EasyK.com Free Reports


Domain Names as low as $8.75

These reports are free to download, save, print, and use. The subject matter varies from business to personal.

Windows and UNIX Web Hosting starting at $7.50 with 99.9% guaranteed uptime

Visit Two Sisters Pecan House

Shopping Mall Easy K Mall . com

On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

by Henry David Thoreau

[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 decently.

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 State?

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 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 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 an, 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 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 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, 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 again.

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


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 t 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.