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    On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

    by Henry David Thoreau
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        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

      "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
        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
                "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
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