Henry David Thoreau was an American naturalist, a lecturer, and an abolitionist. Thoreau was the author of perhaps the most radical and influential essay in the history of American political philosophy, “Civil Disobedience.” This series of reflections on a night Thoreau spent in the Concord, Massachusetts, jail for tax resistance proclaimed “that government is best which governs not at all” and urged its readers to “withdraw their support, both in person and property” from governments that make and enforce unjust laws. The essay had a profound impact on two of the 20th century’s greatest political activists—Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thoreau’s tax resistance, which led to his being jailed in Concord in 1846, was occasioned by his opposition to slavery. Thoreau was an abolitionist, as was his father, and there is some evidence that both the Thoreau family home in Concord and Henry’s famous cottage on Walden Pond, a short distance outside the village, were stops on the Underground Railroad that carried escaped slaves to freedom. A lifelong resident of Concord, Thoreau and his antislavery views were well known to his neighbors and were not regarded as either shocking or scandalous.

Thoreau, in contrast, was both shocked and scandalized when he visited the village from Walden one day in 1846 and found his neighbors enthusiastically preparing for the newly declared Mexican War. Thoreau regarded this war as nothing but an ignoble effort on the part of proslavery forces in Congress to build up their voting strength by annexing Texas. When asked for payment of his annual poll tax—much needed this year, he was told, because of the war effort—he refused. The constable, a longtime friend, told Thoreau he had no interest in locking him up and would pay the tax for him if Thoreau could not raise the necessary funds. Again Thoreau refused, and this time he was jailed. Within 24 hours, his tax had been paid against his will by members of his family, so he spent only one night in prison. That one night was sufficient time, however, for him to gather his thoughts on the proper relationship of the individual to the state.

Two years later, he committed these thoughts to paper for a lecture he called “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government,” which was subsequently published as “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849) and finally as “Civil Disobedience” (1866), the title under which we know it today. Thoreau begins his famous essay by inquiring into the nature and justification of the state.

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 I also 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.

In the interim, Thoreau argued, until such time as we are fully prepared for a government that “governs not at all,” we should live peaceably with the state—unless and until it adopts policies that require us to participate in or assist with the perpetration of injustice. At that point, Thoreau asserts, it is incumbent on every moral person to refuse cooperation with the state. So, in light of the persistence of slavery and the waging of the Mexican War, “[h]ow does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.” As for Thoreau, not only did he refuse to pay his taxes; not only did he write that “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also”; in addition, he recorded in his journal that “[m]y thoughts are murder to the State; I endeavor in vain to observe nature; my thoughts involuntarily go plotting against the State. I trust that all just men will conspire.”

Although not all just men have rallied to Thoreau’s call for support and solidarity, many have. His political views were not influential during his lifetime, yet they have steadily grown in influence over the decades. Two of the most important figures in the history of philosophical anarchism, Leo Tolstoy and Emma Goldman, learned much from Thoreau’s brief excursion into political philosophy. Still others were forced to acknowledge the power of his ideas after Mohandas K. Gandhi used them to bring the British Empire to its knees and after Martin Luther King, Jr. used them to effect a civil rights revolution in Thoreau’s native land.

Further Readings

Dahlberg, Edward. “Thoreau and Walden.” The Edward Dahlberg Reader. Paul Carroll, ed. New York: New Directions, 1967.

Parrington, Vernon Louis. “Henry Thoreau: Transcendental Economist.” Main Currents in American Thought. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1930.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. “Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions.” Familiar Studies of Men and Books. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925.

Thoreau, Henry David. Political Writings. Nancy L. Rosenblum, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Jeff Riggenbach
Originally published