Civil Disobedience & Thoreau | Podcasts for Activists

Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, brought to you in part by Book of Zen, makers of wearable inspiration for a better world. Today’s podcast has been adapted from Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay on Civil Disobedience, produced in celebration of Martin Luther King Day. Dr. King was a great admirer of Thoreau’s essay, describing it as an eloquent argument for why we are obligated to non-violently disobey laws we believe are unjust…..

I heartily accept the motto that “the government is best which governs the least.” And I should like to see it acted upon more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe: “That the government is best which governs not at all”. And when humanity is prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which we will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually (and all governments are sometimes) inexpedient.

Who can argue that this American government of ours is not, in each instant, losing more and more of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living individual of conscience and imagination. 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 build businesses. 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 we (the governed) happily succeed in letting one another alone.

But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves anarchists, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every individual make known what kind of government would command their respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

I think that we should be men and women first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for what is 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 people is a corporation with a conscience.

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. Very few of them (as heroes, patriots, martyrs, and reformers in the great sense) serve the state also with their conscience, and so resist it for the most part; thus becoming their conscience’s own enemy.

A person with a genius for legislation has rarely appeared in America. Indeed, they are rare in the history of the world. There ARE eloquent politicians and public commentators, of course; but rare is the speaker 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 contain, or any heroism it may inspire.

Our legislators do not understand the comparative value that liberty, freedom, small business, and unity is to a nation. They have no genius or talent for the comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufacture, and of agriculture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the well-grounded complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among nations—and indeed her reputation has suffered greatly for over a decade.

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. 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 our rights?

There will never be a truly free and enlightened United States until the government comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its OWN power and authority are derived, and treats each person accordingly.

How does it become a person to behave toward this American government we have today? I answer, that you cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the government of endless war and mass imprisonment, who serves the interests of corporations, banksters, and Wall Street over those of individual citizens and small business owners.

All people 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 it was the case, they think, in the Revolution Of 1775.

There are millions who are (in their opinion) opposed to this endless war on terror and drugs, this abrogation of our rights, this mass incarceration of their fellow citizens, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves good citizens, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and thus do nothing.

What is the price an honest American and patriot today? We hesitate, and we regret, and sometimes we petition; but we do nothing in earnest and with effect. We will wait (content and well-fed) for others to remedy the evil, that we may no longer have it to regret. At most, we give only a cheap vote, a feeble countenance, and a God-speed. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one truly virtuous individual who acts.

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 voter is not at stake. 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 what we think is right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing feebly to others our desire that it should prevail.

Action born from principle (the perception and the performance of virtue) 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; it divides even the individual, separating the diabolical in them from the divine.

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? We generally, under such a government as this, think that we ought to wait until we have persuaded the majority to alter the laws. We think that, if we should resist the law, 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 indeed makes it worse. Why is the government 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?

If an injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, then let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let our lives be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What we have to do is to make sure that we do not lend ourselves to the wrong which we condemn.

As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I no longer know of any useful ways. They take too much time, and my life will be gone. We all have other affairs to attend to. We came into this world not chiefly to make it a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.

Let us remember that an individual has not everything to do, but something; and because we cannot do everything, it is not necessary that we should do something wrong. Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man and woman is also in prison. If anyone thinks 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 they can combat injustice after experiencing a little in their own life.

Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.

The State never intentionally confronts a citizen’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only their body. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. However, I was not born to be forced. I must breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. 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?

A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority (in fact, it is not even a minority then). But a minority is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. For example, if a million Americans 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, thus enabling the State to continue its endless wars and incarcerations.

This would, in fact, be the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. But suppose some blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound, our character and immortality flow out, and we bleed to an everlasting death. Look around you. This blood is flowing now.

Subscribe to the Inspirational Living Podcast at iTunes & Stitcher

Inspirational Podcasts Stitcher
Subscribe Inspirational Podcast

All transcripts from our inspirational podcasts are edited adaptations of the original work and copyrighted by For reproduction permission please contact us via our contact page.