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Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"

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Christa McDaniel

on 23 September 2014

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Transcript of Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"

Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"
By: Christa McDaniel

Conceptually, the idea of government is a sound one. Therefore, it has maintained its presence, even across the ever-changing and mutating global landscape. The integrity of the governmental structure relies wholly on the assumption that the representative parties intend for the good of all. When the baser aspects of the human condition color the intentions of those in power, the idealistic concept of government becomes derailed. As the truths of the oppressive government are revealed, the framework for sedition ensues and change is possible.
In 1849, Henry David Thoreau, in his essay “Civil Disobedience,” encourages citizens to take action for the repossession of their neglected freedoms and modified basic rights by attempting to expose the corrupt nature of the government.
Thoreau encourages people to take action against the government by...
1. Presenting a personal situation in which he experienced governmental oppression.
2. Reminding citizens that change is possible.
3. Explaining how action is the most powerful weapon against the government.
People have the ability to relate to one another over the strain that the government brings. Thoreau attempts to bring that unity to the people of his time by telling the story of his imprisonment.
In her article “Henry Thoreau and ‘Civil Disobedience’ Part 1,” Wendy McElroy states, “Imprisonment was Thoreau’s first direct experience with state power, and in typical fashion, he analyzed it,” (1). McElroy explains the way in which Thoreau was able to make his jail time one of research. He did not dwell on the unruly arrangement, rather, he was able to uncover more reason to stand up for the rights of him and his peers.
Thoreau explains to his readers that he was jailed for refusing to pay a tax that would benefit the government directly. He describes the great things he learned from prison in hopes that his readers will no longer fear the law, but will fight for what they deserve.
Thoreau's personal situation in which he experienced governmental oppression.
Thoreau reminds citizens that change is possible.
Thoreau explains how action is the most powerful weapon against the government.
Thoreau concludes his essay with a hopeful tone, reminding citizens that it is possible to see and influence change. Even with the numerous negative situations he had to over come, Thoreau brings a positive energy to his essay and, moreover, to the readers. He describes an attainable, balanced livelihood with which he hopes to further encourage people to be brave and strong when fighting for the freedom that is so rightfully theirs.
In George Hendrick’s article, “The Influence of Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ on Gandhi’s Satyagraha,” he states, “For example Gandhi, in his 1942 appeal ‘To American Friends,’ wrote, ‘You have given me a teacher in Thoreau, who furnished me through his essay of the “Duty of Civil Disobedience” scientific confirmation of what I was doing in South Africa,’” (462). Gandhi is just one of the many people who understood the need for change. He, through Thoreau's encouragement, acted upon his beliefs and is now a figure for positive change in the world.
Thoreau had the ability to inspire great people to make positive and long-lasting change in the world. Fortunately for our country, and for the world as a whole, it did not stop with Gandhi. For those people who attempted and still strive to find sense in his words, only favorable change can occur.
Thoreau presents examples of the government’s wrong doings in an attempt to find common ground with his readers. Specifically, he hopes to paint a picture in his reader’s minds so as to later persuade them to join his efforts to take back the power that he believes is rightfully theirs. While he most nobly recognizes the positive impacts that the once necessary government had on the people and their social and economic construct, he expresses the need for change. Thoreau says, “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight,” (10). Thoreau makes this statement hoping he will change the way people see and interpret their influence over the government. He wants people to acknowledge that they not only have a voice if they are willing to speak, but can cause a major change if they are willing to act.
Nicole Smith, in her article “Analysis and Summary of “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau,” states, “Thoreau considers civil disobedience a moral and social duty of American citizens… One act of civil disobedience may be not paying taxes. Another act, and one he deems more important still, is to avoid colluding with the government by refusing to play an active role in it,” (1). In this statement, Smith lists a few acts that Thoreau believes Americans should use as a guide. While refusing to pay taxes is not a realistic approach that people could risk in the twenty-first century, back in those times, if such a refusal was backed by a large group or even an entire community, they could have revolutionized the rights of the citizens.
With his words in “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau worked to unite the American citizens and ignite a flame of passion in them in order to regain freedoms, challenge authority, and revolutionize the government structure. This is the powerful force that makes America great, for a nation is not defined by its governmental construct, but by the people who serve as the foundation for such a structure. True freedom comes when the current unsatisfactory condition is disrupted. Ultimately, it is this mindset, shared by Thoreau and many other leaders in history, that truly make this country the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Overall, Stacy Redd sums up the true meaning of "Civil Disobedience" in her article, “Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’: Summary and Analysis,” when she states, “Civil Disobedience argued that what a person believed to be right is more important than what was mandated by government,” (1).

This statement summarizes the main point Thoreau wanted to leave with his readers. It is this that brings out the transcendentalist way of thinking. He truly believes that what a person interprets as right and just transcends the government’s authority.
Thoreau lived during a time of slavery. His entire life he saw slaves get mistreated and watched as the government did nothing to protect its people. His response to this abuse was to write and lecture about the changes that needed to be made. It is an unfortunate truth that during his lifetime he saw few people stand up for what is right, but his words did evoke gradual change. It is only natural for a person that lived during his time to have such disdain for governmental control.
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Historical Information About Thoreau (1817-1862)
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