Essays on Civil Disobedience

Essays on Civil Disobedience

Civil Disobedience was described in an essay written by Henry David Thoreau first published in 1866, in which Thoreau attempts to convince readers to oppose the Mexican-American War and the institution of slavery as a whole. First presented as a lecture in 1848, and shortly thereafter as an essay titled Resistance to Civil Government, it was not until sometime after Thoreau’s death that the essay was published as Civil Disobedience and began to gain further prominence and popularity. In his essay, Thoreau attempts to explain his rationale for protest against his own government by non-violent means. His essay has become a de facto manifesto for those seeking political change by means of peaceful protest.

It is difficult for one to argue that Thoreau’s heart wasn’t in the right place while penning his essay. Living in a country that he so dearly loved, he was a firsthand witness to slavery, an evil institution that needed to be abolished, and a war between the United States and Mexico which was being fought only to establish new territory in which slavery could be expanded into. Well ahead of his time, both ethically and morally, he sought to protest these actions of his country which he deemed objectionable and would attempt to do so without bloodshed. Living in a country which, since its inception, used its fists, not only to gain power but to intimidate and bully those that threaten its status quo, Thoreau would attempt to convince those who were equally as driven as he was to peacefully rise up and take action.

Civil Disobedience, gained its fair share of notoriety when it was published, and over the last century and a half has become the foundation upon which many civil rights leaders and activists have built to pursue their cause. It has influenced and shaped landmark rulings from high courts, while also helping to navigate the moral discourse that our country was facing. This essay serves to explain how such a seemingly short essay, penned over 150 years ago, could have such a lasting impact. Comparisons to more modern-day activists such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and their methods of peaceful protest will be discussed as well. Finally, the overall relevance in today’s world, and whether or not Thoreau’s work still measures up by today’s standards.

Throughout his essay, Thoreau is trying to prove one main point: Citizens in good conscience should actively oppose the unjust policies of their government using non-violent methods. This includes the refusal to pay taxes and other methods of non-cooperation. According to Thoreau, one must be willing to be imprisoned rather than bow to the unethical and immoral government laws and practices. One topic that is touched upon but never explicitly said, and actually serves as a larger basis for his rationale, states that the rule of God transcends the law of man. Moral and ethical convictions which are considered to be innate characteristics in every man, can and should supersede any laws created by man himself. Slavery and war, which Thoreau writes about as specific influences, are both indirect objections to the divine rule mentioned above.

The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) was a major inspiration for Thoreau’s work. Having seen the United States essentially bombard Mexico and claiming their territory as their own, all in the name of what he saw as slavery expansion, Thoreau knew that something needed to be done. Seeing his country continuing to perpetuate these moral injustices could no longer go unchallenged. Thoreau understood that something needed to change and that he also couldn’t be the only one with those same feelings. He also knew that solving violence and aggression with more violence and aggression would only exacerbate the problem, and ultimately lead to no solution.

With these things in mind, Thoreau sought to protest the actions and behaviors of his county. His primary method was to stop paying taxes. The theory was, that if he were to not pay taxes, that would be less money to fund the actions of the government against which he was protesting. He understood that his monetary implications on the government as a whole were negligible, however, the results would be seen in the message being sent. This relatively small form of disobedience would not fail to be noticed, and Thoreau would eventually be imprisoned for his actions.

Thoreau’s non-violent form of protest and willingness to be imprisoned rather than support his countries degrading moral behavior served as the basis for two very important and crucial civil rights activists some 100 years later. Mohandas Gandhi was an Indian activist who led the non-violent Indian Independence Movement against British rule. Gandhi adopted and expanded the methods of non-violent protest that Thoreau outlined, including hunger strikes, mass noncooperation, nonviolent direct action, and other social, cultural, economic, and political forms to intervene.

Martin Luther King Jr. was another prominent civil rights activist that employed some of Thoreau’s principles and used more drastic implementations of Gandhi’s methods. King, using more grandiose methods, employed his appeal to the masses to help effect change. Crowd-based approaches such as marches, speeches, and rallies, all helped to solidify his message while remaining non-violent. King also was able to utilize a medium that Thoreau and Gandhi couldn’t, and that was media. While media was available and used for Thoreau and Gandhi, it wasn’t utilized to the degree that Martin Luther King Jr. was able to use it. Televised speeches and radio broadcasts enabled King to spread his message much further.

The Civil Rights Movement, led by King, has been perhaps our nation’s strongest example of civil disobedience. While Kings’ ideas were by no means his own, he was influenced by another lesser-known activist Bayard Rustin. Rustin was one of the intellectual forces of the civil rights movement and had studied in India becoming well versed in Gandhian principles, whose ideals ultimately could be traced back to Thoreau.

Thoreau was groundbreaking not only with his thoughts but with his actions. What he attempted to accomplish had never been done before, at least not to the degree that he was recognized for. Up until his decision to stop paying taxes, there was no accepted method of protest that didn’t involve bloodshed and violence. This is the primary reason why his actions were so influential. Many wanted to protest but were unwilling to do so with their current means. This new, peaceful, method was what so many were seeking. It was a way to have their voices heard without ultimately risking their lives.

This thinking, which has become more and more predominant in our country over the last half-century, is how we the people get our voices heard. The need to riot, or inflict damage, doesn’t need to occur anymore in order to prove our points. Sadly, it still does happen, but not on the scale, or to the degree that it has in the past. This new methodology of protest, pioneered by Thoreau, can be seen all across our country today, with non-violent protest happening daily. Save for a few exceptions, the majority of protests today are peaceful. For a country that “cut its teeth” with war and violence, it’s a remarkable transition to where we are now as a whole. Peaceful means of protest, coupled with the modern advances of media, allow all voices to be heard, no matter where you live.

Civil disobedience works and is a tried and proven method. Although not always successful, its message being carried is inevitably heard. Not only is this form of protest our right, but it is also our responsibility as moral and just people. The “rule of God” should and will always supersede the rule of man, and our strongest tool in the fight to achieve that ideal is nonviolent disobedience. Regardless of what religious beliefs one may have, the common denominator is always peace. Anything can be achieved peacefully, and Thoreau demonstrates this position clearly and articulately. The only thing that stands in the way of peace is the carnality of man, devoid of the spiritual presence of God. While not explicitly stating any affiliation or endorsement of religion, Civil Disobedience embodies the principles established by the world’s major religions, which explains its widespread adoption. Thoreau’s work can be described as divinely inspired. Preservation of life and peaceful resolution of conflict are ideals that anyone, regardless of who their god is, can stand behind.

Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience has stood the test of time, and the principles laid down within the text still hold true. The ideas he proposed were simple, yet innovative. He dared to pen and voice what no other had done before. In turn, he created a dialogue within our country that is still relevant to this day. When trying to determine whether his points and rationale are conclusive, one need only look at the last five decades in our nation’s history to see the manifestations of Thoreau’s work in creating peaceful discourse.

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Civil Disobedience: Henry David Thoreau and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

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Find extra essay topics on Essays on Civil Disobedience by our writers.

Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal of a citizen to obey certain laws, demands, orders or commands of a government. By some definitions, civil disobedience has to be nonviolent to be called "civil". Hence, civil disobedience is sometimes equated with peaceful protests or nonviolent resistance.


While in jail, Gandhi read the essay “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau, a 19th-century American writer. Gandhi adopted the term “civil disobedience” to describe his strategy of non-violently refusing to cooperate with injustice, but he preferred the Sanskrit word satyagraha (devotion to truth).


The term 'civil disobedience' originated with the works of Henry David Thoreau. In 1848, Thoreau used the phrase in an essay to describe his decision to refuse paying a state poll tax enacted by the U.S. government that would fund a war in Mexico and enforce the Fugitive Slave Law.

Frequently asked questions

What is the main idea of civil disobedience?
The main idea of civil disobedience is the refusal to obey certain laws or to pay taxes, as a protest against an unjust government.
Why is civil disobedience important?
First, it is a way for people to peacefully protest against something they believe is unjust. Second, it can be used to bring attention to an issue and bring about change. Third, it can be used as a way to stand up for one's beliefs, even if those beliefs are not popular. Finally, civil disobedience can be a way to show that people are willing to stand up for what they believe in, even if it means breaking the law.
What is the purpose of Thoreau's essay civil disobedience?
The purpose of Thoreau's essay civil disobedience is to advocate for the individual's right to protest against unjust laws. Thoreau believes that citizens have a duty to disobey laws that are unjust or that violate their conscience, and he urges readers to take action against such laws. Thoreau's essay has been influential in shaping the thoughts of many political thinkers and activists, including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

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