, Research Paper
In a concise essay, Thoreau proffers a challenge to all men, “not to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” Over and over, almost redundantly, Thoreau stresses simplicity and individualism, as most transcendentalists (the new philosophical and literary movement of Thoreau’s time) did. Thoreau clearly states, in his On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, that the government is unjust and doesn’t represent the will of the people, that one man can’t change the government, and that people succumb unconsciously to the will of the government. The first of these is a ridiculous notion; the second contradicted and supported alternately throughout the essay so that one cannot be sure of what they agree or disagree with while reading it because it always contradicts itself in the following paragraph; and the last, a well-thought-out and legitimate concept.
Thoreau believed that “That government is best that governs least,” (222) but his harsh feelings stemmed from his dislike of the government and its motivations at that time. He thought that everything the administration did was wrong: their head-turn at the treatment of slaves, their land-grabbing war with Mexico, and the taxes that Thoreau himself was imprisoned for refusing to pay. Even the basic system of government was unfair and biased to him. He thought that the majority system was unjust, “… when the power is in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted … to rule, 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,” (231) but what else can there be in a non-monarchical government? He shoots down the entire American government, stabbing at what they stand for and not even looking for the reasons behind it. He ignores the fact that our administration has made our country grow and prosper since its independence. Although it may be true that the government exists only to sustain the military and our country’s major industry, without them, this fine country would be in economical and physical ruins. He doesn’t like our government, but his ideas for it, if carried out, would create chaos and anarchy.
Thoreau then talks for a long time about rebellion and revolution. He is somewhat hypocritical in this section. First, he discusses the difficulty of a minority rebelling against the majority. “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; …” (231) He goes on to state that voting is a ludicrous procedure, and calls it “gaming … with a slight moral tinge”. But then, it seems, he contradicts himself, writing “I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name, — if ten honest men, — aye, 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 therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America.” (230) It doesn’t seem right that Thoreau mocks the plurality system and polling, remarking that though the majority always rules, it didn’t mean that they were right, and then goes on to state that one man can change the government very easily, by just refusing to follow the majority. He even repudiates his own life experience. He was jailed for refusing to pay his poll tax, but his actions didn’t eliminate taxes as the Massachusetts man’s actions “abolished” slavery. In this section of his thesis, his main premise is that one single person cannot change the supreme authority of the State, yet his entire essay is based on the assumption that an individual can change the government.
His last and most justifiable supposition is that people unconsciously capitulate to the whims of the authority. He uses the example of those opposed to the Mexican War: “I have heard some of my townsmen say, ‘ I should like to have them order me out to … march down 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 … [There are] those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support.” (227-8) People are afraid of having their flesh locked in a cell, but this didn’t bother Thoreau. He found it amusing that they locked him up for his tax evasion, for “they thought that my chief desire was to stand on the other side of that stone wall.” (233) Another interesting illustration of this theory is stated best in his words, “If you use money which has the image of Caesar on it, and which he has made current and valuable, … [then] … you are men of the State.” (232) He firmly believes that you should only support personal sentiments, which is a profoundly admirable position.
On the Duty of Civil Disobedience is an opinionated yet sincere treatise on the efficaciousness and assumed power of the United States’ democratic government. The three main points proposed in this discourse vary in sensiblity from tangible to impalpable. Unfortunately, it is a very difficult and, for some, uninteresting and exasperating reading because in many parts of his essay, Thoreau, through ramblings and descriptions, unwittingly contradicts himself many times. Because of this, he is, by many, disregarded as a great philosopher and considered a hypocrite, and one has to look deep to discover the real meaning behind his grand words and complex sentences.