Henry David Thoreau a vigorous advocate of civil liberties.

Resistance to Civil Government (Civil Disobedience) is an essay by American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau that was first published in 1849. In it, Thoreau argues that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that they have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice . Thoreau was motivated in part by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). [1]

Influence

Mohandas Gandhi

Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi (a.k.a. Mahatma Gandhi) was impressed by Thoreau’s arguments. In 1907, about one year into his first satyagraha campaign in South Africa, he wrote a translated synopsis of Thoreau’s argument for Indian Opinion, credited Thoreau’s essay with being “the chief cause of the abolition of slavery in America”, and wrote that “Both his example and writings are at present exactly applicable to the Indians in the Transvaal.” He later concluded:

Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet, and withal a most practical man, that is, he taught nothing he was not prepared to practice in himself. He was one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced. At the time of the abolition of slavery movement, he wrote his famous essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. He went to gaol for the sake of his principles and suffering humanity. His essay has, therefore, been sanctified by suffering. Moreover, it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable.

— ”For Passive Resisters” (1907).[1]

Martin Luther King, Jr.

American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also influenced by this essay. In his autobiography, he wrote:

During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.

I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.

— ”The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.”[1]

Martin Buber

Existentialist Martin Buber wrote, of Civil Disobedience

I read it with the strong feeling that here was something that concerned me directly.… It was the concrete, the personal element, the “here and now” of this work that won me over. Thoreau did not put forth a general proposition as such; he described and established his attitude in a specific historical-biographic situation. He addressed his reader within the very sphere of this situation common to both of them in such a way that the reader not only discovered why Thoreau acted as he did at that time but also that the reader– assuming him of course to be honest and dispassionate– would have to act in just such a way whenever the proper occasion arose, provided he was seriously engaged in fulfilling his existence as a human person.

The question here is not just about one of the numerous individual cases in the struggle between a truth powerless to act and a power that has become the enemy of truth. It is really a question of the absolutely concrete demonstration of the point at which this struggle at any moment becomes man’s duty as man….

— ”Man’s Duty As Man” (1962) [1]

Others
Author Leo Tolstoy has cited Civil Disobedience as having a strong impact on his nonviolence methodology. Others who are said to have been influenced by Civil Disobedience include: President John F. Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and various writers such as, Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and William Butler Yeats.  [1]

 

Civil Disobedience some paragraphs :
The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly but their bodies.
They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc.
In most cases there is no free exercice 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 the 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 conscience 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 in pronounced benefactor and philanthropist.

Henry David Thoreau – Civil Disobedience.

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.

Henry David Thoreau – Civil Disobedience.

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.

Henry David Thoreau – Civil Disobedience.

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 other 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.

Henry David Thoreau – Civil Disobedience.

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.

Henry David Thoreau – Civil Disobedience .

How can a man be satisfied to entertain and 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 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.

Henry David Thoreau – Civil Disobedience

 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 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?
Henry David Thoreau – Civil Disobedience
In 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.
Henry David Thoreau – Civil Disobedience.
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