacious skylight shaft”; at the other, there is the “everlasting shade” of a “lofty brick wall, black by age... which... required no spyglass to bring out its lurking beauties, but, for the benefit of all nearsighted spectators, was pushed up to within ten feet of my windowpanes.” The narrator adds, “the interval between this wall and mine not a little resembled a huge square cistern.” Bartleby’s working space is further defined by a wall three feet away and a “high green folding screen” which demarcates his space from that of his boss: “And thus, in a manner, privacy and society were conjoined.” Bartleby’s space therefore is rather like a series of boxes placed one inside the other, the smallest box being the internal walled area within Bartleby himself, which keeps others out and keeps him inside. This is most powerfully conveyed when he refuses to admit the lawyer to his own offices, thus displacing and reducing him to walking “around the block two or three times”. The complexity of this situation surely recalls Thoreau’s “Essay on Civil Disobedience” and the idea that the psychological part of man cannot be imprisoned because it is not part of the civil or political domain.

18It is interesting that the serialised version of the story first appeared in Putnam’s Magazine in two parts. Part One ends with the lawyer’s decision to try and cope with the scrivener’s announcement that he has given up copying. Part Two opens with a role reversal. Bartleby is inside the office; the lawyer-narrator is refused entry. The ec-centric Bartleby occupies the central space and his patron is forced to find alternative accommodation. Part One treats the themes of displacement and social alienation whereas Part Two focuses more on the notions of self-alienation and self-division, from which both Bartleby and the lawyer suffer.9 We might remind ourselves here of R.D. Laing’s 1959 existentialist study, The Divided Self, which, as Morris Beja has noted, is highly suggestive in reading Melville. In Laingian terms, Bartleby and the lawyer are divided selves. They are “cut off from others and from the world, but also self-divided, dissociated” (Beja 559). Bartleby’s self-dissociation, however, has damaging consequences. He becomes “petrified”. He turns from an alive person into a dead thing, into a stone, or wall. Laing describes this as the schizoid’s adoption of various paradoxical forms of self-protection, and terms it “petrification”:

If the whole of the individual’s being cannot be defended, the individual retracts his lines of defence until he withdraws within a central citadel. He is prepared to write off everything he is, except his “self”. But the tragic paradox is that the more the self is defended in this way, the more it is destroyed (80-1).

19As Laing remarks this can be a strategy adopted by all types of person, not just the “unembodied” schizoid personality, and in Melville’s story the line between sanity and madness is shown to be thin. “Normal” behaviour is behaviour which fits in with the majority view. Those, like Bartleby, who do not measure up, are “luny” and “deranged”, and their defence becomes one of self-ostracisation and petrification.

20While Laing’s work provides real insight into the “unembodied” character of the scrivener, recent psychoanalytical studies of eating disorders (such as bulimia and anorexia) provide a more sophisticated psychological model.10 Some research, most notably, that of L.K.G. Hus, E.S. Meltzer and A.H. Crisp, bridges understanding of the disorders of schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa11 and, more recently, Gianna Williams’ model of a “No Entry” system of defences, developed from the theories of Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion, provides a way of understanding the character of Bartleby and his series of refusals. In her book, Internal Landscapes and Foreign Bodies (1997), she touches on “a range of feeding difficulties or eating disorders which may be seen as further facets of the pathology associated with impairments in ‘taking from another’” (11). Drawing on the lives of “patients who protect themselves from the experience of an inimical input” (12), Williams describes the ways in which keeping everyone and everything out becomes paramount for the anorexic/bulimic in particular:

I think it becomes clear ... that the relinquishment of defences against forming a dependent relationship on a human being, free to come and go ... represents a shift especially in the area of eating disorders, from valuing possessions to valuing a different aspect in one’s quality of life. It could probably be most concisely defined as a transition from lending value to having, to finding greater fulfilment in the more painful but richer predicament of being (13-14).

21Bartleby does not make this transition, because he cannot move beyond a state of self-denial. In order to be he would have to dissolve some of the boundaries and walls and admit (in both senses of the word) assistance (and existence). He is concerned most of all to protect himself from invasion. His invasion anxieties are not circumscribed, but manifest themselves variously as refusals to take food in, to take work on, to admit the need of help, and to allow others access (into either a physical or psychological space). Most pertinently in the story they manifest themselves as refusals of nourishment. In Williams’ terms, these refusals constitute a “no-entry” syndrome which “performs the defensive function of blocking access to any input experienced as potentially intrusive and persecutory” (121). Bartleby constructs a chinese box of walls, and, paradoxically, this is both a gesture towards life and death.

22This “no-entry” syndrome is psychological stoicism and we should recall by way of conclusion Melville’s references to Cicero - a re-presentation of reason, eloquence and stoicism. We encounter the bust first of all through the eyes of the lawyer-narrator, who remarks that “doubtless I should have violently dismissed him [Bartleby] from the premises. But as it was I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-Paris bust of Cicero out of doors.” A little later on, Bartleby fixates on the head. He declares that he preferred not to examine the fourth quadruplicate, but instead “kept his glance fixed upon [the] bust of Cicero”. Through the suggestive double appearance of the bust in the text, Melville is able to adopt into “Bartleby” both the political and psychological notions of stoicism, which becomes a way, as I hope to have shown, of setting up the problem of Bartleby’s retreat from the public world and his self-denial. Using political thought as well as psychology in our reading of the text allows us to overcome the dichotomy in the critical literature. In the end, because the story of Bartleby is a “tragic paradox” in psychological terms it must be a “tragic paradox” in political terms. Bartleby’s freedoms are incompatible with life.

Resistance to Civil Government (Civil Disobedience) is an essay by American transcendentalistHenry David Thoreau that was first published in 1849. In it, Thoreau argues that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that they have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. Thoreau was motivated in part by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican–American War (1846–1848).


In 1848, Thoreau gave lectures at the Concord Lyceum entitled "The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government".[1] This formed the basis for his essay, which was first published under the title Resistance to Civil Government in a 1849 anthology by Elizabeth Peabody called Æsthetic Papers.[2] The latter title distinguished Thoreau's program from that of the "non-resistants" (anarcho-pacifists) who were expressing similar views. Resistance also served as part of Thoreau's metaphor comparing the government to a machine: when the machine was producing injustice, it was the duty of conscientious citizens to be "a counter friction" (i.e., a resistance) "to stop the machine".[3]

In 1866, four years after Thoreau's death, the essay was reprinted in a collection of Thoreau's work (A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers) under the title Civil Disobedience. Today, the essay also appears under the title On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, perhaps to contrast it with William Paley's Of the Duty of Civil Obedience to which Thoreau was in part responding. For instance, the 1960 New American Library Signet Classics edition of Walden included a version with this title. On Civil Disobedience is another common title.

The word civil has several definitions. The one that is intended in this case is "relating to citizens and their interrelations with one another or with the state", and so civil disobedience means "disobedience to the state". Sometimes people assume that civil in this case means "observing accepted social forms; polite" which would make civil disobedience something like polite, orderly disobedience. Although this is an acceptable dictionary definition of the word civil, it is not what is intended here. This misinterpretation is one reason the essay is sometimes considered to be an argument for pacifism or for exclusively nonviolent resistance. For instance, Mahatma Gandhi used this interpretation to suggest an equivalence between Thoreau's civil disobedience and his own satyagraha.[4]


The slavery crisis inflamed New England in the 1840s and 1850s. The environment became especially tense after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. A lifelong abolitionist, Thoreau delivered an impassioned speech which would later become Civil Disobedience in 1848, just months after leaving Walden Pond. The speech dealt with slavery, but at the same time excoriated American imperialism, particularly the Mexican–American War.[5]


Thoreau asserts that because governments are typically more harmful than helpful, they therefore cannot be justified. Democracy is no cure for this, as majorities simply by virtue of being majorities do not also gain the virtues of wisdom and justice. The judgment of an individual's conscience is not necessarily inferior to the decisions of a political body or majority, and so "[i]t is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.... Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice."[6] He adds, "I cannot for an instant recognize as my government [that] which is the slave's government also."[7]

The government, according to Thoreau, is not just a little corrupt or unjust in the course of doing its otherwise-important work, but in fact the government is primarily an agent of corruption and injustice. Because of this, it is "not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize".[8]

Political philosophers have counseled caution about revolution because the upheaval of revolution typically causes a lot of expense and suffering. Thoreau contends that such a cost/benefit analysis is inappropriate when the government is actively facilitating an injustice as extreme as slavery. Such a fundamental immorality justifies any difficulty or expense to bring to an end. "This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people."[9]

Thoreau tells his audience that they cannot blame this problem solely on pro-slavery Southern politicians, but must put the blame on those in, for instance, Massachusetts, "who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may... There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them."[10] (See also: Thoreau's Slavery in Massachusetts which also advances this argument.)

He exhorts people not to just wait passively for an opportunity to vote for justice, because voting for justice is as ineffective as wishing for justice; what you need to do is to actually be just. This is not to say that you have an obligation to devote your life to fighting for justice, but you do have an obligation not to commit injustice and not to give injustice your practical support.

Paying taxes is one way in which otherwise well-meaning people collaborate in injustice. People who proclaim that the war in Mexico is wrong and that it is wrong to enforce slavery contradict themselves if they fund both things by paying taxes. Thoreau points out that the same people who applaud soldiers for refusing to fight an unjust war are not themselves willing to refuse to fund the government that started the war.

In a constitutional republic like the United States, people often think that the proper response to an unjust law is to try to use the political process to change the law, but to obey and respect the law until it is changed. But if the law is itself clearly unjust, and the lawmaking process is not designed to quickly obliterate such unjust laws, then Thoreau says the law deserves no respect and it should be broken. In the case of the United States, the Constitution itself enshrines the institution of slavery, and therefore falls under this condemnation. Abolitionists, in Thoreau's opinion, should completely withdraw their support of the government and stop paying taxes, even if this means courting imprisonment.

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.... where the State places those who are not with her, but against her,—the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.... 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 and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not 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.[11]

Because the government will retaliate, Thoreau says he prefers living simply because he therefore has less to lose. "I can afford to refuse allegiance to Massachusetts.... It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less in that case."[12]

He was briefly imprisoned for refusing to pay the poll tax, but even in jail felt freer than the people outside. He considered it an interesting experience and came out of it with a new perspective on his relationship to the government and its citizens. (He was released the next day when "someone interfered, and paid that tax".)[13]

Thoreau said he was willing to pay the highway tax, which went to pay for something of benefit to his neighbors, but that he was opposed to taxes that went to support the government itself—even if he could not tell if his particular contribution would eventually be spent on an unjust project or a beneficial one. "I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually."[14]

Because government is man-made, not an element of nature or an act of God, Thoreau hoped that its makers could be reasoned with. As governments go, he felt, the U.S. government, with all its faults, was not the worst and even had some admirable qualities. But he felt we could and should insist on better. "The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual.... Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? 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."[15]

An aphorism often erroneously attributed to Thomas Jefferson,[16] "That government is best which governs least...", was actually found in Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. Thoreau was apparently paraphrasing the motto of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review: "The best government is that which governs least."[17] Thoreau expanded it significantly:

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. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,—"That government is best which governs not at all;" and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.

— Thoreau, Civil Disobedience[18]


Mohandas Gandhi[edit]

Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi (a.k.a. Mahatma Gandhi) was impressed by Thoreau's arguments. In 1907, about one year into his first satyagraha campaign in South Africa, he wrote a translated synopsis of Thoreau's argument for Indian Opinion, credited Thoreau's essay with being "the chief cause of the abolition of slavery in America", and wrote that "Both his example and writings are at present exactly applicable to the Indians in the Transvaal."[19] He later concluded:

Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet, and withal a most practical man, that is, he taught nothing he was not prepared to practice in himself. He was one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced. At the time of the abolition of slavery movement, he wrote his famous essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. He went to gaol for the sake of his principles and suffering humanity. His essay has, therefore, been sanctified by suffering. Moreover, it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable.

— "For Passive Resisters" (1907).[20]

Martin Luther King, Jr.[edit]

American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also influenced by this essay. In his autobiography, he wrote:

During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau's essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.

I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau's insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.

— The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.[21]

Martin Buber[edit]

Existentialist Martin Buber wrote, of Civil Disobedience

I read it with the strong feeling that here was something that concerned me directly.... It was the concrete, the personal element, the "here and now" of this work that won me over. Thoreau did not put forth a general proposition as such; he described and established his attitude in a specific historical-biographic situation. He addressed his reader within the very sphere of this situation common to both of them in such a way that the reader not only discovered why Thoreau acted as he did at that time but also that the reader—assuming him of course to be honest and dispassionate– would have to act in just such a way whenever the proper occasion arose, provided he was seriously engaged in fulfilling his existence as a human person. The question here is not just about one of the numerous individual cases in the struggle between a truth powerless to act and a power that has become the enemy of truth. It is really a question of the absolutely concrete demonstration of the point at which this struggle at any moment becomes man's duty as man....

— "Man's Duty as Man" (1962)[22]


Author Leo Tolstoy has cited Civil Disobedience as having a strong impact on his nonviolence methodology. Others who are said to have been influenced by Civil Disobedience include: President John F. Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and various writers such as, Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and William Butler Yeats.[23]


  1. ^Thoreau, H. D. letter to R. W. Emerson, 23 February 1848.
  2. ^Thoreau, Esq., H.D. (1849). "The Resistance to Civil Government". Æsthetic Papers; Edited by Elizabeth P.Peabody. Boston and New York: The Editor and G.P. Putnam. pp. 189–211. Retrieved February 1, 2018 – via Internet Archive. 
  3. ^Gross, David M. ""Resistance to Civil Government" by H.D. Thoreau ("Civil Disobedience") • TPL". The Picket Line. 
  4. ^Rosenwald, Lawrence, The Theory, Practice & Influence of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience, quoting Gandhi, M. K., Non-Violent Resistance, pp. 3–4 and 14.
  5. ^Levin, p. 29.
  6. ^Gross, David M. ""Resistance to Civil Government" by H.D. Thoreau ("Civil Disobedience") • TPL". The Picket Line. Retrieved 2018-02-02. 
  7. ^Gross, David M. ""Resistance to Civil Government" by H.D. Thoreau ("Civil Disobedience") • TPL". The Picket Line. Retrieved 2018-02-02. 
  8. ^Gross, David M. ""Resistance to Civil Government" by H.D. Thoreau ("Civil Disobedience") • TPL". The Picket Line. Retrieved 2018-02-02. 
  9. ^Gross, David M. ""Resistance to Civil Government" by H.D. Thoreau ("Civil Disobedience") • TPL". The Picket Line. Retrieved 2018-02-02. 
  10. ^Gross, David M. ""Resistance to Civil Government" by H.D. Thoreau ("Civil Disobedience") • TPL". The Picket Line. Retrieved 2018-02-02. 
  11. ^Gross, David M. ""Resistance to Civil Government" by H.D. Thoreau ("Civil Disobedience") • TPL". The Picket Line. 
  12. ^Gross, David M. ""Resistance to Civil Government" by H.D. Thoreau ("Civil Disobedience") • TPL". The Picket Line. Retrieved 2018-02-02. 
  13. ^Gross, David M. ""Resistance to Civil Government" by H.D. Thoreau ("Civil Disobedience") • TPL". The Picket Line. Retrieved 2018-02-02. 
  14. ^Gross, David M. ""Resistance to Civil Government" by H.D. Thoreau ("Civil Disobedience") • TPL". The Picket Line. 
  15. ^Gross, David M. ""Resistance to Civil Government" by H.D. Thoreau ("Civil Disobedience") • TPL". The Picket Line. Retrieved 2018-02-02. 
  16. ^(1) Berkes, Anna (August 28, 2014). "That government is best which governs least. (Spurious Quotation)". Th. Jefferson Monticello. Charlottesville, Virginia: Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc. ( Archived from the original on May 3, 2017. Retrieved September 22, 2017. 
    (2) Coates, Robert Eyler (1999). "The Jeffersonian Perspective: Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues: Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson: "That government is best..."". Archived from the original on September 22, 2017. Retrieved September 22, 2017.  
    (3) Gillin, Joshua (September 21, 2017). "Mike Pence erroneously credits Thomas Jefferson with small government quote". PolitiFact. St. Petersburg, Florida: Tampa Bay Times. Archived from the original on September 22, 2017. Retrieved September 22, 2017.   ,
  17. ^Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations. 1989,, accessed 20 January 2013
  18. ^Thoreau, Henry David (1849). Civil Disobedience. first paragraph. 
  19. ^Gandhi, M. K. "Duty of Disobeying Laws", Indian Opinion, 7 September and 14 September 1907.
  20. ^Gandhi, M. K. "For Passive Resisters", Indian Opinion, 26 October 1907.
  21. ^King, M. L. "Morehouse College" (Chapter 2 of The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
  22. ^Buber, Martin, Man's Duty as Man from Thoreau in Our SeasonUniversity of Massachusetts Press (1962) p. 19.
  23. ^Maynard, W. Barksdale, Walden Pond: A History. Oxford University Press, 2005 (p. 265).

Peabody, Elizabeth (ed). Aesthetic Papers. G.P. Putnam (New York, 1849). Available at the Internet Archive

External links[edit]

  • Henry David Thoreau Civil Disobedience. EDSITEment Launchpad Henry David Thoreau Civil Disobedience
  • Peabody, Elizabeth (ed.), Æsthetic Papers. The Editor, Boston, 1849, a digitized copy from the Internet Archive.
  • Thoreau, H. D. A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers. Ticknor and Fields, Boston, 1866, a digitized copy from the Internet Archive.
  • Hypertext version from American Transcendentalist Web
  • A well-footnoted version at
  • Full text at Project Gutenberg.
  • Annotated version at The Thoreau Reader
  • Resistance to Civil Government with external references and individually hyperlinked paragraphs
  • "The Theory, Practice, and Influence of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience" by Lawrence Rosenwald
  • Henry David Thoreau and Civil Disobedience by Wendy McElroy
  • "Highway Tax vs. Poll Tax: Some Thoreau Tax Trivia" by Carl Watner
  • Introduction by Howard Zinn, The Higher Law: Thoreau on Civil Disobedience and Reform
  • Civil Disobedience– Audio Book, Free public-domain Librivox Audio Recording (full text)
  • "All Things New: On Civil Disobedience Now" by Steven Schroeder, Essays in Philosophy, Vol. 8, No. 2, June 2007

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