The main arguments and themes of Thoreau’s essay are centered on the relationship between government and citizens. Thoreau starts his essay by noting that the “government is the best which governs least” (1). In this regard, he argues that governments serve the interests of a few people and do not represent the will of the majority, leading to inefficiencies. Thoreau adds that the nation’s administration is abused and perverted before citizens can act through it even though it is the only mode they have selected to fulfill their will (1). The author complains about the failure of the American government in such issues as settling conflicts with Mexicans. He indicates that the country would have been more successful if the character of the American people was applied without the involvement of the regime. Thoreau adds that democracies answer the strongest group’s desires and excessive respect for laws compels individuals to do unjust things since the ruling system shapes them into machines, which does not exercise moral sense (1). Overall, the essay claims that citizens have the right and obligations to rebel against the inefficient government.
The leading themes in “Civil Disobedience” include justice and unjust laws, conscience and action for individuals, and the democracy in America. Undeniably, governments represent people to a certain point, however, it achieves authority through the administration of laws aimed to control citizens’ actions. Any decision to enforce and follow the laws need to be selective since not all legislations pieces are valid. It is vital to consider the relative justice of each law and its advantages. Additionally, persons should not follow laws that demand them to promote injustices. Thoreau argues that it is essential for the people to break any law requiring them to be agents of injustice to others (3). For instance, he opposed the perpetuation of laws that supported slavery in the United States. Unfair application of laws is a significant cause of conflicts between the government and its citizens.
The importance of one’s conscience is emphasized throughout the essay. Thoreau notes that individuals’ civil obligations and their decisions define their relationship with the ruling regime. He uses rhetorical questions to suggest that conscience is the fundamental element that determines an individual’s right or wrong behaviors. He criticizes any moment citizens would resign their consciences to the legislators and holds that there is a considerable difference between what is right and the law. Thoreau indicates, “The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right” (1). Every person needs to take a position within society based on their beliefs. People convey their conscience to groups in the community, which only act as though they have morality due to members’ shared principles. Thoreau notes that “a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience” (1). He is concerned about the way people, such as military officers, abandon their consciences and common sense to obey someone with authority (2). Citizens should not only evaluate whether laws are just or not but decide the way to act.
The United States’ government emphasizes that it upholds democracy in the application of laws developed by people’s representatives, the legislators. However, Thoreau suggests that majority opinion may be incorrect even though democracy has numerous benefits (1). The popular views should not be a tool for deciding what is wrong and what is right. Rather, the government should give populaces the freedom to use the conscience to act accordingly and shape their interaction with the government. Rules that allowed slavery in the US were oppressive, inhibiting the meaning of democracy. Most Americans supported slavery due to economic benefits, promoting inequality and depriving people of the right to choose the way they want to lead their lives.
Thoreau embodied the beliefs of transcendentalism when writing the “Civil Disobedience” essay. Transcendentalism is a philosophy that holds that people are at their best when independent and self-reliant (“Transcendentalism, An American Philosophy” 5). Additionally, a person’s purity is corrupted by society and institutions like political parties and religion. Throughout the essay, Thoreau stresses the importance of an individual’s conscience in deciding whether something is right or wrong. According to him, conscience is more crucial than laws or majority opinions, which can be incorrect in some instances. Moreover, he shows how governments corrupt one’s moral sense by use of power and enforcing laws without considering the merits of humankind. Further, one can apply morality to eradicate evil in society by not acting as an agent of rules that promote injustice.
Thoreau’s essay is applied in the contemporary world to protest against various issues affecting society such as climate change, racially-motivated killings, and governmental policies and programs that jeopardize citizens’ wellbeing. The “abolish ICE movement” and Keystone pipeline protests in the US are examples of the theories of civil disobedience being applied. The “abolish ICE movement” focuses on ending the policy that separates parents from their children at the immigration customs enforcement (ICE) custody (Levinson-Waldman 1). The protests against the Keystone pipeline’s construction were triggered by environmental and climate change concerns related to the project (Tilsen 5). Indeed, modern civil disobedience does not involve failure to pay taxes as Thoreau did.
Conclusively, Thoreau argues that governments serve a few people’s interests and do not represent the majority’s will, leading to inefficiencies. Justice and unjust laws, conscience and action for individuals, and the democracy in America are essential themes portrayed in the easy “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau embodied the beliefs of transcendentalism by stressing the importance of an individual’s conscience in deciding whether something is right or wrong. The “abolish ICE movement” and Keystone pipeline protests in the US are modern examples of applying theories of civil disobedience.
Levinson-Waldman, Rachel. “The Abolish ICE Movement Explained.” Brennan Center for Justice, 2018. Web.
Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience. Enhanced Media, 2017.
Tilsen, Nick. “South Dakota Can’t Silence Our Protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline.” American Civil Liberties Union, 2019. Web.
“Transcendentalism, an American philosophy.” Ushistory.Org, 2020. Web.