Wednesday, January 20, 2010

On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

by Henry David Thoreau

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 also I
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. The objections which have been brought against a standing
army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also
at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is
only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which
is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will,
is equally 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.

This American government – what is it but a tradition, though a recent
one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each
instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and
force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his
will. It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves. But it is
not the less necessary for this; for the people must have some
complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea
of government which they have. Governments show thus how successfully
men can be imposed upon, even impose on themselves, for their own
advantage. It is excellent, we must all allow. Yet this government
never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with
which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It
does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent
in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it
would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got
in its way. For government is an expedient, by which men would fain
succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been said, when it
is most expedient, the governed are most let alone by it. Trade and
commerce, if they were not made of India-rubber, would never manage to
bounce over obstacles which legislators are continually putting in
their way; and if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of
their actions and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve
to be classed and punished with those mischievous persons who put
obstructions on the railroads.

But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call
themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government,
but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of
government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward
obtaining it.

After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the
hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period
continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the
right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because
they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the
majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as
men understand it. Can there not be a government in which the
majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? –
in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of
expediency is applicable? 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. It is truly
enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of
conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. 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 the law is, that you may see a
file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates,
powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and
dale to the 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. They have no doubt that it is a
damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably
inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and
magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the
Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government
can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts – a mere
shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and
standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral
accompaniment, though it may be,

"Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our hero was buried."

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as
machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the
militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases
there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral
sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and
stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the
purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a
lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and
dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens.
Others – as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and
office-holders – serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as
they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve
the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few – as heroes,
patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men – serve the
state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for
the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. A wise
man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be "clay,"
and "stop a hole to keep the wind away," but leave that office to his
dust at least:

"I am too high born to be propertied,
To be a second at control,
Or useful serving-man and instrument
To any sovereign state throughout the world."

He who gives himself entirely to his fellow men appears to them
useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is
pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.

How does it become a man to behave toward the American government
today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with
it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as
my government which is the slave's government also.

All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to
refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny
or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that
such is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the
Revolution of '75. If one were to tell me that this was a bad
government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its
ports, it is most probable that I should not make an ado about it, for
I can do without them. All machines have their friction; and possibly
this does enough good to counter-balance the evil. At any rate, it is
a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction comes to
have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let
us not have such a machine any longer. In other words, 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 that fact that the country so
overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.

Paley, a common authority with many on moral questions, in his chapter
on the "Duty of Submission to Civil Government," resolves all civil
obligation into expediency; and he proceeds to say that "so long as
the interest of the whole society requires it, that is, so long as the
established government cannot be resisted or changed without public
inconveniencey, it is the will of God. . .that the established
government be obeyed – and no longer. This principle being admitted,
the justice of every particular case of resistance is reduced to a
computation of the quantity of the danger and grievance on the one
side, and of the probability and expense of redressing it on the
other." Of this, he says, every man shall judge for himself. But Paley
appears never to have contemplated those cases to which the rule of
expediency does not apply, in which a people, as well and an
individual, must do justice, cost what it may. If I have unjustly
wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I
drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient. But he
that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. This people
must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost
them their existence as a people.

In their practice, nations agree with Paley; but does anyone think
that Massachusetts does exactly what is right at the present crisis?

"A drab of state,
a cloth-o'-silver slut,
To have her train borne up,
and her soul trail in the dirt."

Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are
not a hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred
thousand merchants and farmers here, 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. I
quarrel not with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home,
co-operate with, and do the bidding of, those far away, and without
whom the latter would be harmless. We are accustomed to say, that the
mass of men are unprepared; but improvement is slow, because the few
are not materially wiser or better than the many. It is not so
important that many should be good as you, as that there be some
absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump.
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; 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; who even postpone the question of freedom to the
question of free trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with
the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may be, fall
asleep over them both. What is the price-current of an honest man and
patriot today? 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 up 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. But it is easier to deal with the real possessor of a
thing than with the temporary guardian of it.

All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a
slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral
questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the
voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but
I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am
willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never
exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing
for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should
prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance,
nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but
little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall
at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they
are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery
left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves.
Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own
freedom by his vote.

I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for the
selection of a candidate for the Presidency, made up chiefly of
editors, and men who are politicians by profession; but I think, what
is it to any independent, intelligent, and respectable man what
decision they may come to? Shall we not have the advantage of this
wisdom and honesty, nevertheless? Can we not count upon some
independent votes? Are there not many individuals in the country who
do not attend conventions? But no: I find that the respectable man, so
called, has immediately drifted from his position, and despairs of his
country, when his country has more reasons to despair of him. He
forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only
available one, thus proving that he is himself available for any
purposes of the demagogue. His vote is of no more worth than that of
any unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have been
bought. O for a man who is a man, and, my neighbor says, has a bone in
his back which you cannot pass your hand through! Our statistics are
at fault: the population has been returned too large. How many men are
there to a square thousand miles in the country? Hardly one. Does not
America offer any inducement for men to settle here? The American has
dwindled into an Odd Fellow – one who may be known by the development
of his organ of gregariousness, and a manifest lack of intellect and
cheerful self-reliance; whose first and chief concern, on coming into
the world, is to see that the almshouses are in good repair; and,
before yet he has lawfully donned the virile garb, to collect a fund
to the support of the widows and orphans that may be; who, in short,
ventures to live only by the aid of the Mutual Insurance company,
which has promised to bury him decently.

It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to
the eradication of any, even the most enormous, wrong; he may still
properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at
least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer,
not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other
pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not
pursue them sitting upon another man's shoulders. I must get off him
first, that he may pursue his contemplations too. See what gross
inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, "I
should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection
of the slaves, or to march to Mexico – see if I would go"; and yet
these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so
indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute. The
soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those
who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the
war; is applauded by those whose own act and authority he disregards
and sets at naught; as if the state were penitent to that degree that
it hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that degree
that it left off sinning for a moment. Thus, under the name of Order
and Civil Government, we are all made at last to pay homage to and
support our own meanness. After the first blush of sin comes its
indifference; and from immoral it becomes, as it were, unmoral, and
not quite unnecessary to that life which we have made.

The broadest and most prevalent error requires the most disinterested
virtue to sustain it. The slight reproach to which the virtue of
patriotism is commonly liable, the noble are most likely to incur.
Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a
government, yield to it their allegiance and support are undoubtedly
its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious
obstacles to reform. Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the
Union, to disregard the requisitions of the President. Why do they not
dissolve it themselves – the union between themselves and the State –
and refuse to pay their quota into its treasury? Do not they stand in
the same relation to the State that the State does to the Union? And
have not the same reasons prevented the State from resisting the Union
which have prevented them from resisting the State?

How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely, and enjoy
it? Is there any enjoyment in it, if his opinion is that he is
aggrieved? If you are cheated out of a single dollar by your neighbor,
you do not rest satisfied with knowing you are cheated, or with saying
that you are cheated, or even with petitioning him to pay you your
due; but you take effectual steps at once to obtain the full amount,
and see to it that you are never cheated again. Action from principle,
the perception and the performance of right, changes things and
relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist
wholly with anything which was. It not only divided States and
churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual,
separating the diabolical in him from the divine.

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. It
makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for
reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and
resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to
put 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?

One would think, that a deliberate and practical denial of its
authority was the only offense never contemplated by its government;
else, why has it not assigned its definite, its suitable and
proportionate, penalty? If a man who has no property refuses but once
to earn nine shillings for the State, he is put in prison for a period
unlimited by any law that I know, and determined only by the
discretion of those who put him there; but if he should steal ninety
times nine shillings from the State, he is soon permitted to go at
large again.

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of
government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth –
certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or
a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps
you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil;
but 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. Let your life be a
counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at
any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

As for adopting the ways the State has provided for remedying the
evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man's
life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this
world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live
in it, be it good or bad. A man has not everything to do, but
something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary
that he should be petitioning the Governor or the Legislature any more
than it is theirs to petition me; and if they should not hear my
petition, what should I do then? But in this case the State has
provided no way: its very Constitution is the evil. This may seem to
be harsh and stubborn and unconcilliatory; but it is to treat with the
utmost kindness and consideration the only spirit that can appreciate
or deserves it. So is all change for the better, like birth and death,
which convulse the body.

I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves Abolitionists
should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and
property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they
constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail
through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their
side, without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right
than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.

I meet this American government, or its representative, the State
government, directly, and face to face, once a year – no more – in the
person of its tax-gatherer; this is the only mode in which a man
situated as I am necessarily meets it; and it then says distinctly,
Recognize me; and the simplest, the most effectual, and, in the
present posture of affairs, the indispensablest mode of treating with
it on this head, of expressing your little satisfaction with and love
for it, is to deny it then. My civil neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is
the very man I have to deal with – for it is, after all, with men and
not with parchment that I quarrel – and he has voluntarily chosen to
be an agent of the government. How shall he ever know well that he is
and does as an officer of the government, or as a man, until he is
obliged to consider whether he will treat me, his neighbor, for whom
he has respect, as a neighbor and well-disposed man, or as a maniac
and disturber of the peace, and see if he can get over this
obstruction to his neighborliness without a ruder and more impetuous
thought or speech corresponding with his action. I know this well,
that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name –
if ten honest men only – ay, if one HONEST man, in this State of
Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from
this co-partnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, 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. Reform keeps many scores of newspapers in its service, but
not one man. If my esteemed neighbor, the State's ambassador, who will
devote his days to the settlement of the question of human rights in
the Council Chamber, instead of being threatened with the prisons of
Carolina, were to sit down the prisoner of Massachusetts, that State
which is so anxious to foist the sin of slavery upon her sister –
though at present she can discover only an act of inhospitality to be
the ground of a quarrel with her – the Legislature would not wholly
waive the subject of the following winter.

Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just
man is also a prison. The proper place today, the only place which
Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less despondent spirits,
is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her
own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles.
It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on
parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race should
find them; on that separate but more free and honorable ground, 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.
If any think that their influence would be lost there, and their
voices no longer afflict the ear of the State, that they would not be
as an enemy within its walls, they do not know by how much truth is
stronger than error, nor how much more eloquently and effectively he
can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person.
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. If the tax-gatherer, or any other public
officer, asks me, as one has done, "But what shall I do?" my answer
is, "If you really wish to do anything, resign your office." When the
subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned from
office, then the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood
shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man's real
manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting
death. I see this blood flowing now.

I have contemplated the imprisonment of the offender, rather than the
seizure of his goods – though both will serve the same purpose –
because they who assert the purest right, and consequently are most
dangerous to a corrupt State, commonly have not spent much time in
accumulating property. To such the State renders comparatively small
service, and a slight tax is wont to appear exorbitant, particularly
if they are obliged to earn it by special labor with their hands. If
there were one who lived wholly without the use of money, the State
itself would hesitate to demand it of him. But the rich man – not to
make any invidious comparison – is always sold to the institution
which makes him rich. Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less
virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains
them for him; it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it. It puts
to rest many questions which he would otherwise be taxed to answer;
while the only new question which it puts is the hard but superfluous
one, how to spend it. Thus his moral ground is taken from under his
feet. The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as that
are called the "means" are increased. The best thing a man can do for
his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out those schemes
which he entertained when he was poor. Christ answered the Herodians
according to their condition. "Show me the tribute-money," said he –
and one took a penny out of his pocket – if you use money which has
the image of Caesar on it, and which he has made current and valuable,
that is, if you are men of the State, and gladly enjoy the advantages
of Caesar's government, then pay him back some of his own when he
demands it. "Render therefore to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to
God those things which are God's" – leaving them no wiser than before
as to which was which; for they did not wish to know.

When I converse with the freest of my neighbors, I perceive that,
whatever they may say about the magnitude and seriousness of the
question, and their regard for the public tranquillity, the long and
the short of the matter is, that they cannot spare the protection of
the existing government, and they dread the consequences to their
property and families of disobedience to it. For my own part, I should
not like to think that I ever rely on the protection of the State.
But, if I deny the authority of the State when it presents its tax
bill, it will soon take and waste all my property, and so harass me
and my children without end. This is hard. This makes it impossible
for a man to live honestly, and at the same time comfortably, in
outward respects. It will not be worth the while to accumulate
property; that would be sure to go again. You must hire or squat
somewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon. You must
live within yourself, and depend upon yourself always tucked up and
ready for a start, and not have many affairs. A man may grow rich in
Turkey even, if he will be in all respects a good subject of the
Turkish government. Confucius said: "If a state is governed by the
principles of reason, poverty and misery are subjects of shame; if a
state is not governed by the principles of reason, riches and honors
are subjects of shame." No: until I want the protection of
Massachusetts to be extended to me in some distant Southern port,
where my liberty is endangered, or until I am bent solely on building
up an estate at home by peaceful enterprise, I can afford to refuse
allegiance to Massachusetts, and her right to my property and life. 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.

Some years ago, the State met me in behalf of the Church, and
commanded me to pay a certain sum toward the support of a clergyman
whose preaching my father attended, but never I myself. "Pay," it
said, "or be locked up in the jail." I declined to pay. But,
unfortunately, another man saw fit to pay it. I did not see why the
schoolmaster should be taxed to support the priest, and not the priest
the schoolmaster; for I was not the State's schoolmaster, but I
supported myself by voluntary subscription. I did not see why the
lyceum should not present its tax bill, and have the State to back its
demand, as well as the Church. However, as the request of the
selectmen, I condescended to make some such statement as this in
writing: "Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do
not wish to be regarded as a member of any society which I have not
joined." This I gave to the town clerk; and he has it. The State,
having thus learned that I did not wish to be regarded as a member of
that church, has never made a like demand on me since; though it said
that it must adhere to its original presumption that time. If I had
known how to name them, I should then have signed off in detail from
all the societies which I never signed on to; but I did not know where
to find such a complete list.

I have paid no poll tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on
this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of
solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a
foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not
help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which
treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked
up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was
the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself
of my services in some way. 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. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid
my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like
persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment
there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to
stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see
how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which
followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really
all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved
to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person
against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the
State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her
silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and
I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.

Thus the state never intentionally confronts a man's sense,
intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed
with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I
was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us
see who is the strongest. What force has a multitude? They only can
force me who obey a higher law than I. They force me to become like
themselves. I do not hear of men being forced to live this way or that
by masses of men. What sort of life were that to live? When I meet a
government which says to me, "Your money or your life," why should I
be in haste to give it my money? It may be in a great strait, and not
know what to do: I cannot help that. It must help itself; do as I do.
It is not worth the while to snivel about it. I am not responsible for
the successful working of the machinery of society. I am not the son
of the engineer. I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall
side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other,
but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best
they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If
a plant cannot live according to nature, it dies; and so a man.

The night in prison was novel and interesting enough. The prisoners in
their shirtsleeves were enjoying a chat and the evening air in the
doorway, when I entered. But the jailer said, "Come, boys, it is time
to lock up"; and so they dispersed, and I heard the sound of their
steps returning into the hollow apartments. My room-mate was
introduced to me by the jailer as "a first-rate fellow and clever
man." When the door was locked, he showed me where to hang my hat, and
how he managed matters there. The rooms were whitewashed once a month;
and this one, at least, was the whitest, most simply furnished, and
probably neatest apartment in town. He naturally wanted to know where
I came from, and what brought me there; and, when I had told him, I
asked him in my turn how he came there, presuming him to be an honest
an, of course; and as the world goes, I believe he was. "Why," said
he, "they accuse me of burning a barn; but I never did it." As near as
I could discover, he had probably gone to bed in a barn when drunk,
and smoked his pipe there; and so a barn was burnt. He had the
reputation of being a clever man, had been there some three months
waiting for his trial to come on, and would have to wait as much
longer; but he was quite domesticated and contented, since he got his
board for nothing, and thought that he was well treated.

He occupied one window, and I the other; and I saw that if one stayed
there long, his principal business would be to look out the window. I
had soon read all the tracts that were left there, and examined where
former prisoners had broken out, and where a grate had been sawed off,
and heard the history of the various occupants of that room; for I
found that even there there was a history and a gossip which never
circulated beyond the walls of the jail. Probably this is the only
house in the town where verses are composed, which are afterward
printed in a circular form, but not published. I was shown quite a
long list of young men who had been detected in an attempt to escape,
who avenged themselves by singing them.

I pumped my fellow-prisoner as dry as I could, for fear I should never
see him again; but at length he showed me which was my bed, and left
me to blow out the lamp.

It was like travelling into a far country, such as I had never
expected to behold, to lie there for one night. It seemed to me that I
never had heard the town clock strike before, not the evening sounds
of the village; for we slept with the windows open, which were inside
the grating. It was to see my native village in the light of the
Middle Ages, and our Concord was turned into a Rhine stream, and
visions of knights and castles passed before me. They were the voices
of old burghers that I heard in the streets. I was an involuntary
spectator and auditor of whatever was done and said in the kitchen of
the adjacent village inn – a wholly new and rare experience to me. It
was a closer view of my native town. I was fairly inside of it. I
never had seen its institutions before. This is one of its peculiar
institutions; for it is a shire town. I began to comprehend what its
inhabitants were about.

In the morning, our breakfasts were put through the hole in the door,
in small oblong-square tin pans, made to fit, and holding a pint of
chocolate, with brown bread, and an iron spoon. When they called for
the vessels again, I was green enough to return what bread I had left,
but my comrade seized it, and said that I should lay that up for lunch
or dinner. Soon after he was let out to work at haying in a
neighboring field, whither he went every day, and would not be back
till noon; so he bade me good day, saying that he doubted if he should
see me again.

When I came out of prison – for some one interfered, and paid that tax
– I did not perceive that great changes had taken place on the common,
such as he observed who went in a youth and emerged a gray-headed man;
and yet a change had come to my eyes come over the scene – the town,
and State, and country, greater than any that mere time could effect.
I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived. I saw to what
extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good
neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather
only; that they did not greatly propose to do right; that they were a
distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions, as the
Chinamen and Malays are that in their sacrifices to humanity they ran
no risks, not even to their property; that after all they were not so
noble but they treated the thief as he had treated them, and hoped, by
a certain outward observance and a few prayers, and by walking in a
particular straight through useless path from time to time, to save
their souls. This may be to judge my neighbors harshly; for I believe
that many of them are not aware that they have such an institution as
the jail in their village.

It was formerly the custom in our village, when a poor debtor came out
of jail, for his acquaintances to salute him, looking through their
fingers, which were crossed to represent the jail window, "How do ye
do?" My neighbors did not thus salute me, but first looked at me, and
then at one another, as if I had returned from a long journey. I was
put into jail as I was going to the shoemaker's to get a shoe which
was mended. When I was let out the next morning, I proceeded to finish
my errand, and, having put on my mended show, joined a huckleberry
party, who were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in
half an hour – for the horse was soon tackled – was in the midst of a
huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off, and
then the State was nowhere to be seen.

This is the whole history of "My Prisons."

I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as desirous
of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject; and as for
supporting schools, I am doing my part to educate my fellow countrymen
now. It is for no particular item in the tax bill that I refuse to pay
it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and
stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of
my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man a musket to shoot one with –
the dollar is innocent – but I am concerned to trace the effects of my
allegiance. In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my
fashion, though I will still make use and get what advantages of her I
can, as is usual in such cases.

If others pay the tax which is demanded of me, from a sympathy with
the State, they do but what they have already done in their own case,
or rather they abet injustice to a greater extent than the State
requires. If they pay the tax from a mistaken interest in the
individual taxed, to save his property, or prevent his going to jail,
it is because they have not considered wisely how far they let their
private feelings interfere with the public good.

This, then is my position at present. But one cannot be too much on
his guard in such a case, lest his actions be biased by obstinacy or
an undue regard for the opinions of men. Let him see that he does only
what belongs to himself and to the hour.

I think sometimes, Why, this people mean well, they are only ignorant;
they would do better if they knew how: why give your neighbors this
pain to treat you as they are not inclined to? But I think again, This
is no reason why I should do as they do, or permit others to suffer
much greater pain of a different kind. Again, I sometimes say to
myself, When many millions of men, without heat, without ill will,
without personal feelings of any kind, demand of you a few shillings
only, without the possibility, such is their constitution, of
retracting or altering their present demand, and without the
possibility, on your side, of appeal to any other millions, why expose
yourself to this overwhelming brute force? You do not resist cold and
hunger, the winds and the waves, thus obstinately; you quietly submit
to a thousand similar necessities. You do not put your head into the
fire. But just in proportion as I regard this as not wholly a brute
force, but partly a human force, and consider that I have relations to
those millions as to so many millions of men, and not of mere brute or
inanimate things, I see that appeal is possible, first and
instantaneously, from them to the Maker of them, and, secondly, from
them to themselves. But if I put my head deliberately into the fire,
there is no appeal to fire or to the Maker for fire, and I have only
myself to blame. If I could convince myself that I have any right to
be satisfied with men as they are, and to treat them accordingly, and
not according, in some respects, to my requisitions and expectations
of what they and I ought to be, then, like a good Mussulman and
fatalist, I should endeavor to be satisfied with things as they are,
and say it is the will of God. And, above all, there is this
difference between resisting this and a purely brute or natural force,
that I can resist this with some effect; but I cannot expect, like
Orpheus, to change the nature of the rocks and trees and beasts.

I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish to
split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as better
than my neighbors. I seek rather, I may say, even an excuse for
conforming to the laws of the land. I am but too ready to conform to
them. Indeed, I have reason to suspect myself on this head; and each
year, as the tax-gatherer comes round, I find myself disposed to
review the acts and position of the general and State governments, and
the spirit of the people to discover a pretext for conformity.

"We must affect our country as our parents,
And if at any time we alienate
Out love or industry from doing it honor,
We must respect effects and teach the soul
Matter of conscience and religion,
And not desire of rule or benefit."

I believe that the State will soon be able to take all my work of this
sort out of my hands, and then I shall be no better patriot than my
fellow-countrymen. Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution,
with all its faults, is very good; the law and the courts are very
respectable; even this State and this American government are, in many
respects, very admirable, and rare things, to be thankful for, such as
a great many have described them; seen from a higher still, and the
highest, who shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking
at or thinking of at all?

However, the government does not concern me much, and I shall bestow
the fewest possible thoughts on it. It is not many moments that I live
under a government, even in this world. If a man is thought-free,
fancy-free, imagination-free, that which is not never for a long time
appearing to be to him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally
interrupt him.

I know that most men think differently from myself; but those whose
lives are by profession devoted to the study of these or kindred
subjects content me as little as any. Statesmen and legislators,
standing so completely within the institution, never distinctly and
nakedly behold it. They speak of moving society, but have no
resting-place without it. They may be men of a certain experience and
discrimination, and have no doubt invented ingenious and even useful
systems, for which we sincerely thank them; but all their wit and
usefulness lie within certain not very wide limits. They are wont to
forget that the world is not governed by policy and expediency.
Webster never goes behind government, and so cannot speak with
authority about it. His words are wisdom to those legislators who
contemplate no essential reform in the existing government; but for
thinkers, and those who legislate for all time, he never once glances
at the subject. I know of those whose serene and wise speculations on
this theme would soon reveal the limits of his mind's range and
hospitality. Yet, compared with the cheap professions of most
reformers, and the still cheaper wisdom and eloquence of politicians
in general, his are almost the only sensible and valuable words, and
we thank Heaven for him. Comparatively, he is always strong, original,
and, above all, practical. Still, his quality is not wisdom, but
prudence. The lawyer's truth is not Truth, but consistency or a
consistent expediency. Truth is always in harmony with herself, and is
not concerned chiefly to reveal the justice that may consist with
wrong-doing. He well deserves to be called, as he has been called, the
Defender of the Constitution. There are really no blows to be given
him but defensive ones. He is not a leader, but a follower. His
leaders are the men of '87. "I have never made an effort," he says,
"and never propose to make an effort; I have never countenanced an
effort, and never mean to countenance an effort, to disturb the
arrangement as originally made, by which various States came into the
Union." Still thinking of the sanction which the Constitution gives to
slavery, he says, "Because it was part of the original compact – let
it stand." Notwithstanding his special acuteness and ability, he is
unable to take a fact out of its merely political relations, and
behold it as it lies absolutely to be disposed of by the intellect –
what, for instance, it behooves a man to do here in America today with
regard to slavery – but ventures, or is driven, to make some such
desperate answer to the following, while professing to speak
absolutely, and as a private man – from which what new and singular of
social duties might be inferred? "The manner," says he, "in which the
governments of the States where slavery exists are to regulate it is
for their own consideration, under the responsibility to their
constituents, to the general laws of propriety, humanity, and justice,
and to God. Associations formed elsewhere, springing from a feeling of
humanity, or any other cause, have nothing whatever to do with it.
They have never received any encouragement from me and they never
will." [These extracts have been inserted since the lecture was read

They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its
stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the
Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humanity; but
they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool,
gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward
its fountainhead.

No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America. They are
rare in the history of the world. There are orators, politicians, and
eloquent men, by the thousand; but the speaker has not yet opened his
mouth to speak who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of
the day. We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth
which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire. Our legislators
have not yet learned the comparative value of free trade and of
freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation. They have no genius
or talent for comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance,
commerce and manufactures and agriculture. If we were left solely to
the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected
by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the
people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations. For
eighteen hundred years, though perchance I have no right to say it,
the New Testament has been written; yet where is the legislator who
has wisdom and practical talent enough to avail himself of the light
which it sheds on the science of legislation?

The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to –
for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I,
and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well – 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. 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. Even the Chinese
philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of
the empire. 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. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can
afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect
as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own
repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor
embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow
men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop
off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more
perfect and glorious State, which I have also imagined, but not yet
anywhere seen.

Published in 1849 by the Massachusetts essayist and radical as
"Resistance to Civil Government."