Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience” has been a modern rallying cry for right-wing conservatives who would argue for less government intervention and a downsizing of the federal government as a whole. However, Thoreau’s central thesis in “Civil Disobedience” goes farther than to simply advocate a smaller central government. Instead, Thoreau attacks what he sees as the moral corruption represented by the federal government and posits that it is every man’s responsibility to disregard any such institutions that promote unjust laws: “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” (Thoreau 5).
As this quote shows, Thoreau’s theories of civil disobedience extend to the right to moral objection carried by the thinking individual, with whom he holds greater value that the overarching state, to refuse to act in accordance with such government if its laws are found to be unjust. In his essay, Thoreau places the impetus for change on the moral code of the individual, not the consensus of the majority. Thoreau believes the moral justice of laws are not made so simply because a majority believe in them—Thoreau’s case in point here would be the laws upholding slavery and those conscripting Americans to participate in what Thoreau sees as a corrupt Mexican-American war, whose causes are preempted by capitalistic greed and unnecessary aggression, not the quest for liberty and justice.

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Thoreau’s central premises on government reveal him to be an iconoclastic thinker whose disdain for the corruption of the federal government leads him to not only support the claim “That government is best which governs least” but further, “That government is best which governs not at all” (Thoreau 1). Thoreau holds the responsibility of the government to essentially get out of the way of the people, who should hold all the power and moral responsibility. Thoreau posits that the federal government has never accomplished anything of importance or served any logical purpose beyond providing a “common defense” and acting as a vehicle for those in power who would wish to assert their authority and special interests over the common man. Thoreau believes that America’s accomplishments did not come through its government, but through its people: “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” (Thoreau 1). Clearly, he sees government as an impediment to proper justice and national achievement. Thoreau advocates a better, more efficient government, one that actually represents the will of the people beyond “majority rule.” Simply because a majority believe in something does not make it just—Thoreau’s evidence for this maxim would be the legalized institution of slavery and the Mexican-American War, fought over land acquisitions and representing the special needs of the select few in power, i.e., those few who would directly benefit from the land and not the interests of the common man.

One of Thoreau’s most deeply-held beliefs is the value he places on the individual conscience over that of the masses. An unjust government can easily manipulate the will of the masses, but it cannot reach the moral code of the individual, which Thoreau believes, is the highest form of morality. Why should we look to the government to provide individuals their moral responsibility? Thoreau questions. It is the right, and further, the responsibility for the individual to make moral choices as a singular thinking man, not as a mass conformist, since those tenets formed through mass conformity and public consensus are not by nature inherently morally just.

Those modern conservatives who would champion Thoreau’s ideas on limiting the power of government and its intervention would likely have to ignore those parts of Thoreau’s essay, even tenets central to his main argument, that would deeply clash with modern conservative values. Essentially, Thoreau posits that government is at best a necessary evil, but a temporary one. His central ethos in “Civil Disobedience” comes from the point-of-view that, eventually, American citizens will not require a government at all, a proposition that could very well be associated with anarchism. It is unlikely that those conservatives who would side with Thoreau’s initial statement, “That government is best which governs least,” would also agree with his next tenet, “That government is best which governs not at all” (Thoreau 1). It is difficult to reconcile a non-existent government with the type of government a modern conservative would advocate. In fact, many government regulations aid conservative values, such as immigration restrictions, laws limiting abortion, upholding the right to bear arms, etc.

For the modern conservative, limited government is necessary to keep the peace, punish the law’s transgressors, and uphold traditional values embraced by the conservative majority. Thoreau’s ideas on the eventual elimination of all government would deeply clash with conservative values and threaten its very core. Thoreau’s disdain for majority rule also runs contrary to modern democracy, whose ideals would certainly be upheld by modern conservatives. Ultimately, though conservatives often champion Thoreau’s “That government is best which governs least” statement, they would likely oppose much of the rest of Thoreau’s central argument, which, taken at base value looks to a time when government is not necessary at all and the individual can govern him or her own self.

  • Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” 1849. “Global Grey PDF handout.