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  • On the Duty of Civil Disobedience 
    by Henry David Thoreau
    Henry David Thoreau
    On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
    [1849, original title: Resistance to Civil Goverment]
    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 also I believe---"That government is best 
    which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the 
    kind of government which the will have. Government is at best but an expedient; 
    but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, 
    inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and 
    they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought 
    against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing 
    government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have 
    chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted 
    before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work 
    of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; 
    for in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.
    This American government---what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, 
    endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing 
    some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; 
    for a single man can bend it to his will. It is a sort of wooden gun to the 
    people themselves. But it is not the less necessary for this; for the people 
    must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that 
    idea of government which they have. Governments show thus how successfully men 
    can be imposed upon, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage. It is 
    excellent, we must all allow. Yet this government never of itself furthered any 
    enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. 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 its way. For government is an expedient, by which men would 
    fain succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been said, when it is 
    most expedient, the governed are most let alone by it. Trade and commerce, if 
    they were not made of india-rubber, would never manage to bounce over obstacles 
    which legislators are continually putting in their way; and if one were to judge 
    these men wholly by the effects of their actions and not partly by their 
    intentions, they would deserve to be classed and punished with those 
    mischievious persons who put obstructions on the railroads.
    But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves 
    no-government men, I ask for, not at one no government, but at once a better 
    government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his 
    respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.
    After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the 
    people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not 
    because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest 
    to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government 
    in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far 
    as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which the majorities do 
    not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?--in which majorities 
    decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must 
    the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to 
    the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be 
    men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect 
    for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right 
    to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that 
    a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation on conscientious men is a 
    corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by 
    means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents 
    on injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, 
    that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, 
    powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the 
    wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which 
    makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. 
    They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; 
    they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small 
    movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? 
    Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government 
    can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts--a mere shadow and 
    reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one 
    may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniment, though it may be,
      "Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
      As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
      Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
      O'er the grave where out hero was buried." 
    The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with 
    their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, 
    posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the 
    judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood 
    and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve 
    the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of 
    dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as 
    these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others---as most legislators, 
    politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders---serve the state chiefly 
    with their heads; and, as the rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as 
    likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few---as heroes, 
    patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men---serve the state with 
    their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they 
    are commonly treated as enemies by it. A wise man will only be useful as a man, 
    and will not submit to be "clay," and "stop a hole to keep the wind away," but 
    leave that office to his dust at least:
      "I am too high born to be propertied,
      To be a second at control,
      Or useful serving-man and instrument
      To any sovereign state throughout the world." 
    He who gives himself entirely to his fellow men appears to them useless and 
    selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them in pronounced a benefactor 
    and philanthropist.
    How does it become a man to behave toward the American government today? I 
    answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an 
    instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the 
    slave's government also.
    All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse 
    allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its 
    inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the 
    case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of '75. If one 
    were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign 
    commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should not make an 
    ado about it, for I can do without them. All machines have their friction; and 
    possibly this does enough good to counter-balance the evil. At any rate, it is a 
    great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction comes to have its 
    machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a 
    machine any longer. In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation 
    which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country 
    is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military 
    law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. 
    What makes this duty the more urgent is that fact that the country so overrun is 
    not our own, but ours is the invading army.
    Paley, a common authority with many on moral questions, in his chapter on the 
    "Duty of Submission to Civil Government," resolves all civil obligation into 
    expediency; and he proceeds to say that "so long as the interest of the whole 
    society requires it, that it, so long as the established government cannot be 
    resisted or changed without public inconveniencey, it is the will of God... that 
    the established government be obeyed---and no longer. This principle being 
    admitted, the justice of every particular case of resistance is reduced to a 
    computation of the quantity of the danger and grievance on the one side, and of 
    the probability and expense of redressing it on the other." Of this, he says, 
    every man shall judge for himself. But Paley appears never to have contemplated 
    those cases to which the rule of expediency does not apply, in which a people, 
    as well and an individual, must do justice, cost what it may. If I have unjustly 
    wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown 
    myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient. But he that would save 
    his life, in such a case, shall lose it. This people must cease to hold slaves, 
    and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.
    In their practice, nations agree with Paley; but does anyone think that 
    Massachusetts does exactly what is right at the present crisis?
      "A drab of stat,
      a cloth-o'-silver slut,
      To have her train borne up,
      and her soul trail in the dirt." 
    Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a 
    hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and 
    farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are 
    in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost 
    what it may. I quarrel not with far-off foes, but with those who, neat at home, 
    co-operate with, and do the bidding of, those far away, and without whom the 
    latter would be harmless. We are accustomed to say, that the mass of men are 
    unprepared; but improvement is slow, because the few are not as materially wiser 
    or better than the many. It is not so important that many should be good as you, 
    as that there be some absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the 
    whole lump. There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the 
    war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming 
    themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in 
    their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even 
    postpone the question of freedom to the question of free trade, and quietly read 
    the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, 
    it may be, fall asleep over them both. What is the price-current of an honest 
    man and patriot today? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they 
    petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well 
    disposed, for other to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to 
    regret. At most, they give up only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and 
    Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them. There are nine hundred and 
    ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man. But it is easier to deal with 
    the real possessor of a thing than with the temporary guardian of it.
    All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral 
    tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting 
    naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my 
    vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that 
    right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, 
    therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing 
    nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should 
    prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it 
    to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the 
    action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the 
    abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or 
    because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They 
    will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery 
    who asserts his own freedom by his vote.
    I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for the selection 
    of a candidate for the Presidency, made up chiefly of editors, and men who are 
    politicians by profession; but I think, what is it to any independent, 
    intelligent, and respectable man what decision they may come to? Shall we not 
    have the advantage of this wisdom and honesty, nevertheless? Can we not count 
    upon some independent votes? Are there not many individuals in the country who 
    do not attend conventions? But no: I find that the respectable man, so called, 
    has immediately drifted from his position, and despairs of his country, when his 
    country has more reasons to despair of him. He forthwith adopts one of the 
    candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving that he is 
    himself available for any purposes of the demagogue. His vote is of no more 
    worth than that of any unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have 
    been bought. O for a man who is a man, and, and my neighbor says, has a bone is 
    his back which you cannot pass your hand through! Our statistics are at fault: 
    the population has been returned too large. How many men are there to a square 
    thousand miles in the country? Hardly one. Does not America offer any inducement 
    for men to settle here? The American has dwindled into an Odd Fellow---one who 
    may be known by the development of his organ of gregariousness, and a manifest 
    lack of intellect and cheerful self-reliance; whose first and chief concern, on 
    coming into the world, is to see that the almshouses are in good repair; and, 
    before yet he has lawfully donned the virile garb, to collect a fund to the 
    support of the widows and orphans that may be; who, in short, ventures to live 
    only by the aid of the Mutual Insurance company, which has promised to bury him 
    It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the 
    eradication of any, even to most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have 
    other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of 
    it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his 
    support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first 
    see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's shoulders. I 
    must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too. See what 
    gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, "I 
    should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the 
    slaves, or to march to Mexico---see if I would go"; and yet these very men have 
    each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, 
    furnished a substitute. The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an 
    unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which 
    makes the war; is applauded by those whose own act and authority he disregards 
    and sets at naught; as if the state were penitent to that degree that it hired 
    one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that degree that it left off 
    sinning for a moment. Thus, under the name of Order and Civil Government, we are 
    all made at last to pay homage to and support our own meanness. After the first 
    blush of sin comes its indifference; and from immoral it becomes, as it were, 
    unmoral, and not quite unnecessary to that life which we have made.
    The broadest and most prevalent error requires the most disinterested virtue to 
    sustain it. The slight reproach to which the virtue of patriotism is commonly 
    liable, the noble are most likely to incur. Those who, while they disapprove of 
    the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and 
    support are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the 
    most serious obstacles to reform. Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the 
    Union, to disregard the requisitions of the President. Why do they not dissolve 
    it themselves---the union between themselves and the State---and refuse to pay 
    their quota into its treasury? Do not they stand in same relation to the State 
    that the State does to the Union? And have not the same reasons prevented the 
    State from resisting the Union which have prevented them from resisting the 
    How can a man be satisfied to entertain and opinion merely, and enjoy it? Is 
    there any enjoyment in it, if his opinion is that he is aggrieved? If you are 
    cheated out of a single dollar by your neighbor, you do not rest satisfied with 
    knowing you are cheated, or with saying that you are cheated, or even with 
    petitioning him to pay you your due; but you take effectual steps at once to 
    obtain the full amount, and see to it that you are never cheated again. Action 
    from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and 
    relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with 
    anything which was. It not only divided States and churches, it divides 
    families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from 
    the divine.
    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? Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought 
    to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, 
    if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the 
    fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes 
    it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does 
    it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? 
    Why does it not encourage its citizens to put out its faults, and do better than 
    it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate 
    Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?
    One would think, that a deliberate and practical denial of its authority was the 
    only offense never contemplated by its government; else, why has it not assigned 
    its definite, its suitable and proportionate, penalty? If a man who has no 
    property refuses but once to earn nine shillings for the State, he is put in 
    prison for a period unlimited by any law that I know, and determined only by the 
    discretion of those who put him there; but if he should steal ninety times nine 
    shillings from the State, he is soon permitted to go at large again.
    If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, 
    let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth---certainly the machine will 
    wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, 
    exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will 
    not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you 
    to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your 
    life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at 
    any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.
    As for adopting the ways of the State has provided for remedying the evil, I 
    know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man's life will be gone. I 
    have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make 
    this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has 
    not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is 
    not necessary that he should be petitioning the Governor or the Legislature any 
    more than it is theirs to petition me; and if they should not hear my petition, 
    what should I do then? But in this case the State has provided no way: its very 
    Constitution is the evil. This may seem to be harsh and stubborn and 
    unconcilliatory; but it is to treat with the utmost kindness and consideration 
    the only spirit that can appreciate or deserves it. So is all change for the 
    better, like birth and death, which convulse the body.
    I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves Abolitionists should at 
    once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the 
    government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of 
    one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is 
    enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one. 
    Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one 
    I meet this American government, or its representative, the State government, 
    directly, and face to face, once a year---no more---in the person of its 
    tax-gatherer; this is the only mode in which a man situated as I am necessarily 
    meets it; and it then says distinctly, Recognize me; and the simplest, the most 
    effectual, and, in the present posture of affairs, the indispensablest mode of 
    treating with it on this head, of expressing your little satisfaction with and 
    love for it, is to deny it then. My civil neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the 
    very man I have to deal with---for it is, after all, with men and not with 
    parchment that I quarrel---and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the 
    government. How shall he ever know well that he is and does as an officer of the 
    government, or as a man, until he is obliged to consider whether he will treat 
    me, his neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a neighbor and well-disposed man, 
    or as a maniac and disturber of the peace, and see if he can get over this 
    obstruction to his neighborlines without a ruder and more impetuous thought or 
    speech corresponding with his action. I know this well, that if one thousand, if 
    one hundred, if ten men whom I could name--if ten honest men only--ay, if one 
    honest man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were 
    actually to withdraw from this co-partnership, and be locked up in the county 
    jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters 
    not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done 
    forever. But we love better to talk about it: that we say is our mission. Reform 
    keeps many scores of newspapers in its service, but not one man. If my esteemed 
    neighbor, the State's ambassador, who will devote his days to the settlement of 
    the question of human rights in the Council Chamber, instead of being threatened 
    with the prisons of Carolina, were to sit down the prisoner of Massachusetts, 
    that State which is so anxious to foist the sin of slavery upon her 
    sister---though at present she can discover only an act of inhospitality to be 
    the ground of a quarrel with her---the Legislature would not wholly waive the 
    subject of the following winter.
    Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is 
    also a prison. The proper place today, the only place which Massachusetts has 
    provided for her freer and less despondent spirits, is in her prisons, to be put 
    out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put 
    themselves out by their principles. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the 
    Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race 
    should find them; on that separate but more free and honorable ground, where the 
    State places those who are not with her, but against her---the only house in a 
    slave State in which a free man can abide with honor. If any think that their 
    influence would be lost there, and their voices no longer afflict the ear of the 
    State, that they would not be as an enemy within its walls, they do not know by 
    how much truth is stronger than error, nor how much more eloquently and 
    effectively he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own 
    person. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole 
    influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not 
    even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. 
    If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and 
    slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not 
    to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody 
    measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and 
    shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, 
    if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks 
    me, as one has done, "But what shall I do?" my answer is, "If you really wish to 
    do anything, resign your office." When the subject has refused allegiance, and 
    the officer has resigned from office, then the revolution is accomplished. But 
    even suppose blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a 
    man's real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting 
    death. I see this blood flowing now.
    I have contemplated the imprisonment of the offender, rather than the seizure of 
    his goods---though both will serve the same purpose---because they who assert 
    the purest right, and consequently are most dangerous to a corrupt State, 
    commonly have not spent much time in accumulating property. To such the State 
    renders comparatively small service, and a slight tax is wont to appear 
    exorbitant, particularly if they are obliged to earn it by special labor with 
    their hands. If there were one who lived wholly without the use of money, the 
    State itself would hesitate to demand it of him. But the rich man---not to make 
    any invidious comparison---is always sold to the institution which makes him 
    rich. Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue; for money comes 
    between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him; it was certainly no 
    great virtue to obtain it. It puts to rest many questions which he would 
    otherwise be taxed to answer; while the only new question which it puts is the 
    hard but superfluous one, how to spend it. Thus his moral ground is taken from 
    under his feet. The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as that 
    are called the "means" are increased. The best thing a man can do for his 
    culture when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out those schemes which he 
    entertained when he was poor. Christ answered the Herodians according to their 
    condition. "Show me the tribute-money," said he---and one took a penny out of 
    his pocket---if you use money which has the image of Caesar on it, and which he 
    has made current and valuable, that is, if you are men of the State, and gladly 
    enjoy the advantages of Caesar's government, then pay him back some of his own 
    when he demands it. "Render therefore to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to 
    God those things which are God's"---leaving them no wiser than before as to 
    which was which; for they did not wish to know.
    When I converse with the freest of my neighbors, I perceive that, whatever they 
    may say about the magnitude and seriousness of the question, and their regard 
    for the public tranquillity, the long and the short of the matter is, that they 
    cannot spare the protection of the existing government, and they dread the 
    consequences to their property and families of disobedience to it. For my own 
    part, I should not like to think that I ever rely on the protection of the 
    State. But, if I deny the authority of the State when it presents its tax bill, 
    it will soon take and waste all my property, and so harass me and my children 
    without end. This is hard. This makes it impossible for a man to live honestly, 
    and at the same time comfortably, in outward respects. It will not be worth the 
    while to accumulate property; that would be sure to go again. You must hire or 
    squat somewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon. You must live 
    within yourself, and depend upon yourself always tucked up and ready for a 
    start, and not have many affairs. A man may grow rich in Turkey even, if he will 
    be in all respects a good subject of the Turkish government. Confucius said: "If 
    a state is governed by the principles of reason, poverty and misery are subjects 
    of shame; if a state is not governed by the principles of reason, riches and 
    honors are subjects of shame." No: until I want the protection of Massachusetts 
    to be extended to me in some distant Southern port, where my liberty is 
    endangered, or until I am bent solely on building up an estate at home by 
    peaceful enterprise, I can afford to refuse allegiance to Massachusetts, and her 
    right to my property and life. It costs me less in every sense to incur the 
    penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey. I should feel as if 
    I were worth less in that case.
    Some years ago, the State met me in behalf of the Church, and commanded me to 
    pay a certain sum toward the support of a clergyman whose preaching my father 
    attended, but never I myself. "Pay," it said, "or be locked up in the jail." I 
    declined to pay. But, unfortunately, another man saw fit to pay it. I did not 
    see why the schoolmaster should be taxed to support the priest, and not the 
    priest the schoolmaster; for I was not the State's schoolmaster, but I supported 
    myself by voluntary subscription. I did not see why the lyceum should not 
    present its tax bill, and have the State to back its demand, as well as the 
    Church. However, as the request of the selectmen, I condescended to make some 
    such statement as this in writing: "Know all men by these presents, that I, 
    Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any society which I 
    have not joined." This I gave to the town clerk; and he has it. The State, 
    having thus learned that I did not wish to be regarded as a member of that 
    church, has never made a like demand on me since; though it said that it must 
    adhere to its original presumption that time. If I had known how to name them, I 
    should then have signed off in detail from all the societies which I never 
    signed on to; but I did not know where to find such a complete list.
    I have paid no poll tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this 
    account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, 
    two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron 
    grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the 
    foolishness of that institution which treated my as if I were mere flesh and 
    blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at 
    length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to 
    avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of 
    stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb 
    or break through before they could get to be as free as I was. I did nor for a 
    moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I 
    felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know 
    how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and 
    in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire 
    was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how 
    industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out 
    again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous. As 
    they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if 
    they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his 
    dog. I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman 
    with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and 
    I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.
    Thus the state never intentionally confronts a man's sense, intellectual or 
    moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior with or 
    honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I 
    will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. What force 
    has a multitude? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I. They force 
    me to become like themselves. I do not hear of men being forced to live this way 
    or that by masses of men. What sort of life were that to live? When I meet a 
    government which says to me, "Your money our your life," why should I be in 
    haste to give it my money? It may be in a great strait, and not know what to do: 
    I cannot help that. It must help itself; do as I do. It is not worth the while 
    to snivel about it. I am not responsible for the successful working of the 
    machinery of society. I am not the son of the engineer. 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, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the 
    other. If a plant cannot live according to nature, it dies; and so a man.
    The night in prison was novel and interesting enough. The prisoners in their 
    shirtsleeves were enjoying a chat and the evening air in the doorway, when I 
    entered. But the jailer said, "Come, boys, it is time to lock up"; and so they 
    dispersed, and I heard the sound of their steps returning into the hollow 
    apartments. My room-mate was introduced to me by the jailer as "a first-rate 
    fellow and clever man." When the door was locked, he showed me where to hang my 
    hat, and how he managed matters there. The rooms were whitewashed once a month; 
    and this one, at least, was the whitest, most simply furnished, and probably 
    neatest apartment in town. He naturally wanted to know where I came from, and 
    what brought me there; and, when I had told him, I asked him in my turn how he 
    came there, presuming him to be an honest man, of course; and as the world goes, 
    I believe he was. "Why," said he, "they accuse me of burning a barn; but I never 
    did it." As near as I could discover, he had probably gone to bed in a barn when 
    drunk, and smoked his pipe there; and so a barn was burnt. He had the reputation 
    of being a clever man, had been there some three months waiting for his trial to 
    come on, and would have to wait as much longer; but he was quite domesticated 
    and contented, since he got his board for nothing, and thought that he was well 
    He occupied one window, and I the other; and I saw that if one stayed there 
    long, his principal business would be to look out the window. I had soon read 
    all the tracts that were left there, and examined where former prisoners had 
    broken out, and where a grate had been sawed off, and heard the history of the 
    various occupants of that room; for I found that even there there was a history 
    and a gossip which never circulated beyond the walls of the jail. Probably this 
    is the only house in the town where verses are composed, which are afterward 
    printed in a circular form, but not published. I was shown quite a long list of 
    young men who had been detected in an attempt to escape, who avenged themselves 
    by singing them.
    I pumped my fellow-prisoner as dry as I could, for fear I should never see him 
    again; but at length he showed me which was my bed, and left me to blow out the 
    It was like travelling into a far country, such as I had never expected to 
    behold, to lie there for one night. It seemed to me that I never had heard the 
    town clock strike before, not the evening sounds of the village; for we slept 
    with the windows open, which were inside the grating. It was to see my native 
    village in the light of the Middle Ages, and our Concord was turned into a Rhine 
    stream, and visions of knights and castles passed before me. They were the 
    voices of old burghers that I heard in the streets. I was an involuntary 
    spectator and auditor of whatever was done and said in the kitchen of the 
    adjacent village inn---a wholly new and rare experience to me. It was a closer 
    view of my native town. I was fairly inside of it. I never had seen its 
    institutions before. This is one of its peculiar institutions; for it is a shire 
    town. I began to comprehend what its inhabitants were about.
    In the morning, our breakfasts were put through the hole in the door, in small 
    oblong-square tin pans, made to fit, and holding a pint of chocolate, with brown 
    bread, and an iron spoon. When they called for the vessels again, I was green 
    enough to return what bread I had left, but my comrade seized it, and said that 
    I should lay that up for lunch or dinner. Soon after he was let out to work at 
    haying in a neighboring field, whither he went every day, and would not be back 
    till noon; so he bade me good day, saying that he doubted if he should see me 
    When I came out of prison---for some one interfered, and paid that tax---I did 
    not perceive that great changes had taken place on the common, such as he 
    observed who went in a youth and emerged a gray-headed man; and yet a change had 
    come to my eyes come over the scene---the town, and State, and country, greater 
    than any that mere time could effect. I saw yet more distinctly the State in 
    which I lived. I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be 
    trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer 
    weather only; that they did not greatly propose to do right; that they were a 
    distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions, as the Chinamen and 
    Malays are that in their sacrifices to humanity they ran no risks, not even to 
    their property; that after all they were not so noble but they treated the thief 
    as he had treated them, and hoped, by a certain outward observance and a few 
    prayers, and by walking in a particular straight through useless path from time 
    to time, to save their souls. This may be to judge my neighbors harshly; for I 
    believe that many of them are not aware that they have such an institution as 
    the jail in their village.
    It was formerly the custom in our village, when a poor debtor came out of jail, 
    for his acquaintances to salute him, looking through their fingers, which were 
    crossed to represent the jail window, "How do ye do?" My neighbors did not this 
    salute me, but first looked at me, and then at one another, as if I had returned 
    from a long journey. I was put into jail as I was going to the shoemaker's to 
    get a shoe which was mender. When I was let out the next morning, I proceeded to 
    finish my errand, and, having put on my mended show, joined a huckleberry party, 
    who were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour---for 
    the horse was soon tackled---was in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of 
    our highest hills, two miles off, and then the State was nowhere to be seen.
    This is the whole history of "My Prisons."
    I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as desirous of being 
    a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject; and as for supporting schools, I 
    am doing my part to educate my fellow countrymen now. It is for no particular 
    item in the tax bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance 
    to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to 
    trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man a musket to shoot 
    one with---the dollar is innocent---but I am concerned to trace the effects of 
    my allegiance. In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, 
    though I will still make use and get what advantages of her I can, as is usual 
    in such cases.
    If others pay the tax which is demanded of me, from a sympathy with the State, 
    they do but what they have already done in their own case, or rather they abet 
    injustice to a greater extent than the State requires. If they pay the tax from 
    a mistaken interest in the individual taxed, to save his property, or prevent 
    his going to jail, it is because they have not considered wisely how far they 
    let their private feelings interfere with the public good.
    This, then is my position at present. But one cannot be too much on his guard in 
    such a case, lest his actions be biased by obstinacy or an undue regard for the 
    opinions of men. Let him see that he does only what belongs to himself and to 
    the hour.
    I think sometimes, Why, this people mean well, they are only ignorant; they 
    would do better if they knew how: why give your neighbors this pain to treat you 
    as they are not inclined to? But I think again, This is no reason why I should 
    do as they do, or permit others to suffer much greater pain of a different kind. 
    Again, I sometimes say to myself, When many millions of men, without heat, 
    without ill will, without personal feelings of any kind, demand of you a few 
    shillings only, without the possibility, such is their constitution, of 
    retracting or altering their present demand, and without the possibility, on 
    your side, of appeal to any other millions, why expose yourself to this 
    overwhelming brute force? You do not resist cold and hunger, the winds and the 
    waves, thus obstinately; you quietly submit to a thousand similar necessities. 
    You do not put your head into the fire. But just in proportion as I regard this 
    as not wholly a brute force, but partly a human force, and consider that I have 
    relations to those millions as to so many millions of men, and not of mere brute 
    or inanimate things, I see that appeal is possible, first and instantaneously, 
    from them to the Maker of them, and, secondly, from them to themselves. But if I 
    put my head deliberately into the fire, there is no appeal to fire or to the 
    Maker for fire, and I have only myself to blame. If I could convince myself that 
    I have any right to be satisfied with men as they are, and to treat them 
    accordingly, and not according, in some respects, to my requisitions and 
    expectations of what they and I ought to be, then, like a good Mussulman and 
    fatalist, I should endeavor to be satisfied with things as they are, and say it 
    is the will of God. And, above all, there is this difference between resisting 
    this and a purely brute or natural force, that I can resist this with some 
    effect; but I cannot expect, like Orpheus, to change the nature of the rocks and 
    trees and beasts.
    I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish to split hairs, 
    to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as better than my neighbors. I seek 
    rather, I may say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land. I am 
    but too ready to conform to them. Indeed, I have reason to suspect myself on 
    this head; and each year, as the tax-gatherer comes round, I find myself 
    disposed to review the acts and position of the general and State governments, 
    and the spirit of the people to discover a pretext for conformity.
      "We must affect our country as our parents,
      And if at any time we alienate
      Out love or industry from doing it honor,
      We must respect effects and teach the soul
      Matter of conscience and religion,
      And not desire of rule or benefit." 
    I believe that the State will soon be able to take all my work of this sort out 
    of my hands, and then I shall be no better patriot than my fellow-countrymen. 
    Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all its faults, is very 
    good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even this State and this 
    American government are, in many respects, very admirable, and rare things, to 
    be thankful for, such as a great many have described them; seen from a higher 
    still, and the highest, who shall say what they are, or that they are worth 
    looking at or thinking of at all?
    However, the government does not concern me much, and I shall bestow the fewest 
    possible thoughts on it. It is not many moments that I live under a government, 
    even in this world. If a man is thought-free, fancy-free, imagination-free, that 
    which is not never for a long time appearing to be to him, unwise rulers or 
    reformers cannot fatally interrupt him.
    I know that most men think differently from myself; but those whose lives are by 
    profession devoted to the study of these or kindred subjects content me as 
    little as any. Statesmen and legislators, standing so completely within the 
    institution, never distinctly and nakedly behold it. They speak of moving 
    society, but have no resting-place without it. They may be men of a certain 
    experience and discrimination, and have no doubt invented ingenious and even 
    useful systems, for which we sincerely thank them; but all their wit and 
    usefulness lie within certain not very wide limits. They are wont to forget that 
    the world is not governed by policy and expediency. Webster never goes behind 
    government, and so cannot speak with authority about it. His words are wisdom to 
    those legislators who contemplate no essential reform in the existing 
    government; but for thinkers, and those who legislate for all tim, he never once 
    glances at the subject. I know of those whose serene and wise speculations on 
    this theme would soon reveal the limits of his mind's range and hospitality. 
    Yet, compared with the cheap professions of most reformers, and the still 
    cheaper wisdom an eloquence of politicians in general, his are almost the only 
    sensible and valuable words, and we thank Heaven for him. Comparatively, he is 
    always strong, original, and, above all, practical. Still, his quality is not 
    wisdom, but prudence. The lawyer's truth is not Truth, but consistency or a 
    consistent expediency. Truth is always in harmony with herself, and is not 
    concerned chiefly to reveal the justice that may consist with wrong-doing. He 
    well deserves to be called, as he has been called, the Defender of the 
    Constitution. There are really no blows to be given him but defensive ones. He 
    is not a leader, but a follower. His leaders are the men of '87. "I have never 
    made an effort," he says, "and never propose to make an effort; I have never 
    countenanced an effort, and never mean to countenance an effort, to disturb the 
    arrangement as originally made, by which various States came into the Union." 
    Still thinking of the sanction which the Constitution gives to slavery, he says, 
    "Because it was part of the original compact---let it stand." Notwithstanding 
    his special acuteness and ability, he is unable to take a fact out of its merely 
    political relations, and behold it as it lies absolutely to be disposed of by 
    the intellect---what, for instance, it behooves a man to do here in American 
    today with regard to slavery---but ventures, or is driven, to make some such 
    desperate answer to the following, while professing to speak absolutely, and as 
    a private man---from which what new and singular of social duties might be 
    inferred? "The manner," says he, "in which the governments of the States where 
    slavery exists are to regulate it is for their own consideration, under the 
    responsibility to their constituents, to the general laws of propriety, 
    humanity, and justice, and to God. Associations formed elsewhere, springing from 
    a feeling of humanity, or any other cause, have nothing whatever to do with it. 
    They have never received any encouragement from me and they never will. [These 
    extracts have been inserted since the lecture was read -HDT]
    They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no 
    higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at 
    it there with reverence and humanity; but they who behold where it comes 
    trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and 
    continue their pilgrimage toward its fountainhead.
    No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America. They are rare in 
    the history of the world. There are orators, politicians, and eloquent men, by 
    the thousand; but the speaker has not yet opened his mouth to speak who is 
    capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day. We love eloquence for 
    its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may 
    inspire. Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of free 
    trade and of freed, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation. They have no genius 
    or talent for comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce 
    and manufactures and agriculture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of 
    legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable 
    experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long 
    retain her rank among the nations. For eighteen hundred years, though perchance 
    I have no right to say it, the New Testament has been written; yet where is the 
    legislator who has wisdom and practical talent enough to avail himself of the 
    light which it sheds on the science of legislation.
    The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to---for I will 
    cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even 
    those who neither know nor can do so well---is still an impure one: to be 
    strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can 
    have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The 
    progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a 
    democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the 
    Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the 
    empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in 
    government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and 
    organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened 
    State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and 
    independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and 
    treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can 
    afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a 
    neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a 
    few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who 
    fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow men. A State which bore this 
    kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare 
    the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which I have also imagined, 
    but not yet anywhere seen.
    html version by Niels Buhl <buhl@math.ku.dk>

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