Civil Disobedience originated when Henry Thoreau refused to pay taxes on a Massachusetts street on the way to the cobbler. Thoreau was arrested and taken to jail where he wrote the famous essay. That day has assumed such a symbolic importance that when we look back it is surprising how trivial the incident actually was. His small defiance of the state assumed such importance because it set the line of thought which led him to write Civil Disobedience. Thoreau protested the law through his writing.
He regarded the Mexican war of 1846 immoral. He drew attention to the fact that even though slavery was abolished in Massachusetts; its laws provided for the return of fugitive slaves to the southern states where slavery still prevailed. He argued we shouldn’t develop laws just for luxuries of enjoying them. To give laws meaning we must follow them no matter how we may offend public opinion. Thoreau states, 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? (p. 7) He thinks that if the laws only cause personal inconvenience it is better to put up with them, but if they force us to perform acts of injustice against other people he is saying we should break the law.
He makes it very clear that a man should follow his conscience and ignore the law when the two conflict. Thoreau stresses the reasons why men should seek to govern their own actions by justice rather than by legality. He feels that a man’s sense of justice is above the laws imposed by society. Men should be responsible to question law and authority if one senses it is morally wrong. Civil Disobedience encourages the use of reason and independent judgement. It also stresses that a man should be able to withstand physical suffering without causing harm to others while protesting unjust laws.
Thoreau argues that 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. (p. 9) He shows how hypocritical the American people are. Men talk about ceasing to hold slaves and to reform, but as actual individuals men don’t want to take action; they do not want to risk being thrown in jail. In this paragraph Thoreau is trying to demonstrate that if the community takes steps towards ending slavery rather than just talking about the issue, the problem would be solved.
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, the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. (p12) Thoreau was comfortable in jail. He realized he was freer than the men outside the jail were.
He had taken the needed steps to free his conscience. Thoreau felt that going to jail is not necessarily as bad as it might seem to be. Going to jail will draw the attention of men of goodwill to the evil principal that is taking place. The act might help to bring about a repeal of the law. Or if enough men go to jail, their acts will encourage the government to change the corrupt laws.
Civil Disobedience was an essay that rose from the hatred of slavery. The message of Thoreau is valuable. It serves as a constant reminder that when a man’s belief contradicts with society’s ideas, it is important to follow the individual belief. Thoreau felt his fellow citizens were loosing their souls. They permitted their money to be used for slavery.
They were more interested in commerce and agriculture than they were in humanity. He felt .