On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
by Henry David Thoreau
[1849, original title: Resistance to Civil Goverment]
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 the 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 mischievious
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 one 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 on
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 on 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,