Approximately two years after his arrest, Thoreau wrote an essay entitled “Resistance to Civil Government,” which later became known as “Civil Disobedience.”9 Throughout the essay, Thoreau builds his case for the supremacy of justice over blind allegiance to the state.
He begins the essay by expressing the belief that government is unnecessary. The first line states that the government which governs least governs best, which taken to its logical conclusion, calls for a peaceful anarchy.10 He further explains that government has done nothing but still takes credit for the actions of the “character inherent in the American people.”11
Thoreau believed that the time was ripe for a revolution of just government. He recognized that not all his contemporaries believed that the situation was dire enough to justify the sort of language as he was using. Thoreau would hear none of it.
When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.”12
He derided those who would vote for righteousness and then, if righteousness lost, accept the will of the majority. “Voting for the right is doing nothing for it,” Thoreau insisted, “It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right…to prevail through the power of the majority.”13 He urged his fellow citizens to cast not a ballot, but their “whole influence.”14 A vote for righteousness is nothing if the one who casts the vote only works for virtue inside a ballot box.
Thoreau believed that an unjust government could be taken down by a refusal to do its bidding. “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority,” he notes, “but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.”15 For Thoreau, refusing to act spoke louder than action. He believed that justice would quickly be done if “a thousand men” refused to pay their taxes or if public officials resigned before carrying out unjust commands.16
Starting with the assumption that “unjust laws exist,” Thoreau makes a powerful case to immediately refuse to follow unjust laws.17 He blames government for the creation of these laws and exhorts his fellow citizens that “if (the law) is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law.”18 To wait for an unjust majority to support justice is to succumb to the twisted logic upon which injustice rests. Thoreau wished to restore justice as soon as possible. He advised nonviolence as a means to that end. “Under a government which imprisons unjustly,” Thoreau believed, “the true place for a just man is also a prison.”19 This strategy was honed to perfection by Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement.
Although “Civil Disobedience” paints Thoreau as the passive resister, author Ira Chernus notes that Thoreau never fully adopted nonviolence as the only means of promoting justice.20 In his journals and essays regarding slavery, specifically “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau takes a step towards advocating violence if it results in a more just society.