Resistance to civil government

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

“Resistance to Civil Government”

“That government is best which governs least” -Henry David Thoreau

Resistance to Civil Government is an essay written in 1849 by Henry David Thoreau.

In his essay, Thoreau indirectly states that because governments are typically less than helpful, and more harmful, they cannot be justified.  Also, according to him, Democracy is no different from other governments, as views of majorities do not necessarily correspond to what is just or virtuous; Democracy only derives its power from the majority because they are the strongest group.  According to Thoreau, one must prioritize their conscience over the dictates of laws; if laws are unjust, individuals must do what they believe is right and not follow the law.  The support of slavery and practice of aggressive war, (in this case regarding the Mexican-American War), is the reasoning he gives for calling the United States an unjust government.

He presents his own experiences as a model for how to relate to an unjust government.  To protest slavery, Thoreau refused to pay taxes and spent a night in jail.  By doing this, he ideologically disassociated himself with the government, by refusing to participate in its institutions.  This form of protesting was preferable to him to invoke reform from within government.

From the first day of class we have stated that the major contradiction in American history is the one involving American freedom vs. American slavery.  By doing nothing, the majority was saying that slavery was okay.  But is this correct?  In a government, even one ruled by “majority”, you still have corruption and unjust rules.  Every person in a position of leadership will try to bend and curve the government to suit their best interests.  Thoreau challenges what the government does, challenges what politicians argue is right.  Men should be governed by their conscience above all, why else would we have them?  Why should we always follow what the government says?  He makes a very convincing argument.  When do you draw the line between what you obey, and what you choose to ignore?  Where is the division between what is actually correct, and what you are told is correct? 

“Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire.” (Thoreau, 23)  Thoreau argues that the government cannot rule without authority given by the people it governs.  And the government only has what powers the people concede to it. 

I feel that the principle of these arguments can be applied to today's society as well.  For, the context may change often, but the underlying ideals are still the same.  Many activists currently are challenging the government's views on abortion, the death penalty, and also current immigration laws.  Thoreau's sentiments can be applied in all these cases.  The people give the rights to the government.  The people can take the power away from the government.  When must one choose to fight?  Is taking a life for a life right, and who gives the government the power to decide that it is or isn't?  This country was built on immigrants, when do you choose to limit immigration, and when do you say it is still fine?  Ultimately Thoreau believed that people are best governed by no government.  Whenever humans were ready for such a governmental policy, that's when it would be invoked.

“There will never be a free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individuals' as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly,” (Thoreau, 23).  One of the most important parts of Democracy is this.  The individuals ultimately decide what is best for themselves, and we have the freedoms to change what we feel is wrong.