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Civil Disobedience. by Henry David Thoreau. Background. Born July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts Educated at Harvard University In the late 1830’s and early 1840’s, he was a schoolteacher in Concord. He quit teaching to become a writer full-time. Inspiration.

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Civil Disobedience

by

Henry David Thoreau


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Background

  • Born July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts

  • Educated at Harvard University

  • In the late 1830’s and early 1840’s, he

    was a schoolteacher in Concord.

  • He quit teaching to become a writer full-time.


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Inspiration

  • Form 1841 to 1843 he lived with American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

  • Emerson introduced Thoreau to the ideas of transcendentalism.

  • Transcendentalists encouraged free attitude towards authority and tradition.

  • This philosophy would be central in Thoreau’s thinking and writing.


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Major Works

  • Only two of Thoreau’s books were published in his life time A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Walden (1854).

  • Walden was Thoreau’s most famous works

  • In 1849 Thoreau wrote his most famous essay “Civil Disobedience” or “ Resistance to Civil Government”.


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Historical Context

  • Throughout Thoreau’s life he emphasized the importance of individuality and self-reliance.

  • Thoreau practiced civil disobedience in his own life by not paying his poll tax.

  • He did this to protest the Mexican-American War, and because he did not want to support a nation that supported slavery.


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Historical Context (cont.)

  • He spent one night in jail because he did not pay his poll tax.

  • This night in jail inspired him to write his most famous essay “Civil Disobedience” or originally titled “Resistance to Civil Government”.


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Main Points

1. People should think for themselves and not conform to the majority.

  • “If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting on another man’s shoulders”

  • “Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them”

  • “A minority is powerless when it conforms to the majority”


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Main Points (cont.)

2. People do not have to follow their government if they feel that the government is unjust.

  • “Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.”


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Main Points (cont.)

3. You should always retain the strength and freedom to not partake in a wrongful enterprise that they know is wrong.

  • “If a thousand man were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent bloody measure…”

  • A “ peaceable revolution”


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Historical Significance

  • Gained very little attention at that time.

  • Sixty years later Mahatma Gandhi credited the essay for inspiring his theory of nonresistance.

  • Later would give force to the American Civil Rights Movement.


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