“from Civil Disobedience”
I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, — "That
government is best which governs least";(1) 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,(2) 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….
But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves
no-government men,(4) 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 cannot be based on justice, even
as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which 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 law is, that you may see a file
of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys,(5) 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 accompaniments, though it may be
drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his
O'er the grave where our hero we buried."(6)
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,(7) etc. 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 as enemies by it….
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 (2) and Luther,(3) and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?...
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….
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;(4) 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—ay, 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 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….
Under a government which imprisons any
unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place to-day, 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 anything, 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 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 not 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 have 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.