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Rhetorical Analysis of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience

Henry D. Thoreau’s essay, “Civil Disobedience,” is a personal view on how a perfect government should conduct itself. The author claims in the essay that the source of power for any government is the majority. His opinion is clear when he states that, “That government is best which governs not at all” (Thoreau and MacLeish 6). This statement does not mean that he is an anti-government but rather an activist for a better government. He states that there often are unjust laws within a government and that people should not just follow such laws blindly. Just like he puts it, men should “seek to amend them” rather than wait for the majority to decide on the next course of action. Thoreau is not afraid to state that the United States of America has an unjust government because they practice aggressive war techniques and slavery.

A good government must be just, respect all human rights, and be led by self-thinkers. Thoreau says, “There will never be a free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly” (Thoreau and MacLeish 63). From this statement, it is clear that Thoreau consider the power to govern to belong to the people. It is the people who give the mandate to a few chosen individuals to rule or govern on their behalf. In this respect, all government initiatives and laws should work in the best interest of the common man because he has that right. Thus, according to the essay, citizens of a country should not allow their governments to atrophy or overrule their consciences and that they have a responsibility to prevent such acquiescence to give power to the government which makes them the proprietors of injustices. Thoreau wrote this essay after motivation from his disgust with the Mexican-American War and slavery. He uses rhetoric to convince his audience to listen to his opinions of how a just government should operate.

Given that the essay was written in 1849, during the Mexican war, Thoreau is well placed to come up with credible arguments about abuse of power by the authorities. However, he also blames the people for failing to stand up against bad governance by the authorities. Of all his tactics in supporting his ideas, logic takes the leading position. He states various logical ideas, which include: “a laissez-faire government is better, most men do not judge their work morally, citizens might make an immoral decision for following the government blindly, citizens have the power to change an unjust government to be just, and that the government should respect its citizens.” This implies that following an unjust government amounts to perpetrating or supporting social injustice. It also implies every citizen has responsibility of holding their government to accountability. Thoreau also uses repetition to put across his points. Through this technique, his audience are able to easily understand his main ideas. He further uses imagery, which has the effect of making his essay lively. For instance, he says, “If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself” (Thoreau and MacLeish 12). This imagery implies that if one disagrees with government’s actions, then they must stand up against it. It also means that one should not deny another person a rightfully deserved right, even if that other person is weak or is disadvantaged. The author additionally uses textual features such as syntax and diction to reveal his persona. The tone and syntax used are eloquent, formal, and academic.

The essay has relatively long sentences with frequent semicolons and commas, which makes it have an appeal of a written speech. Thoreau seems to be directly speaking to his audience. He also uses parallelism to put across his ideas. He says, “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” (Thoreau and MacLeish 41). He frequently uses the word “machine” to refer to the government and those who support it. His works set up “us” – the free-thinking, free-minded, and responsible citizens against “them” – the unjust government and its accomplices. In this regard, he uses “We” often to emphasize the rift between the government and the citizens while creating a connection with those who agree with his ideas.

This work of Thoreau’s is significant, especially for this period, as it reveals a man whose views are against taxation and government. It presents the reader with a chance to have a comprehension of Thoreau’s feelings about unjust and corrupt government practices. At one time, the author spent some time in jail for refusing to pay taxes. He was an anti-slavery activist and that is part of the reason why he refused to pay taxes after he realized they were used to indirectly support slavery. This essay of his will impact hundreds of generations to come through its opinions on slavery and how “weak” people who cannot stand up against an unjust government are encouraging it to be even more unjust.

I admire Thoreau for his courage. Like a true patriot, he is not afraid when criticizing an unjust government and when in “line of fire,” he does not give up. He is a man of his words. A man who does not preach water and drink wine. For example, he opposes taxation and as a result ends up in jail. It is encouraging to hear that he was among the few humanitarians in the 17th century who fought against slavery. I support his statement that the government should not intervene in a man’s daily affairs. He says, “There will never be a free and enlightened state until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its power and authority are derived” (Thoreau and MacLeish 146) However, this statement somehow leaves me with more questions than answers. Should we have a “less-involved” government to govern us? What is the purpose of a “less-involved” government?

This work is memorable for the firm stance Thoreau took against the government. His opinions and rhetoric fascinate the reader, thereby making it difficult to ignore his ideologies. For instance, he says he is not against taxes but those that are unjust. He states, “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” (Thoreau and MacLeish 151). In short, Thoreau’s statements make the reader review their personal opinions of government and eventually compare the opinions with his own.

In conclusion, Thoreau contributed significantly towards the fight against oppression and injustices propagated by the government as well as against slavery, through his essay “Civil Disobedience.” He advocated for swift actions towards criticizing an unjust government. There is a lot to emulate from this gentleman who sacrificed his lifetime by dedicating it towards humanity. I would recommend people to read this essay because one can get inspiration to face corrupt and unjust government. We all should emulate the type of confidence he had to stand up against the ills of our society. More importantly, the government needs to realize they have a responsibility towards its people and one which they should conduct in faith and confidence. In general, this work of Thoreau’s is a masterpiece whose ideologies should be passed to the generations to come.  

Works Cited

Thoreau, Henry David and Archibald MacLeish. Civil disobedience. Chadwyck-Healey Incorporated, 1987.

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