Martin Luther King and Gandhi Weren’t the Only Ones Inspired By Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’

Thoreau’s essay became a cornerstone of 20th-century protest

Police remove peaceful protestors from a sit-in at the U.S. Capitol in 1965. Library of Congress

Henry David Thoreau was born on this day 200 years ago. A few decades later, aged 32, he wrote an essay that fundamentally influenced twentieth-century protest.

"Civil Disobedience," originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government," was written after Thoreau spent a night in the unsavory confines of the Concord, Massachusetts jail–an activity likely to inspire anyone to civil disobedience. The cause of his incarceration was something which the philosopher found to be equally galling: he hadn’t paid his poll tax, a regular tax that everyone had to pay, in six years.

But Thoreau wasn’t just shirking. “He withheld the tax to protest the existence of slavery and what he saw as an imperialistic war with Mexico,” writes the Library of Congress. He was released when a relative paid the tax for him, and went on to write the eminently quotable essay that included the line “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” 

While another line in the essay–"I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’”–is also well known, it was his line of thinking about justice, when he argued that conscience can be a higher authority than government, that stuck with civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi.

“Thoreau was the first American to define and use civil disobedience as a means of protest,” Brent Powell wrote for the magazine of the Organization of American Historians. He began the tradition of non-violent protest that King is best known for continuing domestically. But there was an intermediary in their contact: Gandhi, who said that Thoreau’s ideas “greatly influenced” his ideas about protest.

But it wasn’t just these famous figures who rallied around Thoreau’s battle cry, writes Thoreau Society member Richard Lenat: the essay “has more history than many suspect,” he writes.

Thoreau’s ideas about civil disobedience were first spread in the late 1900s by Henry Salt, an English social reformer who introduced them to Gandhi. And Russian author Leo Tolstoy was important to spreading those ideas in continental Europe, wrote literature scholar Walter Harding.

“During World War II, many of the anti-Nazi resisters, particularly in Denmark, adopted Thoreau’s essay as a manual of arms and used it very effectively,” he writes.

In America, anarchists like Emma Goldman used Thoreau’s tactics to oppose the World War I draft, he writes, and those tactics were used again by World War II-era pacificists. But it wasn’t until King came along that the essay became truly prominent in the U.S., Harding wrote. Vietnam War protestors also came to use its ideas, and others.  

Despite this later global influence, writes Harding, Thoreau was “ignored in his own lifetime.” It’s not even known exactly who paid his taxes for him, wrote scholar Barbara L. Packer. In an interview 50 years after the incident, the writer’s jailer recalled that he had just reached home for the evening when a messenger told him that a woman, wearing a veil, had appeared with “Mr. Thoreau’s tax.”

“Unwilling to go to the trouble of unlocking the prisoners he had just locked up, [the jailer] waited till morning to release Thoreau–who, he remembered, was ‘mad as the devil when I turned him loose,'” Packer wrote.

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