Most of the books link to The Anarchist Library. The Anarchist Library is a large archive of books, articles, texts and other material. Resources at The Anarchist Library can be read directly on the website, or downloaded in ePUB, PDF, HTML, ConTeXt and plain text formats.
While Thoreau did not associate himself with “those who call themselves no-government men” he began Civil Disobedience with this statement:
“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 I also believe – “That government is best which governs not at all.”
The American state was not a unique institution to Thoreau. The American state was a mere tradition “each instant losing some of its integrity.” Thoreau believed the state had “not the vitality and force of a single living man,” and had “never of itself furthered any enterprise.” Democracy did not improve upon the state; “a government in which a majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice.” Nor was the go-to excuse of American constitutionalism — “its very Constitution is the evil” — a real remedy.
“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation?” The answer to this rhetorical question, of course, is no; “the only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” The individual, not the state, is the root of justice.
“Then, I say, break the law.”
Thoreau rejected obedience of bad laws. “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?” Those who follow bad legislation “by means of their respect of it even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.” The remedy was simple: “Then, I say, break the law.”
It was not sufficient to work within the system. Voting was just “expressing to men feebly your desire.” Thoreau said that there are no “ways which the State was provided for remedying the evil.” It was through acts of illegal disobedience, to “withdraw support, both in person and property,” that individuals must resist. Thoreau practiced this by refusing to pay taxes and participating in the Underground Railroad. And he suffered legal consequences. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
Thoreau dismantled the illusion of military glory; “what are they, men at all or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power,” “mere shadows and reminiscences of humanity” that “serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines with their bodies.” And as machines the enlisted “command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt” and “have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs.” Thoreau wrote in opposition to the Mexican-American war, but included “the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc.” as cogs in this human machine. Thoreau had arrived at a rejection of the state, its laws and its enforcers.
From the start it becomes evident that Civil Disobedience is more than mere advocacy of disobedience. Civil Disobedience is an indictment of all government in general and the American government in specific. “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”
“I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.”
Thoreau noted in 1848 that “All men recognize the right of revolution,” but saw in society the same hypocrisy common to moderns; “Almost all say that [the right to revolution] is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the revolution of ’75.” Thoreau contrasted the rationale for the American Revolution, taxes on foreign commodities he viewed as inconsequential, with the severe, dual injustices of the Mexican-American war — “a whole country unjustly overrun and subjected to a foreign army” — and a full sixth of the American population in slavery.
His conclusion: “I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.”
Today we are all confronted with the same issues regardless of the modern era and regardless of the state we live in. Many of us live in countries involved in unjust wars, as did Thoreau. Many of us suffer under unjust laws. We are all forced to pay taxes that permit the state to carry out unjust policies. As such, we are also put in the position of Thoreau. We must ask ourselves: do we obey, do we break the law, or do we rebel and revolutionize?