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A review and analysis of "Resistance to Civil Government" by Henry David Thoreau

Updated on December 6, 2015

“Resistance to Civil Government” is Henry David Thoreau’s literary effort at grappling with the limitation and control that the government, and occasionally, the people themselves, impose. But what Thoreau is trying to do is illustrate that the government can and should be better than it is. His argument stresses that the state should be controlled less by the ideals of a select few that have found themselves at the top spots and more as the average man, insignificant in himself, but the veritable backbone of the state, would have it run.

We, as a human species, have moved through tribal hierarchies to monarchies to communism to what is now perceived as the ultimate in governmental evolution, the supposed ideal, the democracy. But Thoreau does not see the democracy as conducting itself in any sort of idyllic fashion. He argues that we are dependent on the government for nothing. “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 the way.“ It seems, therefore, that the government is dependent upon the American people to function properly. The American people should be allowed to let it be known what type of government they would be happy with and those wishes should be quickly granted.

Thoreau says, “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, ‘til one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to its own nature, it dies; and so a man.”

Therein lies the only basis of the governments power, the basic argument that the strong survive. Thoreau maintains that we should not bend over backwards to accommodate a government that puts itself first and its subjects second. He says “government is at best an expedient”. But those who come into power, as we have seen many times in the American democracy, the current administration being a very pertinent example, are not necessarily the most just, they are simply the strongest. Justice plays a very small role in the matter so we are left to the expedience of the strong and that, according to Thoreau, is far from ideal.

How can the current system be idealistic for liberty seeking Americans when, for example, one realizes the governments criminal control of the army. The armies are of men that have been subjected to a stripping of their conscience. They know that they are engaged in terrible events for men are not inherently prone to fight. As Thoreau describes them, “Men at all? Or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man of power”. By joining the armed forces, they “have the same sort of worth only of cats and dogs” but they are regarded as respectable members of society. At the same time, the revolutionaries of the day, those, such as Thoreau, that are real respectable men, that have, in Thoreau’s case, written things such as the “Resistance” or have given %110 in other ways to improve the conditions and awareness of every man, are called self interested, “useless” members of society.

In the same vain, Thoreau’s life span fell in the midst of those tumultuous years of the 19th century when American was engaged in both slavery and a Mexican invasion. He argues how the government can endorse enslavement of a large majority of people that are in the same pursuit of freedom that we founded this country on just 100 years earlier and simultaneously invade and impose a control very similar to that control we were under, again just 100 years ago.

Then there is the issue of taxes as being the primary motive, as it is the one motive that Thoreau is most familiar, to “resist” the civil government. He asks how we, the conscientious, independent Americans that we claim to be, can let ourselves be coerced out of our hard earned dollars by a government that maintains it is our duty? Do we owe the government anything? Do we owe financial backing to a system that, as Thoreau says, and was mentioned earlier, “never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way”? By simply living, we owe money. By simply living we are responsible when that government needs monetary funding to bail itself out. Do we owe it that much? We are to help them when they cannot help themselves? Every man works hard to make his money. Should we reward those that do not?

There they are. The injustices that are perpetrated regularly by the current state system. It practically begs for a change. But to resist the civil government? To make that change? Ay, therein lies the rub. Resistance is difficult for any man. And against such overwhelming power? Still, Thoreau questions how one can see the injustices being committed and have such an opinion for change but simply do nothing to change them. How can they be happy with themselves knowing that they are obeying unjust laws? By not acting, they are simply accepting their fates and resigning themselves to the control.

It is, according to Thoreau, our duty as Americans to embrace that inherent character that has accomplished all for it is the same one that conquered the English and won the American people their freedom. They knew then that men were not born to be forced or controlled, that to be so is a denial of their very humanity. Just 100 years ago it was perceived as such and a revolution occurred. This opposition to unjust rule was led by strong, independent individuals who were an asset to the fight for ideal government. But since then, the American people have conformed to that ideal power and, in doing so, have relinquished some of their individuality. They have forgotten what it is to have independent minds and independent spirits. Although they still claim them, they set themselves up to take advantage of any and all hand outs that the government makes. Thoreau argues it to be their civil duty that “if you proclaim yourself independent, live the independent life.” In conforming and so failing to fulfill their civil duty, Americans let themselves be controlled.

Those that think it is the right thing to do, those that can not live without fulfilling their duty as citizens of this country, are urged by Thoreau to speak out. He urges every realized individual to set the example for others to sculpt the government that they have now into what they want to see as the government, “letting their lives be the resistance to the machine“. It is important not to wait for the majority or the popular support to govern their actions. Too many people see what is happening, know what is happening, but they sit and decide that they do not know what actions to take and do nothing.

If it is a worry concerning the repercussions that might occur, to lose government aid, how much are they dependent on the government really? If they think that to lose its support would be worse than having it, the reason is because the government does not want to relinquish its power. It does not ask us what we think would help it to improve, it stifles the intelligent and wise reformers, it does not even examine itself and admit its faults. It is the superior power and does not want to let itself be questioned.

Another key to resistance is to not spend much time gaining wealth. Those that do are conforming to an unjust system by realizing their dreams “from the shoulders of others” for one does not become rich without stepping on someone else’s toes, by regularly paying their taxes, and letting themselves be tainted in favor of the group that gave them so much. If a person should become rich, it is only right that he pursue those same ideas for change that he inevitably thought about when he was poor.

In such ways, a move away from the views of the selected few that have found themselves on top and towards the right and just treatment of the common man, without which the people at the top would be out of a job and basically out of a country. After all, democracy is just the latest in government evolution. It is simply regarded as the ideal because a better idea has not yet been put into action. Why should we content ourselves with living in such a system when others, such as Thoreau’s near utopian society, in which the government treats every man with respect and is persistent in getting their every need fulfilled, have never been tried? We have only seen the proverbial peak of the glacier. There is much wonderment that lies hidden below the surface, waiting for us to find it.


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    • Kenja profile image

      Ken Taub 

      6 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Big: Your choice of topics is so broad and erudite as to be refreshing. Good Lord, there is intelligent life on Hub Pages! The Right and the Left should both read Thoreau before discussing the role of government, the benefits of government, and the limits of it -- and what a natural man (or woman) is, and so what "Natural Rights" might also be. How might it look if bone-deep philosophy replaced partisan polemics, and innate reason took the place of talking points? It might actually smell like the springtide. best, Ken


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