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EFFector - Volume 4, Issue 4 - Civil Disobedience


EFFector - Volume 4, Issue 4 - Civil Disobedience

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EFFector Online 4.4           12/24/1992     
A Publication of the Electronic Frontier Foundation     ISSN 1062-9424


                         CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE

                       by Henry David Thoreau

         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  also I 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 the  will
    have.   Government is  at best  but an  expedient; but  most
    governments are usually, and all governments are  sometimes,
    inexpedient.  The objections which have been brought against
    a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and  deserve
    to prevail, may also at  last be brought against a  standing
    government.   The  standing  army  is only  an  arm  of  the
    standing government. The  government itself,  which is  only
    the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will,
    is equally  liable to  be abused  and perverted  before  the
    people can act through it.  Witness the present Mexican war,
    the work  of  comparatively  a  few  individuals  using  the
    standing government as  their tool; for  in the outset,  the
    people would not have consented to this measure.
         This American government--what is  it but a  tradition,
    though  a  recent  one,   endeavoring  to  transmit   itself
    unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its
    integrity?  It has  not the vitality and  force of a  single
    living man; for a single man can bend it to his will.  It is
    a sort of wooden  gun to the people  themselves.  But it  is
    not the less necessary  for this; for  the people must  have
    some complicated machinery  or other, and  hear its din,  to
    satisfy  that   idea   of  government   which   they   have.
    Governments show thus  how successfully men  can be  imposed
    upon, even impose  on themselves, for  their own  advantage.
    It is excellent,  we must  all allow.   Yet this  government
    never  of  itself  furthered  any  enterprise,  but  by  the
    alacrity with which it got out of its way.  It does not keep
    the country free.  It does not settle the West.  It does not
    educate.  The character inherent in the American people  has
    done all that has been accomplished; and it would have  done
    somewhat more, if  the government had  not sometimes got  in
    its way.  For government is an expedient, by which men would
    fain succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has  been
    said, when it is most  expedient, the governed are most  let
    alone by it.  Trade and  commerce, if they were not made  of
    india-rubber, would never  manage to  bounce over  obstacles
    which legislators are continually putting in their way;  and
    if one were  to judge  these men  wholly by  the effects  of
    their actions and not partly by their intentions, they would
    deserve to be classed  and punished with those  mischievious
    persons who put obstructions on the railroads.
         But, to  speak practically  and  as a  citizen,  unlike
    those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for,  not
    at one no government, but at once a better government.   Let
    every man make known what  kind of government would  command
    his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.
         After all, the practical reason why, when the power  is
    once in the hands of  the people, a majority are  permitted,
    and for a long period continue, to rule is 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.  But a government  in which the majority rule  in
    all cases can not  be based on justice,  even as far as  men
    understand it.  Can there not  be a government in which  the
    majorities do  not virtually  decide  right and  wrong,  but
    conscience?--in which majorities decide  right and  wrong,  but
    conscience?--in which majorities decide only those questions
    to which the  rule of  expediency is applicable?   Must  the
    citizen ever for a  moment, or in  the least degree,  resign
    his conscience  to the  legislator?   WHy  has every  man  a
    conscience then?  I think that  we should be men first,  and
    subjects afterward.   It  is not  desirable to  cultivate  a
    respect for the  law, so much  as for the  right.  The  only
    obligation which I have  a right to assume  is to do at  any
    time what I  think right.   It is truly  enough said that  a
    corporation  has  no  conscience;   but  a  corporation   on
    conscientious men is a corporation  with a conscience.   Law
    never made men  a whit  more just;  and, by  means of  their
    respect for it,  even the well-disposed  are daily made  the
    agents on  injustice.   A common  and natural  result of  an
    undue respect for  the law is,  that you may  see a file  of
    soldiers,    colonel,    captain,    corporal,     privates,
    powder-monkeys, and all,  marching in  admirable order  over
    hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay,  against
    their common  sense and  consciences,  which makes  it  very
    steep marching  indeed, and  produces a  palpitation of  the
    heart.  They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in
    which they are concerned;  they are all peaceably  inclined.
    Now, what are they?  Men at all?  or small movable forts and
    magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?
    Visit the Navy Yard, and behold  a marine, such a man as  an
    American government can make, or such  as it can make a  man
    with its  black  arts--a  mere shadow  and  reminiscence  of
    humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as
    one may say, buried  under arms with funeral  accompaniment,
    though it may be,

         "Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
              As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
         Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
              O'er the grave where out hero was buried."

         The mass  of  men serve  the  state thus,  not  as  men
    mainly, but as machines,  with their bodies.   They are  the
    standing army, and the  militia, jailers, constables,  posse
    comitatus, etc.   In most  cases there is  no free  exercise
    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 consciences
    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   a   benefactor   and
         How does it become a man to behave toward the  American
    government today?  I answer, that he cannot without disgrace
    be associated with it.   I cannot  for an instant  recognize
    that political organization  as my government  which is  the
    slave's government also.
         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.  But  almost all say that  such is not  the
    case now.    But such  was  the  case, they  think,  in  the
    Revolution of '75.  If one were  to tell me that this was  a
    bad government because it taxed certain foreign  commodities
    brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should  not
    make an  ado about  it, for  I  can do  without them.    All
    machines have their friction; and possibly this does  enough
    good to counter-balance  the evil.   At  any rate,  it is  a
    great evil to make a stir  about it.  But when the  friction
    comes to have  its machine, and  oppression and robbery  are
    organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.
    In other words, 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.
    What makes this duty the more  urgent is that fact that  the
    country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the  invading
         Paley, a common authority with many on moral questions,
    in  his  chapter  on  the  "Duty  of  Submission  to   Civil
    Government," resolves all civil obligation into  expediency;
    and he proceeds to say that "so long as the interest of  the
    whole  society  requires  it,  that  it,  so  long  as   the
    established government cannot be resisted or changed without
    public inconveniencey, it is  the will of  God. . .that  the
    established government  be  obeyed--and  no  longer.    This
    principle being admitted,  the justice  of every  particular
    case of  resistance  is  reduced to  a  computation  of  the
    quantity of the danger and grievance on the one side, and of
    the probability and expense of redressing it on the  other."
    Of this, he says,  every man shall judge  for himself.   But
    Paley appears  never to  have  contemplated those  cases  to
    which the  rule of  expediency does  not apply,  in which  a
    people, as well  and an  individual, must  do justice,  cost
    what it may.   If  I have unjustly  wrested a  plank from  a
    drowning man,  I  must restore  it  to him  though  I  drown
    myself.  This,  according to Paley,  would be  inconvenient.
    But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall  lose
    it.  This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make  war
    on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.
         In their practice, nations  agree with Paley; but  does
    anyone think that Massachusetts  does exactly what is  right
    at the present crisis?

    "A drab of stat, a cloth-o'-silver slut,
     To have her train borne up, and her soul trail in the

    Practically  speaking,  the   opponents  to   a  reform   in
    Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at  the
    South, but a  hundred thousand merchants  and farmers  here,
    who are  more interested  in commerce  and agriculture  than
    they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice  to
    the slave and to  Mexico, cost what it  may.  I quarrel  not
    with far-off  foes,  but  with  those  who,  neat  at  home,
    co-operate with, and do the bidding of, those far away,  and
    without  whom  the  latter  would  be  harmless.    We   are
    accustomed to say, that the mass of men are unprepared;  but
    improvement is slow, because the  few are not as  materially
    wiser or better than the many.  It is not so important  that
    many should be good as you,  as that there be some  absolute
    goodness somewhere;  for that  will leaven  the whole  lump.
    There are thousands  who are in  opinion opposed to  slavery
    and to the war, who yet in  effect do nothing to put an  end
    to them; who,  esteeming themselves  children of  Washington
    and Franklin, sit  down with their  hands in their  pockets,
    and say that they know not  what to do, and do nothing;  who
    even postpone the  question of  freedom to  the question  of
    free trade, and quietly  read the prices-current along  with
    the latest advices  from Mexico, after  dinner, and, it  may
    be, fall asleep over them  both.  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.
         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.
         I hear  of a  convention to  be held  at Baltimore,  or
    elsewhere,  for  the  selection  of  a  candidate  for   the
    Presidency, made  up chiefly  of editors,  and men  who  are
    politicians by profession; but  I think, what  is it to  any
    independent, intelligent, and respectable man what  decision
    they may come to?  Shall  we not have the advantage of  this
    wisdom and honesty,  nevertheless?   Can we  not count  upon
    some independent votes?  Are  there not many individuals  in
    the country who do not attend conventions?  But no:  I  find
    that the respectable man, so called, has immediately drifted
    from his position,  and despairs  of his  country, when  his
    country has more reasons  to despair of  him.  He  forthwith
    adopts one  of  the candidates  thus  selected as  the  only
    available one, thus proving that he is himself available for
    any purposes of the demagogue.  His vote is of no more worth
    than that of any unprincipled foreigner or hireling  native,
    who may have been bought.   O for a man  who is a man,  and,
    and my  neighbor says,  has a  bone is  his back  which  you
    cannot pass your hand through!  Our statistics are at fault:
    the population has been  returned too large.   How many  men
    are there to a square thousand miles in the country?  Hardly
    one.   Does not  America  offer any  inducement for  men  to
    settle  here?    The  American  has  dwindled  into  an  Odd
    Fellow--one who may be known by the development of his organ
    of gregariousness,  and a  manifest  lack of  intellect  and
    cheerful self-reliance; whose  first and  chief concern,  on
    coming into the world, is to see that the almshouses are  in
    good repair;  and, before  yet he  has lawfully  donned  the
    virile garb, to collect a fund to the support of the  widows
    and orphans that  may be;  who, in short,  ventures to  live
    only by the aid of  the Mutual Insurance company, which  has
    promised to bury him decently.
         It is  not a  man's duty,  as a  matter of  course,  to
    devote himself  to  the eradication  of  any, even  to  most
    enormous, wrong; he may  still properly have other  concerns
    to engage him;  but it is  his duty, at  least, to wash  his
    hands of it, and, if he  gives it no thought longer, not  to
    give it  practically his  support.   If I  devote myself  to
    other pursuits  and contemplations,  I  must first  see,  at
    least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another  man's
    shoulders.  I must get off him first, that he may pursue his
    contemplations  too.    See  what  gross  inconsistency   is
    tolerated.  I have heard some of my townsmen say, "I  should
    like to  have  them  order  me  out  to  help  put  down  an
    insurrection of the slaves, or to march 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.  The soldier is applauded who
    refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse
    to sustain the  unjust government  which makes  the war;  is
    applauded by those whose own act and authority he disregards
    and sets at naught;  as if the state  were penitent to  that
    degree that it hired one to scourge it while it sinned,  but
    not to that degree  that it left off  sinning for a  moment.
    Thus, under the name of  Order and Civil Government, we  are
    all made  at last  to  pay homage  to  and support  our  own
    meanness.    After  the  first   blush  of  sin  comes   its
    indifference; and  from  immoral  it becomes,  as  it  were,
    unmoral, and not  quite unnecessary  to that  life which  we
    have made.
         The broadest and most prevalent error requires the most
    disinterested virtue to sustain it.  The slight reproach  to
    which the virtue of patriotism is commonly liable, the noble
    are most likely to incur.  Those who, while they  disapprove
    of the character and measures  of a government, yield to  it
    their  allegiance  and  support  are  undoubtedly  its  most
    conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious
    obstacles to  reform.   Some are  petitioning the  State  to
    dissolve the  Union, to  disregard the  requisitions of  the
    President.   Why do  they  not dissolve  it  themselves--the
    union between themselves  and the State--and  refuse to  pay
    their quota into its  treasury?  Do not  they stand in  same
    relation to the State that the State does to the Union?  And
    have not the same reasons prevented the State from resisting
    the Union  which  have  prevented them  from  resisting  the
         How can a  man be  satisfied to  entertain an   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  saying that you  are
    cheated, or even 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.
         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 them.   They think  that, if they  should resist,  the
    remedy would be worse than 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?
         One would think, that a deliberate and practical denial
    of its authority was the only offense never contemplated  by
    its government; else, why has it not assigned its  definite,
    its suitable and proportionate, penalty?   If a man who  has
    no property refuses but once to earn nine shillings for  the
    State, he is put in prison for a period unlimited by any law
    that I know, and determined only by the discretion of  those
    who put him there; but if he should steal ninety times  nine
    shillings from  the State,  he is  soon permitted  to go  at
    large again.
         If 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.
         As for adopting the ways of the State has provided  for
    remedying the evil, I know not of such ways.  They take  too
    much time, and  a man's  life will be  gone.   I have  other
    affairs to attend to.  I  came into this world, not  chiefly
    to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it,  be
    it good  or  bad.   A  man has  not  everything to  do,  but
    something; and because  he cannot do  everything, it is  not
    necessary that he should be petitioning the Governor or  the
    Legislature any more than it  is theirs to petition me;  and
    if they should not hear my petition, what should I do  then?
    But in this  case the State  has provided no  way: its  very
    Constitution is the  evil.  This  may seem to  be harsh  and
    stubborn and unconcilliatory;  but it is  to treat with  the
    utmost kindness and consideration  the only spirit that  can
    appreciate or deserves it.  So is all change for the better,
    like birth and death, which convulse the body.
         I  do  not  hesitate  to  say,  that  those  who   call
    themselves Abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw
    their  support,  both  in  person  and  property,  from  the
    government  of  Massachusetts,  and   not  wait  till   they
    constitute a majority of one,  before they suffer the  right
    to prevail through them.  I think that it is enough if  they
    have God on their side, without waiting for that other  one.
    Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors  constitutes
    a majority of one already.
         I meet this American government, or its representative,
    the State government,  directly, and  face to  face, once  a
    year--no more--in the  person of its  tax-gatherer; this  is
    the only mode in  which a man situated  as I am  necessarily
    meets it;  and  it then says  distinctly, Recognize me;  and
    the simplest,  the  most  effectual,  and,  in  the  present
    posture of  affairs, the  indispensablest mode  of  treating
    with it on this head, of expressing your little satisfaction
    with and  love  for  it, is  to  deny  it then.    My  civil
    neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the  very man I have to  deal
    with--for it is, after all, with men and not with  parchment
    that I quarrel--and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent
    of the government.  How shall  he ever know well that he  is
    and does as an officer of the government, or as a man, until
    he is  obliged to  consider whether  he will  treat me,  his
    neighbor, for  whom  he  has  respect,  as  a  neighbor  and
    well-disposed man,  or  as a  maniac  and disturber  of  the
    peace, and see if  he can get over  this obstruction to  his
    neighborlines without a ruder and more impetuous thought  or
    speech corresponding with  his action.   I  know this  well,
    that if one  thousand, if  one hundred,  if ten  men whom  I
    could name--if ten honest men  only--ay, if one HONEST  man,
    in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were
    actually to withdraw from this co-partnership, and be locked
    up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of
    slavery in  America.   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.  Reform  keeps many scores of newspapers  in
    its service, but not one man.  If my esteemed neighbor,  the
    State's  ambassador,  who  will  devote  his  days  to   the
    settlement of the  question of human  rights in the  Council
    Chamber, instead  of being  threatened with  the prisons  of
    Carolina, were to  sit down the  prisoner of  Massachusetts,
    that State which is so anxious  to foist the sin of  slavery
    upon her sister--though at present she can discover only  an
    act of  inhospitality to  be the  ground of  a quarrel  with
    her--the Legislature would not  wholly waive the subject  of
    the following winter.
         Under a government which  imprisons unjustly, the  true
    place for a  just man is  also a prison.   The proper  place
    today, the only place  which Massachusetts has provided  for
    her freer and less despondent spirits, is in her prisons, to
    be put out and locked  out of the State  by her own act,  as
    they have already  put themselves out  by their  principles.
    It is  there  that  the  fugitive  slave,  and  the  Mexican
    prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the  wrongs
    of his race should find them; on that separate but more free
    and honorable ground, where the  State places those who  are
    not with her,  but against  her--the only house  in a  slave
    State in which  a free  man can abide  with honor.   If  any
    think that their  influence would be  lost there, and  their
    voices no longer  afflict the  ear of the  State, that  they
    would not be as an enemy within its walls, they do not  know
    by how much truth is stronger than error, nor how much  more
    eloquently and effectively he  can combat injustice who  has
    experienced a little  in his  own person.   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 even a minority then; but it is irresistible  when
    it clogs by its whole weight.  If the alternative is to keep
    all just men  in prison,  or give  up war  and slavery,  the
    State will not hesitate which to choose.  If a thousand  men
    were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be
    a violent and bloody  measure, as it would  be to pay  them,
    and enable the  State to commit  violence and shed  innocent
    blood.   This is,  in fact,  the definition  of a  peaceable
    revolution, if any such is  possible.  If the  tax-gatherer,
    or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done,  "But
    what shall I do?"  my answer is, "If  you really wish to  do
    anything, resign your office."  When the subject has refused
    allegiance, and the officer  has resigned from office,  then
    the revolution is accomplished.  But even suppose blood shed
    when the conscience is wounded?  Through this wound a  man's
    real manhood and immortality flow  out, and he bleeds to  an
    everlasting death.  I see this blood flowing now.
         I have contemplated the  imprisonment of the  offender,
    rather than the seizure of his goods--though both will serve
    the same purpose--because they who assert the purest  right,
    and consequently  are most  dangerous  to a  corrupt  State,
    commonly have not spent much time in accumulating  property.
    To such the State renders comparatively small service, and a
    slight tax  is wont  to appear  exorbitant, particularly  if
    they are  obliged to  earn it  by special  labor with  their
    hands.  If there were one  who lived wholly without the  use
    of money, the State  itself would hesitate  to demand it  of
    him.    But  the  rich   man--not  to  make  any   invidious
    comparison--is always sold  to the  institution which  makes
    him rich.   Absolutely speaking,  the more  money, the  less
    virtue; for money comes between  a man and his objects,  and
    obtains them for him;  it was certainly  no great virtue  to
    obtain it.  It  puts to rest many  questions which he  would
    otherwise be taxed  to answer; while  the only new  question
    which it puts is the hard but superfluous one, how to  spend
    it.  Thus  his moral ground  is taken from  under his  feet.
    The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion  as
    that are called the "means" are increased.  The best thing a
    man can do for his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to
    carry out those  schemes which  he entertained  when he  was
    poor.   Christ answered  the  Herodians according  to  their
    condition.  "Show  me the tribute-money,"  said he--and  one
    took a penny out of his  pocket--if you use money which  has
    the image of Caesar on it, and which he has made current and
    valuable, that is, if you are  men of the State, and  gladly
    enjoy the advantages  of Caesar's government,  then pay  him
    back some of his own when he demands it.  "Render  therefore
    to Caesar that  which is  Caesar's and to  God those  things
    which are God's"--leaving  them no wiser  than before as  to
    which was which; for they did not wish to know.
         When I  converse with  the freest  of my  neighbors,  I
    perceive that, whatever they may say about the magnitude and
    seriousness of the question, and their regard for the public
    tranquillity, the long and the short of the matter is,  that
    they cannot spare the protection of the existing government,
    and they  dread  the  consequences  to  their  property  and
    families of disobedience to it.   For my own part, I  should
    not like to think that I ever rely on the protection of  the
    State.  But, if  I deny the authority  of the State when  it
    presents its tax bill,  it will soon take  and waste all  my
    property, and  so harass  me and  my children  without  end.
    This is hard.   This makes it impossible  for a man to  live
    honestly, and  at  the  same time  comfortably,  in  outward
    respects.   It will  not be  worth the  while to  accumulate
    property; that would be sure to go again.  You must hire  or
    squat somewhere, and raise  but a small  crop, and eat  that
    soon.   You  must  live within  yourself,  and  depend  upon
    yourself always tucked  up and  ready for a  start, and  not
    have many affairs.  A man  may grow rich in Turkey even,  if
    he will be  in all respects  a good subject  of the  Turkish
    government.  Confucius said: "If a state is governed by  the
    principles of  reason, poverty  and misery  are subjects  of
    shame; if  a state  is  not governed  by the  principles  of
    reason, riches and honors are subjects of shame."  No: until
    I want the protection of Massachusetts to be extended to  me
    in  some  distant  Southern   port,  where  my  liberty   is
    endangered, or  until I  am bent  solely on  building up  an
    estate at  home  by peaceful  enterprise,  I can  afford  to
    refuse allegiance  to Massachusetts,  and  her right  to  my
    property and life.  It costs me less in every sense to incur
    the penalty of disobedience  to the State  than it would  to
    obey.  I should feel as if I were worth less in that case.
         Some years  ago, the  State  met me  in behalf  of  the
    Church, and commanded  me to  pay a certain  sum toward  the
    support of a clergyman  whose preaching my father  attended,
    but never I myself.  "Pay," it said, "or be locked up in the
    jail."  I declined to pay.  But, unfortunately, another  man
    saw fit  to pay  it.   I did  not see  why the  schoolmaster
    should be taxed to  support the priest,  and not the  priest
    the schoolmaster; for  I was not  the State's  schoolmaster,
    but I supported myself by voluntary subscription.  I did not
    see why the lyceum should not present its tax bill, and have
    the State  to  back  its  demand, as  well  as  the  Church.
    However, as the request of the selectmen, I condescended  to
    make some such statement as  this in writing: "Know all  men
    by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to  be
    regarded as  a  member  of  any society  which  I  have  not
    joined."  This I gave to the town clerk; and he has it.  The
    State, having  thus  learned  that  I did  not  wish  to  be
    regarded as a member of that  church, has never made a  like
    demand on me since;  though it said that  it must adhere  to
    its original presumption that time.   If I had known how  to
    name them, I should then have signed off in detail from  all
    the societies which I never signed on to; but I did not know
    where to find such a complete list.
         I have paid no poll tax for six years.  I was put  into
    a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I  stood
    considering the  walls of  solid stone,  two or  three  feet
    thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron
    grating which strained  the light,  I could  not help  being
    struck  with  the  foolishness  of  that  institution  which
    treated my as if I were  mere flesh and blood and bones,  to
    be locked up.  I wondered  that it should have concluded  at
    length that this was  the best use it  could put me to,  and
    had never thought  to avail  itself of my  services in  some
    way.  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 nor  for a moment  feel confined, and  the
    walls seemed a great waste of  stone and mortar.  I felt  as
    if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax.  They plainly
    did not know how to treat  me, but behaved like persons  who
    are underbred.   In  every threat  and in  every  compliment
    there was a blunder; for  they thought that my chief  desire
    was to stand the other side of that stone wall.  I could not
    but smile to see how  industriously they locked the door  on
    my meditations, which followed them out again without let or
    hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous.   As
    they could  not reach  me, they  had resolved  to punish  my
    body; just  as boys,  if  they cannot  come at  some  person
    against whom they have a spite,  will abuse his dog.  I  saw
    that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a  lone
    woman with her silver spoons, and  that it did not know  its
    friends from its foes, and  I lost all my remaining  respect
    for it, and pitied it.
         Thus the state  never intentionally  confronts a  man's
    sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.
    It is  not armed  with superior  wit  or  honesty, but  with
    superior physical strength.  I was not born to be forced.  I
    will breathe after my  own fashion.  Let  us see who is  the
    strongest.  What force has a multitude?  They only can force
    me who obey a higher  law than I.   They force me to  become
    like themselves.  I do not hear of men being forced to  live
    this way or that by masses of  men.  What sort of life  were
    that to live?   When I meet a  government which says to  me,
    "Your money our your life," why should I be in haste to give
    it my money?  It may be in a great strait, and not know what
    to do: I cannot help that.  It must help itself; do as I do.
    It is not  worth the while  to snivel  about it.   I am  not
    responsible for the successful  working of the machinery  of
    society.  I  am not  the son of  the engineer.   I  perceive
    that, when an acorn  and a chestnut fall  side by side,  the
    one does not  remain inert to  make way for  the other,  but
    both obey their own laws,  and spring and grow and  flourish
    as best  they  can,  till one,  perchance,  overshadows  and
    destroys the other.   If  a plant cannot  live according  to
    nature, it dies; and so a man.
         The night in prison  was novel and interesting  enough.
    The prisoners in their shirtsleeves were enjoying a chat and
    the evening air  in the doorway,  when I entered.   But  the
    jailer said, "Come,  boys, it is  time to lock  up"; and  so
    they dispersed,  and  I  heard  the  sound  of  their  steps
    returning into  the hollow  apartments.   My  room-mate  was
    introduced to me by the  jailer as "a first-rate fellow  and
    clever man."  When the door  was locked, he showed me  where
    to hang my hat, and how he managed matters there.  The rooms
    were whitewashed once a month;  and this one, at least,  was
    the whitest,  most simply  furnished, and  probably  neatest
    apartment in town.  He naturally wanted to know where I came
    from, and what brought me there; and, when I had told him, I
    asked him in my turn how he came there, presuming him to  be
    an honest an, of course; and as the world goes, I believe he
    was. "Why," said he, "they accuse me of burning a barn;  but
    I never  did it."   As  near  as I  could discover,  he  had
    probably gone to bed  in a barn when  drunk, and smoked  his
    pipe there; and so a barn was burnt.  He had the  reputation
    of being  a clever  man, had  been there  some three  months
    waiting for his trial to come on, and would have to wait  as
    much longer; but  he was quite  domesticated and  contented,
    since he got his board for nothing, and thought that he  was
    well treated.
         He occupied one window, and I the other; and I saw that
    if one stayed there long, his principal business would be to
    look out the window.   I had soon  read all the tracts  that
    were left  there, and  examined where  former prisoners  had
    broken out, and where a grate had been sawed off, and  heard
    the history of  the various  occupants of that  room; for  I
    found that even there there was a history and a gossip which
    never circulated beyond  the walls  of the  jail.   Probably
    this is  the  only  house  in  the  town  where  verses  are
    composed, which are  afterward printed in  a circular  form,
    but not published.  I was  shown quite a long list of  young
    men who  had been  detected  in an  attempt to  escape,  who
    avenged themselves by singing them.
         I pumped my fellow-prisoner as dry as I could, for fear
    I should never  see him again;  but at length  he showed  me
    which was my bed, and left me to blow out the lamp.
         It was like travelling  into a far  country, such as  I
    had never expected to  behold, to lie  there for one  night.
    It seemed to me that I never had heard the town clock strike
    before, not the evening sounds of the village; for we  slept
    with the windows open,  which were inside  the grating.   It
    was to see  my native  village in  the light  of the  Middle
    Ages, and our Concord  was turned into  a Rhine stream,  and
    visions of knights and castles passed before me.  They  were
    the voices of old burghers that  I heard in the streets.   I
    was an  involuntary spectator  and auditor  of whatever  was
    done and said in the kitchen of the adjacent village  inn--a
    wholly new and rare experience to me.  It was a closer  view
    of my native town.  I was fairly inside of it.  I never  had
    seen its institutions before.   This is one of its  peculiar
    institutions; for it is a shire town.  I began to comprehend
    what its inhabitants were about.
         In the  morning, our  breakfasts were  put through  the
    hole in the door, in  small oblong-square tin pans, made  to
    fit, and holding a pint of chocolate, with brown bread,  and
    an iron spoon.   When they called for  the vessels again,  I
    was green enough  to return what  bread I had  left, but  my
    comrade seized it, and  said that I should  lay that up  for
    lunch or  dinner.   Soon after  he was  let out  to work  at
    haying in a  neighboring field, whither  he went every  day,
    and would not  be back till  noon; so he  bade me good  day,
    saying that he doubted if he should see me again.
         When I came out of prison--for some one interfered, and
    paid that tax--I  did not  perceive that  great changes  had
    taken place on the common, such as he observed who went in a
    youth and emerged a  gray-headed man; and  yet a change  had
    come to my eyes  come over the  scene--the town, and  State,
    and country, greater than any  that mere time could  effect.
    I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived.  I saw
    to what  extent  the people  among  whom I  lived  could  be
    trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship
    was for  summer  weather only;  that  they did  not  greatly
    propose to do right; that they were a distinct race from  me
    by their prejudices and  superstitions, as the Chinamen  and
    Malays are that in their sacrifices to humanity they ran  no
    risks, not even to their property; that after all they  were
    not so noble but  they treated the thief  as he had  treated
    them, and hoped, by a  certain outward observance and a  few
    prayers, and  by walking  in a  particular straight  through
    useless path from time to time,  to save their souls.   This
    may be to  judge my  neighbors harshly; for  I believe  that
    many  of  them  are  not  aware  that  they  have  such   an
    institution as the jail in their village.
         It was formerly the custom in our village, when a  poor
    debtor came out  of jail,  for his  acquaintances to  salute
    him, looking through  their fingers, which  were crossed  to
    represent the jail window, "How do ye do?"  My neighbors did
    not this salute me, but first looked at me, and then at  one
    another, as if I  had returned from a  long journey.  I  was
    put into jail  as I was  going to the  shoemaker's to get  a
    shoe which was mender.  When I was let out the next morning,
    I proceeded  to finish  my  errand, and,  having put  on  my
    mended show, joined a huckleberry party, who were  impatient
    to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour--for
    the  horse  was  soon  tackled--was   in  the  midst  of   a
    huckleberry field, on  one of our  highest hills, two  miles
    off, and then the State was nowhere to be seen.
         This is the whole history of "My Prisons."
         I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I
    am as desirous of being a good  neighbor as I am of being  a
    bad subject; and as  for supporting schools,  I am doing  my
    part to educate  my fellow  countrymen now.   It  is for  no
    particular item in the tax bill that I refuse to pay it.   I
    simply wish to refuse allegiance  to the State, to  withdraw
    and stand aloof from it effectually.  I do not care to trace
    the course of my dollar,  if I could, till  it buys a man  a
    musket to shoot one with--the  dollar is innocent--but I  am
    concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance.  In fact, I
    quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though
    I will still make use and get what advantages of her I  can,
    as is usual in such cases.
         If others pay the tax which  is demanded of me, from  a
    sympathy with the State, they do but what they have  already
    done in their own case, or  rather they abet injustice to  a
    greater extent than the State requires.  If they pay the tax
    from a mistaken  interest in the  individual taxed, to  save
    his property, or prevent  his going to  jail, it is  because
    they have  not  considered wisely  how  far they  let  their
    private feelings interfere with the public good.
         This, then is my position  at present.  But one  cannot
    be too much on his guard in such a case, lest his actions be
    biased by obstinacy or an  undue regard for the opinions  of
    men.  Let him see that he does only what belongs to  himself
    and to the hour.
         I think sometimes, Why, this people mean well, they are
    only ignorant; they would  do better if  they knew how:  why
    give your neighbors this pain to  treat you as they are  not
    inclined to?   But I think  again, This is  no reason why  I
    should do  as  they do,  or  permit others  to  suffer  much
    greater pain of a different kind.  Again, I sometimes say to
    myself, When many millions of men, without heat, without ill
    will, without personal feelings of any kind, demand of you a
    few shillings only, without  the possibility, such is  their
    constitution,  of  retracting  or  altering  their   present
    demand, and without the possibility, on your side, of appeal
    to  any  other  millions,   why  expose  yourself  to   this
    overwhelming brute  force?    You do  not  resist  cold  and
    hunger, the  winds  and  the waves,  thus  obstinately;  you
    quietly submit to  a thousand similar  necessities.  You  do
    not put your head into the fire.  But just in proportion  as
    I regard this  as not  wholly a  brute force,  but partly  a
    human force, and  consider that  I have  relations to  those
    millions as to  so many  millions of  men, and  not of  mere
    brute or inanimate  things, I see  that appeal is  possible,
    first and instantaneously, from them  to the Maker of  them,
    and, secondly, from  them to themselves.   But if  I put  my
    head deliberately into the fire, there is no appeal to  fire
    or to the Maker for fire,  and I have only myself to  blame.
    If I  could convince  myself that  I have  any right  to  be
    satisfied  with  men  as  they   are,  and  to  treat   them
    accordingly, and  not according,  in  some respects,  to  my
    requisitions and expectations  of what they  and I ought  to
    be, then,  like  a good  Mussulman  and fatalist,  I  should
    endeavor to be satisfied with things as they are, and say it
    is the  will  of  God.    And,  above  all,  there  is  this
    difference between  resisting this  and  a purely  brute  or
    natural force, that I can resist this with some effect;  but
    I cannot expect, like Orpheus,  to change the nature of  the
    rocks and trees and beasts.
         I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation.  I  do
    not wish to split hairs,  to make fine distinctions, or  set
    myself up as better than my neighbors.  I seek rather, I may
    say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the  land.
    I am  but too  ready to  conform to  them.   Indeed, I  have
    reason to suspect myself on this head; and each year, as the
    tax-gatherer comes round, I  find myself disposed to  review
    the acts and position of the general and State  governments,
    and the  spirit of  the  people to  discover a  pretext  for

          "We must affect our country as our parents,
          And if at any time we alienate
          Out love or industry from doing it honor,
          We must respect effects and teach the soul
          Matter of conscience and religion,
          And not desire of rule or benefit."

    I believe that the  State will soon be  able to take all  my
    work of this sort out  of my hands, and  then I shall be  no
    better patriot than my fellow-countrymen.  Seen from a lower
    point of view,  the Constitution,  with all  its faults,  is
    very good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even
    this  State  and  this  American  government  are,  in  many
    respects, very admirable,  and rare things,  to be  thankful
    for, such as a great many  have described them; seen from  a
    higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they  are,
    or that they are worth looking at or thinking of at all?
         However, the government does not concern me much, and I
    shall bestow the fewest possible thoughts on it.  It is  not
    many moments that I  live under a  government, even in  this
    world.      If   a   man   is   thought-free,    fancy-free,
    imagination-free, that which  is not never  for a long  time
    appearing to be  to him, unwise  rulers or reformers  cannot
    fatally interrupt him.
         I know that most men think differently from myself; but
    those whose lives are by profession devoted to the study  of
    these or  kindred  subjects content  me  as little  as  any.
    Statesmen and legislators, standing so completely within the
    institution, never distinctly and  nakedly behold it.   They
    speak of moving society,  but have no resting-place  without
    it.    They  may  be   men  of  a  certain  experience   and
    discrimination, and  have no  doubt invented  ingenious  and
    even useful systems, for which we sincerely thank them;  but
    all their wit  and usefulness  lie within  certain not  very
    wide limits.  They are wont to forget that the world is  not
    governed by  policy  and  expediency.   Webster  never  goes
    behind government, and so cannot speak with authority  about
           His  words  are  wisdom  to  those  legislators   who
    contemplate no essential reform in the existing  government;
    but for thinkers, and  those who legislate  for all tim,  he
    never once glances at  the subject.  I  know of those  whose
    serene and wise speculations on this theme would soon reveal
    the limits  of  his  mind's range  and  hospitality.    Yet,
    compared with the cheap  professions of most reformers,  and
    the still  cheaper wisdom  and eloquence of  politicians  in
    general, his  are  almost  the only  sensible  and  valuable
    words, and we thank  Heaven for him.   Comparatively, he  is
    always strong, original, and, above all, practical.   Still,
    his quality is not wisdom, but prudence.  The lawyer's truth
    is not Truth,  but consistency or  a consistent  expediency.
    Truth  is  always  in  harmony  with  herself,  and  is  not
    concerned chiefly  to reveal  the justice  that may  consist
    with wrong-doing.  He well deserves to be called, as he  has
    been called, the  Defender of the  Constitution.  There  are
    really no blows to be given  him but defensive ones.  He  is
    not a leader, but  a follower.  His  leaders are the men  of
    '87. "I  have never  made an  effort," he  says, "and  never
    propose to  make an  effort; I  have never  countenanced  an
    effort, and never mean to countenance an effort, to  disturb
    the arrangement as originally made, by which various  States
    came into the Union."  Still thinking of the sanction  which
    the Constitution gives to slavery, he says, "Because it  was
    part   of    the    original   compact--let    it    stand."
    Notwithstanding his  special acuteness  and ability,  he  is
    unable to take a fact out of its merely political relations,
    and behold it as it lies absolutely to be disposed of by the
    intellect--what, for instance, it behooves a man to do  here
    in American today with  regard to slavery--but ventures,  or
    is driven,  to  make  some  such  desperate  answer  to  the
    following, while professing  to speak absolutely,  and as  a
    private man--from  which what  new  and singular  of  social
    duties might be inferred?  "The manner," says he, "in  which
    the governments of  the States where  slavery exists are  to
    regulate it  is  for  their  own  consideration,  under  the
    responsibility to their constituents, to the general laws of
    propriety, humanity, and justice, and to God.   Associations
    formed elsewhere, springing from  a feeling of humanity,  or
    any other cause, have nothing whatever to do with it.   They
    have never received any encouragement from me and they never
         They who know of  no purer sources  of truth, who  have
    traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand,  by
    the Bible and the Constitution,  and drink at it there  with
    reverence and humanity; but they  who behold where it  comes
    trickling into this lake or  that pool, gird up their  loins
    once  more,  and  continue   their  pilgrimage  toward   its
         No man with  a genius for  legislation has appeared  in
    America.  They are rare in the history of the world.   There
    are orators, politicians, and eloquent men, by the thousand;
    but the speaker has not yet opened his mouth to speak who is
    capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day.  We
    love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which
    it  may  utter,  or  any  heroism  it  may  inspire.     Our
    legislators have not  yet learned the  comparative value  of
    free trade and of  freed, of union, and  of rectitude, to  a
    nation.  They  have no  genius or  talent for  comparatively
    humble questions  of  taxation  and  finance,  commerce  and
    manufactures and agriculture.  If we were left solely to the
    wordy wit  of  legislators  in Congress  for  our  guidance,
    uncorrected by the seasonable  experience and the  effectual
    complaints of the people, America would not long retain  her
    rank among the nations.  For eighteen hundred years,  though
    perchance I have no right to  say it, the New Testament  has
    been written; yet where is the legislator who has wisdom and
    practical talent enough to avail himself of the light  which
    it sheds on the science of legislation.
         The authority of government, even such as I am  willing
    to submit to--for I will cheerfully obey those who know  and
    can do better  than I,  and in  many things  even those  who
    neither know nor can do so well--is still an impure one:  to
    be strictly just, it must  have the sanction and consent  of
    the governed.  It can have no pure right over my person  and
    property but what  I concede to  it.  The  progress from  an
    absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a
    democracy, is  a  progress toward  a  true respect  for  the
    individual.  Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to
    regard the individual  as the  basis of  the empire.   Is  a
    democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible
    in government?  Is  it not possible to  take a step  further
    towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?  There
    will never be a really free and enlightened State until  the
    State comes  to recognize  the individual  as a  higher  and
    independent  power,  from  which  all  its  own  power   and
    authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.  I please
    myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be
    just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as
    a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent  with
    its own repose  if a  few were to  live aloof  from it,  not
    meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all  the
    duties of neighbors and fellow men.  A State which bore this
    kind of fruit,  and suffered it  to drop off  as fast as  it
    ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect  and
    glorious State,  which I  have also  imagined, but  not  yet
    anywhere seen.
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