Henry David Thoreau

On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

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On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1848) is an essay from a speech by Henry David Thoreau, a lifelong abolitionist. The slavery crisis inflamed New England in the 1840s-1850s. The speech dealt with slavery, but at the same time criticized American imperialism, particularly the Mexican–American War. Thoreau asserts that because governments are typically more harmful than helpful, they therefore cannot be justified. Democracy is no cure for this, as majorities simply by virtue of being majorities do not also gain the virtues of wisdom and justice. The judgment of an individual's conscience is not necessarily inferior to the decisions of a political body or majority, and so "[i]t 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... 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."
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