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Civil Disobedience: The Right of Revolution

By Barbara H. Peterson

Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” written in 1849 is as relevant to the times now as it was then. We have a right to stand up and question any institution or individual that claims authority over us, just as he did then. In fact, it is our duty as citizens to do so. Thoreau decided that he could not be associated with the government of his day without disgrace. How about our government today? Can we associate with it without disgrace?

I can hear his words echoing in my mind: “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right” (Thoreau, 1849). Our government enacts laws that intend to subjugate and enslave. We are hit from all sides with programs that invade our privacy, take away our rights as free citizens, and make chattel of us. Our government is out of control, and its laws do not stand for what is right. Therefore, it is our duty as citizens to question its authority. It is our duty as citizens to revolt.Thoreau states: “All men 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.” This revolution is not one to eliminate the government, but to make it better. “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government” (Thoreau, 1849). So how do we go about this revolution? Thoreau makes it clear that

It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong…but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support (Thoreau, 1849).

We can resist in many ways, but the most effective method of resistance is to not support what we know to be wrong. We must live so that we are a counter friction, not supporting the wrongs that we condemn (Thoreau, 1849). If we deem it wrong to go to war over oil, we should not support anyone who supports that war, and make our next vehicle purchase one that uses the least amount of gas and oil as possible. We can withdraw monetary support for a bloated, oppressive government by not supporting the income tax system. We can stop supporting the unsafe import system by reading labels for the country of origin and refusing to purchase items that place us at risk. If we are tired of the restrictions on free speech, we should shout as loudly as we can that the First Amendment to the Constitution has not been rescinded, and refuse to listen to the media talking heads who do nothing but spout government-sponsored propaganda. By withdrawing our support for the things we know to be wrong, we can make a difference. Some who take the road of resistance will be imprisoned, but take solace from the following: “Under a government, which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison” (Thoreau, 1849).

As Dylan Thomas so aptly put it: “Do not go gentle into that goodnight…rage, rage against the dying of the light.” May we find the strength to rage against the dying of the light of our nation while our republic gasps its last breath. May we, as individuals, find the courage to stand up to the powers that be and make the right choices. It starts with one person, and one choice. Do not abrogate your responsibility and sit on the fence of compromise. Decide to do what is right today.


Thomas, D. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.bigeye.com/donotgo.htm

Thoreau, H.D. (1849). Retrieved from http://thoreau.eserver.org/civil.html

Copyright 2007, Barbara H. Peterson

3 Responses

  1. Dear Barbara,

    Your article was thought provoking and informative. I would like to comment on the area of rights and infringements on those most precious liberties. As a non American (Trinidadian living in Japan) I have always admired the freedoms of America; however with the advent of the attacks on September 11th I have slowly but consistently seen the erosion of those freedoms. Whether the invasion is just or not can be debated on both sides, but what is certain is that America is a target.
    It seems to me that in order for citizens to really support the right to enjoy the aforementioned freedoms, the said citizens will have to give up some of their coveted rights. The old adage “we can’t have our cake and eat it “comes to mind but on the other hand, what level and who determines how much invasion of privacy is needed. Furthermore, while American citizens are determining whether actions taken in the name of homeland security are fair or not; the world as a whole is also paying a price. Persons with last names like Ali, Muhammad, Ishmael or any Islamic sounding name are subjected to racial profiling from the US. A friend who is completing his Phd in International Relations at a University in Japan traveled to the US recently, and was stopped at every port of entry and exit simply because he is from Lebanon; in this chap’s case there is little room for recourse.
    Devanand Maharaj

  2. While the intent is noble, I’m not yet willing to go to prison (for not supporting the IRS) in order to preserve the few remaining freedoms allowed me as a birth right. I just don’t earn enough to pay taxes. The blessings of poverty.

  3. I agree with this great writerm David Thoreau’s thought process. If the system that we live in has become corrupt, (which it has) Example: Billions in outside corporate money to effectively squash on party or another, seems rather egregious! American’s should decide who goes into this office of the Presidency! Not outside influences! And the draconian forces that continually suppress the poor and continually force incarceration on father’s who cannot work, due to the lack of work, is absolutely self defeating! What does a child think of a father in jail for non payment? They can barely comprehend these problems that many men face in today’s repressive climate. Why does Canada refuse to incarcerate men for non payment of child support?
    Because they see this act as oppressive! When are we going to stop building jails, and start educating people so they can find jobs, if there are truly any jobs to be had today?

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