Advisor: Charles Capper, Professor of History, Boston University; National Humanities Center Fellow.Copyright National Humanities Center, 2014
What criticisms of representative democracy does Thoreau raise in “Civil Disobedience”?
In “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau not only calls for resistance to immoral and unjust government actions, he also criticizes the foundations of representative democracy — majority rule, voting, and representation.
“Civil Disobedience,” by Henry David Thoreau, 1849.
Essay, literary nonfiction.
In the Text Analysis section, Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups, and Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.
Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.
Common Core State Standards
- ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.1 (Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.)
- ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.6 (Assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.)
Advanced Placement US History
- Key Concept 4.1 – I.C (…Americans sought to define the nations democratic ideals and to reform its institutions…Americans debated the scope of the government’s role in the economy.)
- Skill Type III: Skill 7 (Analyze and evaluate historical evidence, make supportable inferences, and draw appropriate conclusions.)
Advanced Placement English Language and Composition
- Reading nonfiction.
- Analyzing and interpreting purposeful writing. (understanding of what an author is saying, how an author is saying it, and why an author is saying it)
- Create and sustain original arguments based on information synthesized from readings.
While most people recognize that in “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau argues against submission to government policies that individuals deem immoral, few note that he also issues a sharp critique of representative democracy. This lesson focuses on that critique.
The first interactive exercise concentrates on vocabulary building.
The second, recommended for use after you have conducted the close reading, reviews the central points of the textual analysis. You may want to use its first slide to direct whole class discussion in which you ask students to support their answers with evidence from the text. The second slide provides the correct responses with textual support.
The third interactive exercise asks students to write a contrast paragraph, which will require pen and paper. It also encourages vocabulary building and calls upon students to draw an inference. It is most appropriate for individual work.
The America in Class® lesson on individualism in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” would make an excellent companion piece for this lesson. Emerson shared many of Thoreau’s political views. He distrusted majority rule for the same reasons Thoreau did and held the same views of mass culture. This chart (Emerson–Thoreau Comparison) illustrates the similarities between “Self-Reliance” and “Civil Disobedience.” Should you teach the two, you might point out that Thoreau’s idea of the “wise majority” resembles Emerson’s conception of the self-reliant, those few in society who as “guides, redeemers, and benefactors” will rescue democracy.
|Teacher’s Guide (continues below)
||Student Version (click to open)
Prompted by his opposition to slavery and the Mexican War (1846–1848), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) wrote “Civil Disobedience” in 1849, but its central question — how should individuals respond to a government that pursues policies they believe to be immoral — still challenges us today.
For Thoreau the goal of any response to unjust policies is to insure that the individual does not, either directly or indirectly, advance them. “What I have to do,” he writes, “is to see… that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.” He maintains that there are two ways to avoid lending oneself to the wrong: resistance to the state and separation from it. His refusal to pay his poll tax to protest slavery and the Mexican War was an act of resistance that landed him in jail for a night. Some time before that act, when he was commanded to pay a tax to support a clergyman, he not only resisted by refusing to pay it, he also proclaimed his separation from the state: “Know all men… that I, Henry David Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any… society which I have not joined.” At the conclusion of “Civil Disobedience” he even claims that democracy would be improved if the state permitted some citizens to live beyond its reach. (We explore this point in the lesson’s second interactive exercise.)
Our chief concern here, however, is not Thoreau’s call for resistance but rather his critique of representative democracy. He bases his analysis on two fundamental assertions. First, he maintains that the individual is the source of all moral authority. “The only obligation which I have a right to assume,” he says, “is to do at any time what I think right.” Second, he contends that it is not enough simply to perceive the right. “How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely?” he asks. He demands “action from principle.” The “perception of right” must be accompanied by “the performance of right.”
We might respond by saying that, in a democratic society, citizens “perform” the right by deciding where they stand on issues and voting according to their principles. Thoreau would disagree: “Even voting for the right,” he insists, “is doing nothing for it.” [His italics.] As we shall see in our analysis of excerpts from “Civil Disobedience,” his critique of voting goes hand-in-hand with his objections to majority rule and representation. Taken together, they strike, as one critic has written, “at the very core principles of democracy.”1
1. Leigh Kathryn Jenco, “Thoreau’s Critique of Government,“ in A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau, (Lexington, University of Kentucky Press, 2009), p. 76.
Close Reading Questions
Learn definitions by exploring how words are used in context.
1. According to Thoreau, what is the basis of majority rule?
He contends that majority rule is not based on justice or fairness but rather on nothing more than the fact that the majority is physically stronger than the minority.
2. According to Thoreau, how do governments decide questions of right and wrong?
They do so on the basis of majority rule, on mere numbers, on the simple fact that one side of a question gets more votes than the other.
3. In Thoreau’s view what should determine right and wrong?
4. Why does Thoreau object to governing through legislators?
Thoreau objects to governing through legislators because it means turning one’s conscience over to someone else. It means letting someone else decide our views on what is right and what is wrong. We each have a conscience. We should not delegate its use to another person.
5. In his view what sort of questions can legitimately be decided by majority rule?
The majority is fit to decide only questions to which the “rule of expediency” can be applied.
Teacher’s Note: Here Thoreau is referring to logistical or instrumental issues — taxes, roads, etc. — issues in which the public must select a means to a specific goal in a particular set of circumstances, issues that raise no moral questions.
6. The decisions of government are expressed as laws. According to Thoreau, how should individuals relate to the law and why?
Men and women should value the right more than the law because the law, decided by mere numbers and not moral principles, may not embody the right.
7. What two dangers does Thoreau see in paying the law “undue respect”?
First, if a law is unjust, and we follow it, we are made “agents of injustice,” that is, we commit injustice ourselves. Second, an “undue respect for the law” can lead us to follow it blindly, thereby giving up our humanity, as Thoreau suggest in his description of soldiers whose unthinking embrace of their orders has turned them into “movable forts.”
8. Based on your reading of this paragraph, why does Thoreau assert that “a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice”?
The key word here is “all.” Were the majority to rule in “some” cases, those in which the “rule of expediency” could be applied, and reserved issues of right and wrong to the individual conscience, its rule would be just. But in leaving all issues — the expedient and ethical — up to the majority, when justice is at stake, it cannot be just because the majority will inevitably violate the conscience of someone.
Teacher’s Note: To clarify Thoreau’s grammar here, you might point out that since “majority” is a collective noun, it can be either singular or plural. Here he uses it in the plural. Today we would probably use it in the singular: “…in which the majority rules.”
 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?
Review the central points of the textual analysis.
9. How is voting like betting?
They are both passive. In both we relinquish our ability to influence outcomes through action. In both hope takes the place of action. When we bet, we put our money down and hope that our team wins. When we vote, we put our money down and hope that our candidate wins.
10. What does Thoreau mean when he says that “the character of the voters is not staked” in voting?
He means the voter’s character is not at stake in the election; the voter has nothing personal to lose because he has turned over responsibility for the decision to the majority.
11. On what grounds does Thoreau believe the majority will make its decision?
On the grounds of expediency, on what will be most useful to the greatest number of people.
12. According to Thoreau, when is the majority likely to vote for morality and justice?
The majority is likely to vote for morality and justice when the issue has already been decided, when it takes no courage to vote for the right, when, in other words, its vote no longer matters.
Encourages vocabulary building and asks students to write a contrast paragraph and draw an inference.
All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon [a dice game], 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.
“It is not desirable,” wrote Thoreau, “to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” Many have been influenced by Thoreau’s distinction between what is law and what is right (moral), including Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, President John F. Kennedy, and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Your task is to choose an example from history or current events in which a law was seen to conflict with what was right. Develop an oral argument that might be used in a mock trial to defend someone who has violated such a law. You might investigate war protests, civil rights struggles, police brutality, or other events as directed by your teacher.
Divide your argument into three parts: state the law, explain why it is not moral, and offer a solution to resolve the conflict between the law and morality: should the law be abolished or should it be rewritten, and if so, how? Share your oral argument with your class.
- conscientious: governed by moral conscience
- whit: small amount
- palpitation: beat, throb
- unscrupulous: unprincipled, dishonest
- gaming: gambling
- tinge: the quality of being slightly marked or influenced by something
- staked: bet
- prevail: win, triumph
- expediency: practical, used here with the connotation of ignoring morality
- feebly: weakly
- indifferent: uninterested in
- hasten: to bring about more quickly
- Rowse, Samuel Worcester. Henry David Thoreau, 1854 (crayon portrait). Courtesy Concord Free Public Library.
- Henry David Thoreau, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right. Photographic print. c. 1879. From Library of Congress Miscellaneous Items in High Demand. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/95513963/ (October 10, 2014)
- Maxham, Benjamin D. Henry David Thoreau. Ninth-plate Daguerreotype. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of anonymous donor. http://npgportraits.si.edu/eMuseumNPG/code/emuseum.asp?rawsearch=ObjectID/,/is/,/31401/,/false/,/false&newprofile=CAP&newstyle=single (October 10, 2014)