January 26, 2010

Thoreau resists government

Henry David Thoreau presented a lecture on January 26, 1848 to the Concord Lyceum which he titled, "The Relation of the Individual to the State," elsewhere known as "On the Resistance to Civil Government." He had only recently left his humble cabin near Walden Pond and had not yet published his book about his experience (or that of his time on two rivers with his brother John). He was, at the time, barely known as anything more than a disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In attendance at Thoreau's lecture was Transcendentalist and educator Bronson Alcott, who wrote in his journal "[I] heard Thoreau’s lecture before the Lyceum on the relation of the individual to the State – an admirable statement of the rights of the individual to self-government, and an attentive audience... I took great pleasure in this deed of Thoreau’s."

Another admirer of the speech was Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who had the work published in the first and only issue of the magazine she created, Aesthetic Papers, in May 1849. She gave it the title "Resistance to Civil Government." It later evolved into "Civil Disobedience."

In its published form, "Civil Disobedience" opened with the shocking statement:

I heartily accept the motto, – "That government is best which governs least;" and I should like to see it acted up more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe, – "That government is best which governs not at all."

Thoreau's words are often mistaken for those of an anarchist. Those who think as much haven't read past the first page; only a few paragraphs later, he adds:

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.

Because of the poor circulation of Peabody's magazine and, perhaps, Thoreau's provincialism, "Civil Disobedience" had very little impact during the author's lifetime. However, in later years, it served as an inspiration to other advocates of passive resistance, the nonviolent refusal to follow unjust laws, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.


  1. Actually the lecture was called "The Relation of the Individual to the State."

    When he gave the lecture again a few weeks later on February 16 it was called "The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to the State."

    It wasn't called "Resistance to Civil Government" until the 1849 publication...

  2. Thanks for the clarification, Richard. The way I was reading it was that Thoreau had presented a series of talks to the Concord Lyceum (which is sorta correct if he repeated it) but that the whole series was "The Relation of the Individual to the State," with part one being "Resistance to Civil Government." It just goes to show which title had better sticking power!


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