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Document #6

The Summer of 1846 found Henry David Thoreau in jail for nonpayment of his poll tax. He was protesting not only a government which supported slavery, but also the Mexican War. His protest resulted in his Essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.

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.... The government itself, which is the only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will is . . . liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure....

. . . Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator: Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It 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. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, power-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart....

There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; . . . What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot to-day? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man....

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? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil.... Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels? . . .

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, . . . if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.... What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.... I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, . . . if then honest men only,—ay, 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: what is once well done is done forever. But we love better to talk about it: that we say is our mission....

The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to, . . . is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it . . . 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....

1. Do you agree with the statement that "Law never made men more just"? Why or why not? Give examples to support your conclusion.
2. What do you think Thoreau meant by the statement that governments "always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels"?
3. What would happen if individuals put their conscience above the law?
4. In breaking the law, Thoreau was willing to go to jail. Does that justify his actions? Why or why not?
5. Should government force individuals to pay taxes, go to war, or go to school? What would happen if they did not?


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