On the Duty

of Civil Disobedience

by Henry David Thoreau


original title:


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”;


when men are prepared

for it,


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,


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;


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,


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,


by the alacrity


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,


which men

would fain succeed

in letting one another alone;


as has been said,

when it is most expedient,

the governed are most let alone

by it.


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;


if one were

to judge these men wholly

by the effects

of their actions

and not partly

by their intentions,


would deserve

to be classed

and punished

with those mischievious persons

who put obstructions

on the railroads.


to speak practically and

as a citizen,

unlike those

who call themselves no-government men,

I ask for,

not _at once_ no government,


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,


for a long period continue,

to rule is not

because they are most likely

to be

in the right,


because this seems fairest

to the minority,


because they are physically the strongest.

But a government


which the majority rule

in all cases

can not be based

on justice,


as far

as men understand it.


there not be a government


which the majorities do not virtually decide right

and wrong,

but conscience?


which majorities decide only those questions


which the rule

of expediency is applicable?

Must the citizen ever

for a moment,


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


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;


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,






and all,


in admirable order

over hill

and dale

to the wars,

against their wills,


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


which they are concerned;

they are all peaceably inclined.


what are they?


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,


under arms

with funeral accompaniment,

though it may be,

“Not a drum was heard,

not a funeral note,

As his corpse

to the rampart 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,


as men mainly,


as machines,

with their bodies.

They are the standing army,

and the militia,



posse comitatus,


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.


--as most legislators,




and office-holders

--serve the state chiefly

with their heads;


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,




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,


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.”


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,


to resist,

the government,

when its tyranny

or its inefficiency are great

and unendurable.


almost all say

that such is not the case now.

But such was the case,

they think,

in the Revolution of


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.


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.


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 inconvenience,

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,


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


which the rule

of expediency does not apply,


which a people,

as well

as an individual,

must do justice,


what it may.

If I have unjustly wrested a plank

from a drowning man,

I must restore it

to him though I drown myself.



to Paley,

would be inconvenient.

But he


would save his life,

in such a case,

shall lose it.

This people must cease

to hold slaves,


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,


what it may_.

I quarrel not

with far-off foes,


with those who,


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,



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;


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;


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,


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


with effect.


will wait,

well disposed,

for others

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,


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,


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,


will be

because they are indifferent

to slavery,

or because

there is

but little slavery left

to be abolished

by their vote.



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,


and respectable man

what decision they may come to?

Shall we not have the advantage

of this wisdom

and honesty,


Can we not count upon some independent votes?


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.


for a man

who is a man,


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


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,


to see

that the almshouses are

in good repair;


before yet he has lawfully donned the virile garb,

to collect a fund

to the support

of the widows

and orphans

that may be;


in short,


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,


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,


if he gives it no thought longer,


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.


what gross inconsistency is tolerated.

I have heard some

of my townsmen say,


should like

to have them order me out

to help put down an insurrection

of the slaves,


to march

to Mexico


if I

would go”;

and yet these very men have each,


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;


if the state were penitent


that degree

that it hired one

to scourge it

while it sinned,

but not


that degree

that it left off sinning

for a moment.


under the name

of Order

and Civil Government,

we are all made

at last

to pay homage


and support our own meanness.

After the first blush

of sin comes its indifference;


from immoral it becomes,

as it were,


and not quite unnecessary


that life

which we have made.

The broadest

and most prevalent error requires the most disinterested virtue

to sustain it.

The slight reproach


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,


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 the 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?


can a man be satisfied

to entertain an opinion merely,

and enjoy _it_?


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,


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.


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;


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?



under such a government

as this,


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?


would think,

that a deliberate

and practical denial

of its authority was the only offense never contemplated

by its government;


why has it not assigned its definite,

its suitable

and proportionate,


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;


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,


for itself,

then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy

will not be worse

than the evil;


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.


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,


to live

in it,

be it good

or bad.

A man has not everything

to do,

but something;


because he cannot do _everything_,

it is not necessary

that he

should be doing _something_ wrong.

It is not my business

to be petitioning the Governor

or the Legislature any more

than it is theirs

to petition me;


if they

should not hear my petition,


should I do then?


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,


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


that other one.


any man more right

than his neighbors constitutes a majority

of one already.

I meet this American government,

or its representative,

the State government,


and face

to face,

once a year

--no more

--in the person

of its tax-gatherer;

this is the only mode


which a man situated

as I am necessarily meets it;

and it

then says distinctly,

Recognize me;

and the simplest,

the most effectual,


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,


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,


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,


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,


if one thousand,

if one hundred,

if ten men whom I

could name

--if ten _honest_ men only


if _one_ HONEST man,

in this State

of Massachusetts,


to hold slaves_,

were actually

to withdraw

from this co-partnership,

and be locked up

in the county jail therefor,


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,


will devote his days

to the settlement

of the question

of human rights

in the Council Chamber,


of being threatened

with the prisons

of Carolina,


to sit down the prisoner

of Massachusetts,

that State

which is so anxious

to foist the sin

of slavery upon her sister


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,


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;


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


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


how much truth is stronger

than error,


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,


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,


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.


even suppose blood

should flow.


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,


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,


if they are obliged

to earn it

by special labor

with their hands.


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


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,


to spend it.

Thus his moral ground is taken


under his feet.

The opportunities

of living are diminished

in proportion


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,


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


which is Caesar’s and

to God those things

which are God’s”

--leaving them no wiser


before as


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,


should not like

to think

that I ever rely

on the protection

of the State.


if I deny the authority

of the State

when it presents its tax bill,


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,


at the same time comfortably,

in outward respects.


will not be worth the while

to accumulate property;


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,


and misery are subjects

of shame;

if a state is not governed

by the principles

of reason,


and honors are subjects

of shame.”


until I want the protection

of Massachusetts

to be extended

to me

in some distant Southern port,

where my liberty is endangered,


until I am bent solely

on building up an estate

at home

by peaceful enterprise,


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.


should feel


if I were worth less


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.


it said,

“or be locked up

in the jail.”

I declined

to pay.



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.


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


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;


as I stood considering the walls

of solid stone,


or three feet thick,

the door

of wood

and iron,

a foot thick,

and the iron grating

which strained the light,


could not help being struck

with the foolishness


that institution

which treated me


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,


there was a wall

of stone

between me

and my townsmen,

there was a still more difficult one

to climb

or break


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


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


that stone wall.


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;


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,


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,


or moral,

but only his body,

his senses.

It is not armed

with superior wit

or honesty,


with superior physical strength.

I was not born

to be forced.


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,”


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;


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,



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,



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,


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,


what brought me there;


when I had told him,

I asked him

in my turn

how he came there,

presuming him

to be an honest man,

of course;


as the world goes,

I believe he was.


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,


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,


where a grate had been sawed off,

and heard the history

of the various occupants


that room;

for I found



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;


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,


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 about.

In the morning,

our breakfasts were put

through the hole

in the door,

in small oblong-square tin pans,


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,


would not be back

till noon;

so he bade me good day,


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,


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,


than any

that mere time

could effect.

I saw yet more distinctly the State


which I lived.

I saw


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;


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,


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 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,


through their fingers,

which were crossed

to represent the jail window,

“How do ye do?”

My neighbors did not thus salute me,

but first looked

at me,

and then

at one another,


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,


having put

on my mended shoe,

joined a huckleberry party,

who were impatient

to put themselves

under my conduct;


in half an hour

--for the horse was soon tackled


in the midst

of a huckleberry field,

on one

of our highest hills,

two miles off,


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;



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


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.



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,


this people mean well,

they are only ignorant;


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.


I sometimes say

to myself,

When many millions

of men,

without heat,

without ill will,

without personal feelings

of any kind,


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,


and instantaneously,

from them

to the Maker

of them,



from them

to themselves.


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,


to treat them accordingly,

and not according,

in some respects,

to my requisitions

and expectations


what they

and I ought

to be,


like a good Mussulman

and fatalist,


should endeavor

to be satisfied

with things

as they are,

and say it is the will

of God.


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.


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,



at any time we alienate Our 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,


then I shall be no better patriot

than my fellow-countrymen.


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,


as a great many have described them;


from a higher still,

and the highest,

who shall say

what they are,


that they are worth looking at

or thinking


at all?


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,


in this world.

If a man is thought-free,




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.


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


even useful systems,


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;


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.



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.


he is always strong,



above all,



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


“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,


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


by the intellect


for instance,

it behooves a man

to do here

in America today

with regard

to slavery

--but ventures,

or is driven,

to make some such desperate answer

to the following,

while professing

to speak absolutely,


as a private man

--from which

what new

and singular

of social duties might be inferred?

“The manner,”

says he,


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,


and justice,


to God.

Associations formed elsewhere,


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



who know

of no purer sources

of truth,

who have traced up its stream no higher,


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


that pool,

gird up their loins once more,

and continue their pilgrimage

toward its fountainhead.

No man

with a genius

for legislation has appeared

in America.

They are rare

in the history

of the world.

There are orators,


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,


of rectitude,

to a nation.

They have no genius

or talent

for comparatively humble questions

of taxation

and finance,


and manufactures

and agriculture.

If we were left solely

to the wordy wit

of legislators

in Congress

for our guidance,


by the seasonable experience

and the effectual complaints

of the people,


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;


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


can do better

than I,


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.


can have no pure right

over my person

and property


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,


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?


will never be a really free

and enlightened State

until the State comes

to recognize the individual

as a higher

and independent power,


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,


to treat the individual

with respect

as a neighbor;



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.