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Submitted by jnduggan on Sat, 11/24/2018 - 12:20

On the Duty of Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau explores a civilian’s duty to use their conscience, not pure legislation, to lead their actions.  Thoreau argues that the democracy of his time only makes legislation that grants the wishes of the majority by allowing them to decide what is right and what is wrong.  “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?”. Thoreau then encourages men whose conscience finds certain laws unjust, to voice their disagreement through a number of ways.

Firstly, Thoreau warns men that they may be “treated as enemies” by the state for resisting the unjust laws at all.  He explains that the men deemed “good citizens” are the people who disregard their morals and act only in ways that serve the state, such as soldiers.  The Mexican- American war is a pressing issue during Thoreau’s time, causing him to point to soldiers as main proponents of unjust actions for the state. Thoreau compares these men to the worth of “wood and earth and stones” along with only commanding the same respect as “men of straw or a lump of dirt”.  Thoreau wants to prepare the men that will act justly for the resistance they will face on their journey. Although it may be more convenient to act with the majority, Thoreau believes that he cannot act this way “without disgrace...associated with it”. In this way, some people may be prone to follow the government instead of standing up for their rights.

Secondly, Thoreau warns the everyday citizen about the dangers of passivity. He says that he is not writing “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” to Southern conservative politicians, but to the average people around him 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”.  He argues that these people are more harmful to virtue than the few fighting against these virtuous ideas. These people wait for some other force to counter the state’s evil, when in reality, if they gathered their strength to fight for what they believe in, they could make a difference. “What is once well done is done forever”, although this quote is referring to a separate event, it is also applicable here.  If many people changed their attitude from passive to active, they could make a difference one time, and well, which would be done forever.