The historical and literary context of Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience".

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Date
1990
Authors
Lee, Leon
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Middle Tennessee State University
Abstract
While a few studies have attempted to place Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" in a historical and literary context, there is no book-length study of that context. Heretofore, studies have connected Thoreau to the idealism of classical Greece; to the eighteenth-century rationalists and utilitarians, including William Paley's The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy; to the romantic rebels of the eighteenth century, Rousseau and Godwin; to the native tradition of anarchism; to the frontier; to the laissez-faire economics of the nineteenth-century America; to Unitarianism; to the moral idealism, perfectionism, and utopianism of Thoreau's age; to abolitionism and non-resistance; and to Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The present study summarizes and supplements those attempts. It gathers the pertinent facts of Thoreau's political activism: his signing off from the church; his refusal to pay the poll tax; the arrest and jailing as a result of that refusal; and the circumstances of the composition of the essay, its delivery as an essay, and its publication in 1849. It creates a literary context for the essay from Thoreau's earlier writing on politics and resistance; Coleridge's The Friend, The Statesman's Manual, and Aids to Reflection; the political essays of Orestes Brownson; William Paley's The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy; and the political essays of Emerson.
The study shows that Thoreau's political activism and the ideas of "Civil Disobedience" are derivative. The indictment of government for its reliance on expediency, its use of force, and its failure to recognize the moral imperatives of the conscience; the faculty psychology; the Lockean contract theory of government; the dangers of majority rule; the recommendation of non-voting, refusal to pay taxes, going to jail, and resignation from office as means of protest; no-governmentism; and the categorical imperative to obey the conscience absolutely when its demands came into conflict with those of the State--all can be found in the literature of the past and of Thoreau's day.
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