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On the Duty of Civil Disobedience


ON THE DUTY OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE

    I heartily accept the motto, -- "That government is best which
governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly
and systematically.  Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which
also I believe, -- "That government is best which governs not at
all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of
government which they will have.  Government is at best but an
expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are
sometimes, inexpedient.  The objections which have been brought
against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve
to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing
government.  The standing army is only an arm of the standing
government.  The government itself, which is only the mode which the
people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be
abused and perverted before the people can act through it.  Witness
the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals
using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the
people would not have consented to this measure.
    This American government -- what is it but a tradition, though a
recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity,
but each instant losing some of its integrity?  It has not the
vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend
it to his will.  It is a sort of wooden gun to the people
themselves.  But it is not the less necessary for this; for the
people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its
din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have.
Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed on, even
impose on themselves, for their own advantage.  It is excellent, we
must all allow.  Yet this government never of itself furthered any
enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way.
It does not keep the country free.  It does not settle the West.  It
does not educate.  The character inherent in the American people has
done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat
more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.  For
government is an expedient by which men would fain succeed in
letting one another alone; and, as has been said, when it is most
expedient, the governed are most let alone by it.  Trade and
commerce, if they were not made of India rubber, would never manage
to bounce over the obstacles which legislators are continually
putting in their way; and, if one were to judge these men wholly by
the effects of their actions, and not partly by their intentions,
they would deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievous
persons who put obstructions on the railroads.
    But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who
call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no
government, but at once a better government.  Let every man make
known what kind of government would command his respect, and that
will be one step toward obtaining it.
    After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in
the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long
period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be
in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but
because they are physically the strongest.  But a government in
which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice,
even as far as men understand it.  Can there not be a government in
which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but
conscience? -- in which majorities decide only those questions to
which the rule of expediency is applicable?  Must the citizen ever
for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the
legislator?  Why has every man a conscience, then?  I think that we
should be men first, and subjects afterward.  It is not desirable to
cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.  The only
obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what
I think right.  It is truly enough said that a corporation has no
conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation
with a conscience.  Law never made men a whit more just; and, by
means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made
the agents of injustice.  A common and natural result of an undue
respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel,
captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in
admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills,
ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very
steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart.
They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are
concerned; they are all peaceably inclined.  Now, what are they?
Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of
some unscrupulous man in power?  Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a
marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it
can make a man with its black arts -- a mere shadow and reminiscence
of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one
may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniments, though it
may be
           "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 our hero we buried."

    The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as
machines, with their bodies.  They are the standing army, and the
militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc.  In most cases
there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral
sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and
stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve
the purpose as well.  Such command no more respect than men of straw
or a lump of dirt.  They have the same sort of worth only as horses
and dogs.  Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good
citizens.  Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers,
ministers, and office-holders, serve the state chiefly with their
heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as
likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.  A very
few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and
men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily
resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as
enemies by it.  A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will
not submit to be "clay," and "stop a hole to keep the wind away,"
but leave that office to his dust at least:--

          "I am too high-born to be propertied,
           To be a secondary at control,
           Or useful serving-man and instrument
           To any sovereign state throughout the world."

    He who gives himself entirely to his fellow-men appears to them
useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is
pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.
    How does it become a man to behave toward this American
government to-day?  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 counterbalance 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 the fact that the country so overrun is not our own,
but ours is the invading army.
    Paley, a common authority with many on moral questions, in his
chapter on the "Duty of Submission to Civil Government," resolves
all civil obligation into expediency; and he proceeds to say that
"so long as the interest of the whole society requires it, that is,
so long as the established government cannot be resisted or changed
without public inconveniency, it is the will of God... that the
established government be obeyed, and no longer....  This principle
being admitted, the justice of every particular case of resistance
is reduced to a computation of the quantity of the danger and
grievance on the one side, and of the probability and expense of
redressing it on the other."  Of this, he says, every man shall
judge for himself.  But Paley appears never to have contemplated
those cases to which the rule of expediency does not apply, in which
a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it
may.  If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must
restore it to him though I drown myself.  This, according to Paley,
would be inconvenient.  But he that would save his life, in such a
case, shall lose it.  This people must cease to hold slaves, and to
make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.
    In their practice, nations agree with Paley; but does any one
think that Massachusetts does exactly what is right at the present
crisis?

  "A drab of state, a cloth-o'-silver slut,
   To have her train borne up, and her soul trail in the dirt."

Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are
not a hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred
thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in
commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not
prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may.
I quarrel not with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home,
co-operate with, and do the bidding of those far away, and without
whom the latter would be harmless.  We are accustomed to say, that
the mass of men are unprepared; but improvement is slow, because the
few are not materially wiser or better than the many.  It is not so
important that many should be as good as you, as that there be some
absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump.
There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the
war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who,
esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down
with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what
to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to
the question of free-trade, and quietly read the prices-current
along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may
be, fall asleep over them both.  What is the price-current of an
honest man and patriot to-day?  They hesitate, and they regret, and
sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with
effect.  They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the
evil, that they may no longer have it to regret.  At most, they give
only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the
right, as it goes by them.  There are nine hundred and ninety-nine
patrons of virtue to one virtuous man; but it is easier to deal
with the real possessor of a thing than with the temporary guardian
of it.
    All voting is a sort of gaming, like 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 his
wisdom and honesty, nevertheless?  Can we not count upon some
independent votes?  Are there not many individuals in the country
who do not attend conventions?  But no: I find that the respectable
man, so called, has immediately drifted from his position, and
despairs of his country, when his country has more reason to despair
of him.  He forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as
the only available one, thus proving that he is himself available
for any purposes of the demagogue.  His vote is of no more worth
than that of any unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may
have been bought.  Oh for a man who is a man, and, as my neighbor
says, has a bone in his back which you cannot pass your hand
through!  Our statistics are at fault: the population has been
returned too large.  How many men are there to a square thousand
miles in this 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 for the support of the widows and orphans that may be; who, in
short ventures to live only by the aid of the Mutual Insurance
company, which has promised to bury him decently.
    It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself
to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may
still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his
duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no
thought longer, not to give it practically his support.  If I devote
myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at
least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's
shoulders.  I must get off him first, that he may pursue his
contemplations too.  See what gross inconsistency is tolerated.  I
have heard some of my townsmen say, "I should like to have them
order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to
march to Mexico; -- see if I would go"; and yet these very men have
each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by
their money, furnished a substitute.  The soldier is applauded who
refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to
sustain the unjust government which makes the war; is applauded by
those whose own act and authority he disregards and sets at naught;
as if the state were penitent to that degree that it hired one to
scourge it while it sinned, but not to that degree that it left off
sinning for a moment.  Thus, under the name of Order and Civil
Government, we are all made at last to pay homage to and support our
own meanness.  After the first blush of sin comes its indifference;
and from immoral it becomes, as it were, 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
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?
    How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely, and
enjoy it?  Is there any enjoyment in it, if his opinion is that he
is aggrieved?  If you are cheated out of a single dollar by your
neighbor, you do not rest satisfied with knowing that you are
cheated, or with saying that you are cheated, or even with
petitioning him to pay you your due; but you take effectual steps at
once to obtain the full amount, and see that you are never cheated
again.  Action from principle -- the perception and the performance
of right -- changes things and relations; it is essentially
revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was.
It not only divides 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 be on the alert to point out its faults, and do
better than it would have them?  Why does it always crucify Christ,
and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington
and Franklin rebels?
    One would think, that a deliberate and practical denial of its
authority was the only offence never contemplated by government;
else, why has it not assigned its definite, its suitable and
proportionate, penalty?  If a man who has no property refuses but
once to earn nine shillings for the State, he is put in prison for a
period unlimited by any law that I know, and determined only by the
discretion of those who placed him there; but if he should steal
ninety times nine shillings from the State, he is soon permitted to
go at large again.
    If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the
machine of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear
smooth -- certainly the machine will wear out.  If the injustice has
a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for
itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be
worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires
you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the
law.  Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.  What
I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to
the wrong which I condemn.
    As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for
remedying the evil, I know not of such ways.  They take too much
time, and a man's life will be gone.  I have other affairs to attend
to.  I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place
to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.  A man has not
everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do
everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong.
It is not my business to be petitioning the Governor or the
Legislature any more than it is theirs to petition me; and if they
should not hear my petition, what should I do then?  But in this
case the State has provided no way; its very Constitution is the
evil.  This may seem to be harsh and stubborn and unconciliatory;
but it is to treat with the utmost kindness and consideration the
only spirit that can appreciate or deserves it.  So is an 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 what he is and does as an officer of the
government, or as a man, until he is obliged to consider whether he
shall treat me, his neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a neighbor
and well-disposed man, or as a maniac and disturber of the peace,
and see if he can get over this obstruction to his neighborliness
without a ruder and more impetuous thought or speech corresponding
with his action?  I know this well, that if one thousand, if one
hundred, if ten men whom I could name -- if ten honest men only --
ay, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to
hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and
be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition
of slavery in America.  For it matters not how small the beginning
may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever.  But we love
better to talk about it: that we say is our mission.  Reform keeps
many scores of newspapers in its service, but not one man.  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 the following winter.
    Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place
for a just man is also a prison.  The proper place to-day, the only
place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less
desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out
of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out
by their principles.  It is there that the fugitive slave, and the
Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs
of his race, should find them; on that separate, but more free and
honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with
her, but against her -- the only house in a slave State in which a
free man can abide with honor.  If any think that their influence
would be lost there, and their voices no longer afflict the ear of
the State, that they would not be as an enemy within its walls, they
do not know by how much truth is stronger than error, nor how much
more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has
experienced a little in his own person.  Cast your whole vote, not a
strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.  A minority is
powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a
minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole
weight.  If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or
give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to
choose.  If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this
year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be
to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed
innocent blood.  This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable
revolution, if any such is possible.  If the tax-gatherer, or any
other public officer, asks me, as one has done, "But what shall I
do?" my answer is, "If you really wish to do anything, resign your
office."  When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer
has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.  But
even suppose blood should flow.  Is there not a sort of blood shed
when the conscience is wounded?  Through this wound a man's real
manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting
death.  I see this blood flowing now.
    I have 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; and
it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it.  It puts to rest many
questions which he would otherwise be taxed to answer; while the
only new question which it puts is the hard but superfluous one, how
to spend it.  Thus his moral ground is taken from under his feet.
The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as what are
called the "means" are increased.  The best thing a man can do for
his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out those
schemes which he entertained when he was poor.  Christ answered the
Herodians according to their condition.  "Show me the
tribute-money," said he; -- and one took a penny out of his pocket;
-- if you use money which has the image of 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 the subjects of shame."
No: until I want the protection of Massachusetts to be extended to
me in some distant Southern port, where my liberty is endangered, or
until I am bent solely on building up an estate at home by peaceful
enterprise, I can afford to refuse allegiance to Massachusetts, and
her right to my property and life.  It costs me less in every sense
to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to
obey.  I should feel as if I were worth less in that case.
    Some years ago, the State met me in behalf of the Church, and
commanded me to pay a certain sum toward the support of a clergyman
whose preaching my father attended, but never I myself.  "Pay," it
said, "or be locked up in the jail."  I declined to pay.  But,
unfortunately, another man saw fit to pay it.  I did not see why the
schoolmaster should be taxed to support the priest, and not the
priest the schoolmaster: for I was not the State's schoolmaster, but
I supported myself by voluntary subscription.  I did not see why the
lyceum should not present its tax-bill, and have the State to back
its demand, as well as the Church.  However, at the request of the
selectmen, I condescended to make some such statement as this in
writing:-- "Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau,
do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society
which I have not joined."  This I gave to the town clerk; and he has
it.  The State, having thus learned that I did not wish to be
regarded as a member of that church, has never made a like demand on
me since; though it said that it must adhere to its original
presumption that time.  If I had known how to name them, I should
then have signed off in detail from all the societies which I never
signed on to; but I did not know where to find a complete list.
    I have paid no poll-tax for six years.  I was put into a jail
once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the
walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and
iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I
could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution
which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be
locked up.  I wondered that it should have concluded at length that
this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to
avail itself of my services in some way.  I saw that, if there was a
wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more
difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be
as free as I was.  I did not for a moment feel confined, and the
walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar.  I felt as if I
alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax.  They plainly did not know
how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred.  In
every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they
thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that
stone wall.  I could not but smile to see how industriously they
locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again
without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was
dangerous.  As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish
my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against
whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog.  I saw that the State
was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver
spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I
lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.
    Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man's sense,
intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.  It is not
armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical
strength.  I was not born to be forced.  I will breathe after my own
fashion.  Let us see who is the strongest.  What force has a
multitude?  They only can force me who obey a higher law than I.
They force me to become like themselves.  I do not hear of men being
forced to have this way or that by masses of men.  What sort of life
were that to live?  When I meet a government which says to me, "Your
money or your life," why should I be in haste to give it my money?
It may be in a great strait, and not know what to do: I cannot help
that.  It must help itself; do as I do.  It is not worth the while
to snivel about it.  I am not responsible for the successful working
of the machinery of society.  I am not the son of the engineer.  I
perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the
one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey
their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can,
till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other.  If a plant
cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.
    The night in prison was novel and interesting enough.  The
prisoners in their shirt-sleeves were enjoying a chat and the
evening air in the 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 a clever man."  When the door was locked, he showed me
where to hang my hat, and how he managed matters there.  The rooms
were whitewashed once a month; and this one, at least, was the
whitest, most simply furnished, and probably the neatest apartment
in the town.  He naturally wanted to know where I came from, and
what brought me there; and, when I had told him, I asked him in my
turn how he came there, presuming him to be an honest man, of
course; and, as the world goes, I believe he was.  "Why," said he,
"they accuse me of burning a barn; but I never did it."  As near as
I could discover, he had probably gone to bed in a barn when drunk,
and smoked his pipe there; and so a barn was burnt.  He had the
reputation of being a clever man, had been there some three months
waiting for his trial to come on, and would have to wait as much
longer; but he was quite domesticated and contented, since he got
his board for nothing, and thought that he was well treated.
    He occupied one window, and I the other; and I saw that if one
stayed there long, his principal business would be to look out the
window.  I had soon read all the tracts that were left there, and
examined where former prisoners had broken out, and where a grate
had been sawed off, and heard the history of the various occupants
of that room; for I found that even here there was a history and a
gossip which never circulated beyond the walls of the jail.
Probably this is the only house in the town where verses are
composed, which are afterward printed in a circular form, but not
published.  I was shown quite a long list of verses which were
composed by some young men who had been detected in an attempt to
escape, who avenged themselves by singing 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, 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, 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
tottering and gray-headed man; and yet a change had to my eyes come
over the scene -- the town, and State, and country -- greater than
any that mere time could effect.  I saw yet more distinctly the
State in which I lived.  I saw to what extent the people among whom
I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their
friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly
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 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, looking
through their fingers, which were crossed to represent the grating
of a jail window, "How do ye do?"  My neighbors did not thus salute
me, but first looked at me, and then at one another, as if I had
returned from a long journey.  I was put into jail as I was going to
the shoemaker's to get a shoe which was mended.  When I was let out
the next morning, I proceeded to finish my errand, and, having put
on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party, who were impatient to
put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour -- for the
horse was soon tackled -- was in the midst of a huckleberry field,
on one of our highest hills, two miles off, and then the State was
nowhere to be seen.
    This is the whole history of "My Prisons."
    I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as
desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject;
and as for supporting schools, I am doing my part to educate my
fellow-countrymen now.  It is for no particular item in the tax-bill
that I refuse to pay it.  I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the
State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually.  I do not
care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a
man or a musket to shoot one with -- the dollar is innocent -- but I
am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance.  In fact, I
quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will
still make what use and get what advantage 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 action 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 feeling of any kind, demand
of you a few shillings only, without the possibility, such is their
constitution, of retracting or altering their present demand, and
without the possibility, on your side, of appeal to any other
millions, why expose yourself to this overwhelming brute force?  You
do not resist cold and hunger, the winds and the waves, thus
obstinately; you quietly submit to a thousand similar necessities.
You do not put your head into the fire.  But just in proportion as I
regard this as not wholly a brute force, but partly a human force,
and consider that I have relations to those millions as to so many
millions of men, and not of mere brute or inanimate things, I see
that appeal is possible, first and instantaneously, from them to the
Maker of them, and, secondly, from them to themselves.  But, if I
put my head deliberately into the fire, there is no appeal to fire
or to the Maker of fire, and I have only myself to blame.  If I
could convince myself that I have any right to be satisfied with men
as they are, and to treat them accordingly, and not according, in
some respects, to my requisitions and expectations of what they and
I ought to be, then, like a good Mussulman and fatalist, I should
endeavor to be satisfied with things as they are, and say it is the
will of God.  And, above all, there is this difference between
resisting this and a purely brute or natural force, that I can
resist this with some effect; but I cannot expect, like Orpheus, to
change the nature of the rocks and trees and beasts.
    I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation.  I do not wish
to split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as
better than my neighbors.  I seek rather, I may say, even an excuse
for conforming to the laws of the land.  I am but too ready to
conform to them.  Indeed, I have reason to suspect myself on this
head; and each year, as the tax-gatherer comes round, I find myself
disposed to review the acts and position of the general and State
governments, and the spirit of the people, to discover a pretext for
conformity.
            "We must affect our country as our parents,
             And if at any time we alienate
             Our 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 a
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; but
seen from a point of view a little higher, they are what I have
described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall
say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking of
at all?
    However, the government does not concern me much, and I shall
bestow the fewest possible thoughts on it.  It is not many moments
that I live under a government, even in this world.  If a man is
thought-free, fancy-free, imagination-free, that which is not never
for a long time appearing to be to him, unwise rulers or reformers
cannot fatally interrupt him.
    I know that most men think differently from myself; but those
whose lives are by profession devoted to the study of these or
kindred subjects, content me as little as any.  Statesmen and
legislators, standing so completely within the institution, never
distinctly and nakedly behold it.  They speak of moving society, but
have no resting-place without it.  They may be men of a certain
experience and discrimination, and have no doubt invented ingenious
and even useful systems, for which we sincerely thank them; but all
their wit and usefulness lie within certain not very wide limits.
They are wont to forget that the world is not governed by policy and
expediency.  Webster never goes behind government, and so cannot
speak with authority about it.  His words are wisdom to those
legislators who contemplate no essential reform in the existing
government; but for thinkers, and those who legislate for all time,
he never once glances at the subject.  I know of those whose serene
and wise speculations on this theme would soon reveal the limits of
his mind's range and hospitality.  Yet, compared with the cheap
professions of most reformers, and the still cheaper wisdom and
eloquence of politicians in general, his are almost the only
sensible and valuable words, and we thank Heaven for him.
Comparatively, he is always strong, original, and, above all,
practical.  Still, his quality is not wisdom, but prudence.  The
lawyer's truth is not truth, but consistency or a consistent
expediency.  Truth is always in harmony with herself, and is not
concerned chiefly to reveal the justice that may consist with
wrong-doing.  He well deserves to be called, as he has been called,
the Defender of the Constitution.  There are really no blows to be
given by him but defensive ones.  He is not a leader, but a
follower.  His leaders are the men of '87.  "I have never made an
effort," he says, "and never propose to make an effort; I have never
countenanced an effort, and never mean to countenance an effort, to
disturb the arrangement as originally made, by which the various
States came into the Union."  Still thinking of the sanction which
the Constitution gives to slavery, he says, "Because it was a 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 America to-day with regard to slavery,
but ventures, or is driven, to make some such desperate answer as
the following, while professing to speak absolutely, and as a
private man -- from which what new and singular code of social
duties might be inferred?  "The manner," says he, "in which the
governments of those States where slavery exists are to regulate it
is for their own consideration, under their 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."
    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 humility; 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 fountain-head.
    No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America.
They are rare in the history of the world.  There are orators,
politicians, and eloquent men, by the thousand; but the speaker has
not yet opened his mouth to speak who is capable of settling the
much-vexed questions of the day.  We love eloquence for its own
sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it
may inspire.  Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative
value of free-trade and of freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a
nation.  They have no genius or talent for comparatively humble
questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufacturers 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 least which can afford to be just to all
men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which
even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few
were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by
it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men.  A
State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as
fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect
and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere
seen.

Henry David Thoreau