I heartily accept the motto,—”That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to
see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which
also I believe,—”That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared
for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an
expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. …
The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their
will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it…. I ask for,
not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what
kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.
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,…
…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… 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?
. . . The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies.
They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most
cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put
themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be
manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of
straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as
these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others, as most 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. A
very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with
their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly
treated as enemies by it.
How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer, that
he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political
organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.
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. But almost all
say that such is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of ’75. If
one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities
brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should not make an ado about it, for I can do
without them. All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to
counterbalance the evil. …But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and
robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer. In other words, when a
sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves,
and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to
military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes
this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the
It is not so important that many should be as good as you, as that there be some absolute
goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump. There are thousands who are in
opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them;
…They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and
… 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.
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? Men generally, under
such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to
alter them. They think that, if they should resist, 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 makes it worse.
Why is it 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 the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go;
perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring,
or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether
the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be
the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to
stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong
which I condemn.
… I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name—if ten
honest men only—ay, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold
slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail
therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the
beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever…
Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.
…where the State places those who are not with her, but against her… [it is] the only house in a
slave State in which a free man can abide with honor. If any think 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…
. . . I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night;
and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and
iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with
the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones,
to be locked up… I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of
stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax… I saw that the State
was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not
know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.
Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his
body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength.
. . . The authority of government… —is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the
sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but
what I concede to it. 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. Even the
Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. 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 the rights of man? There will never be
a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher
and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him
accordingly…. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it
ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have
imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.
Given as a lecture at the Concord Lyceum in 1848 and published the following year under the title: Resistance to Civil