Civil Disobedience

This essay should have a little bit of an introduction.  It was written to discuss whether the possibility of Thoreau’s philosophy as laid out in his work, Civil Disobedience, is actually reasonable.


            For those of you who may not be aware, Henry David Thoreau was a political theorist and philosopher.  His work, Civil Disobedience was published in 1849, and was a direct response to the Mexican War.

Henry David Thoreau

On Civil Disobedience in Regards to the Mexican War

            The Mexican War was one of several controversial conflicts in the history of the United States.  At the time of the Mexican war, the controversy over slavery was dominating much of domestic politics.  Recent legislation, such as the Missouri Compromise, after the Louisiana Purchase, were all focused on the issue of the expansion of slavery.  Only a few years after the writing of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, a new wave of debate over slavery and slave territories would erupt with such infamous legislation as the Compromise of 1850, the Wilmot Proviso and the divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act.  This new wave of debates was caused by the winning of the War with Mexico and all the territory gained through the Gadsden Purchase.  It was a time of political upheaval and civil dissention.  Tempers ran hot on both sides of the issues of the day, and no less so on the issue of the Mexican War.

As mentioned earlier, the Mexican war was not a popular war.  Deep-rooted suspicions surrounded it, especially in the North.  Many of those opposed to slavery thought that the South was hoping to gain more representation in Congress for the slave states through the acquisition of the southwestern territories using the Missouri Compromise.  This idea naturally made the war less popular in the North.  There were also those who thought that personal political considerations, on the part of President Polk, were playing a significant role in the way the war was conducted. Still others saw the war as naked imperialism and considered such grasping at power and territory to be immoral.  Then there were those who supported the war.  They were the citizens who believed in what was called the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.  They considered this American expansion as the natural and right course of action.  California was already more populated by American settlers than Mexicans.  Texas was already an independent republic and was recognized by the American government as such, even if the Mexican government did not.  This free, independent republic wanted to gain entrance to the Union, as did California.  The land in between these two regions was almost entirely unpopulated and to those who held the view of Manifest Destiny, there was no reason why it should not belong to America.  It was clear to all, however, that the territories would not be given up by Mexico without a fight.

Turning to Civil Disobedience, what, in Thoreau’s words, was the purpose of the act of civil disobedience and what gain was to be had?  Furthermore, what did this perspective have to say about the period in which it was written?  We shall begin to answer these questions.  In his work, Thoreau clearly lays out the purpose for conducting civil disobedience:

“Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? … Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence… 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… 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?” 


The purpose for civil disobedience is to reform government to fit your agenda.  It is revolution for the cause of what you perceive as right. Early on in his essay Thoreau makes this, one of the most telling and defining statements of the work, “It is not desirable to develop 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.”

For Thoreau, this worked perfectly.  He did not think that it was right to try to force Mexico to give up land.  He considered the possible expansion of slavery evil.  Therefore, according to his philosophy, he should deny the government his money, talents and resources.  He should disobey the laws and means of injustice in the government.  The trouble with this philosophy is that people’s ideas on what is right and wrong are not always the same.  For example, the Texan settlers rebelled against the Mexican government, and became an independent republic.  The majority wanted to join the United States.  It is safe to say, however, that not every single inhabitant in the region of Texas wanted to become a state in the Union.  So, who’s “right” is right?  One would naturally come to the conclusion that the larger group would be right.  This conclusion is drawn from our engrained democratic principles.  This is not what we see Thoreau argue however.  On the contrary, Thoreau makes this statement.  “I think it is enough if they have God on their side [referring to the abolition of slavery], without waiting for that other one.  Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”  Here Thoreau plays on the religious sentiment of the day by invoking God into his argument, but then immediately dismisses Him in the next sentence as not being necessary.  The question remains.  Who’s right?  Thoreau’s philosophy breaks down completely as a practical way of operating.

Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience is nice in theory, but impossible in practice both today and back when it was written.  If we use Thoreau’s philosophy to decide whether or not the Mexican War was justifiable, we soon realize that the war in question could be considered as legitimate as any other war.  If we do not, there is actually room for debate on the subject.  The same fact applies for today.  Part of the nation is in favor of some political agenda.  The other part is not.  According to Thoreau, either side becomes right as soon as the decision is made.  It only depends on what you consider to be just or beneficial.

In conclusion, the ideas expounded in Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience are based on a fundamentally flawed premise.  While many of the concepts are very true and beneficial, such as government’s power being derived from the governed, and that the government must always endeavor to keep its laws on the moral high ground and in the best interest of all affected, there must be a standard to which all these judgments are based.  Thoreau only recommends the standard of personal opinion, and that is no standard at all.  The legitimacy of any action, both at the time when Civil Disobedience was written, and now, cannot be determined conclusively and objectively by the philosophy laid out in its pages.

Wyatt Fairlead