Thoreau and Civil Disobedience

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Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience in response to questions about why he had gone to jail. As an abolitionist, he had objected to the Massachusetts poll tax and refused to pay it as a protest against slavery. When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, he protested against it, seeing it as an aggressive war of conquest aimed in part at adding new slave territories to the United States, and for this reason, as well, he refused to pay the tax.

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The opening statement, I heartily accept the motto, that government is best which governs least establishes Thoreau as someone who is highly skeptical of political authority. He extends the criticisms of standing armies, which were often identified as instruments of tyranny in early American political thinking, to government itself, and argues that government is often an instrument of abuse against the people.In the essay, Thoreau argues that laws, being human-made, are not infallible, that there is a higher divine law, and that when those laws conflict, one must obey the higher law.

Hence slavery, no matter how legal, was always unjust in its violation of the integrity and divine soul of the enslaved. So long as the American government upheld slavery, Thoreau said, one cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I can not for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slaves government also. Carrying to extreme the logic of the Declaration of Independence, Thoreau argues, in effect, that each individual should declare independence from unjust laws, that citizens must never surrender their conscience to the legislators, and that It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law,

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