Henry David Thoreau, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” (1849)

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Title: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

Author: Henry David Thoreau

Release Date: 12 June 2004 [EBook #71]
Last updated: January 18, 2018

Language: English

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 On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

 by Henry David Thoreau

 1849, original title: Resistance to Civil Government

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 they
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; and, if ever they should
use it in earnest as a real one against each other, it will surely
split. 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 on, 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 mischievous 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 once 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 of
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 of 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, aye, 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 corpse to the ramparts we hurried;
  Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
    O’er the grave where our hero we 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_, &c. In most cases
there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment 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 they 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 by it as enemies. 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 secondary 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 is 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 is, so long as the
established government cannot be resisted or changed without public
inconveniency, 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 as 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 state, 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, near 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 materially
wiser or better than the many. It is not so important that many should
be as 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 others to
remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most,
they give 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 chequers 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 his
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. Oh for a man who is a _man_, and, as my neighbor says, has a
bone in 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 alms-houses are
in good repair; and, before yet he has lawfully donned the virile garb,
to collect a fund for 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 decently.

It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the
eradication of any, even the 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, _un_moral, 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 State?

How can a man be satisfied to entertain an 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
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; aye, 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 be on the
alert to point 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 offence never contemplated by 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
placed 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

As for adopting the ways which 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 every thing to do, but something;
and because he cannot do _every thing_, it is not necessary that he
should do _something_ wrong. It is not my business to 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

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 already.

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 what he is and does as
an officer of the government, or as a man, until he is obliged to
consider whether he shall 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 neighborliness 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,—aye, if _one_ HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts,
_ceasing to hold slaves_, were actually to withdraw from this
copartnership, 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 for ever.
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 any 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 desponding 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 any
thing, resign your office.” When the subject has refused allegiance,
and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is
accomplished. But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort
of 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 what 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
Cæsar 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 Cæsar’s
government, then pay him back some of his own when he demands it;
“Render therefore to Cæsar that which is Cæsar’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 of
disobedience to it to their property and families. 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 the 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,” 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, at 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 incorporated 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 me
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 wit 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 or 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 its nature, it dies; and so a man.

The night in prison was novel and interesting enough. The prisoners in
their shirt-sleeves were enjoying a chat and the evening air in the
door-way, 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 a 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 the
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 treated.

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 here 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 verses which were composed by some young men who had been
detected in an attempt to escape, who avenged themselves by singing

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 lamp.

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, nor 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

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 again.

When I came out of prison,—for some one interfered, and paid the 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 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 purpose 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 though useless path from time to time, to save their souls.
This may be to judge my neighbors harshly; for I believe that most 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 grating of a jail window,
“How do ye do?” My neighbors did not thus 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 mended. When I was let out the next morning, I proceeded
to finish my errand, and, having put on my mended shoe, 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, or 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 biassed 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 feeling 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 of 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 of 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 time, 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 and 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 by 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 the
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 behoves a man to do here in
America today with regard to slavery, but ventures, or is driven, to
make some such desperate answer as the following, while professing to
speak absolutely, and as a private man,—from which what new and
singular code of social duties might be inferred?—“The manner,” says
he, “in which the governments of those 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

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 freedom, 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 also I have imagined, but not yet
anywhere seen.

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