Don’t Just Follow the Rules – Discover Why Civil Disobedience is Important with Henry David Thoreau Quotes That Will Make You Question Everything
Henry David Thoreau was an American author, philosopher, and poet, born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts.
He was best known for his 1854 book Walden, which detailed his experiences at a cabin he built near Walden Pond between 1845 and 1847.
In 1849, Thoreau founded the transcendentalist journal “The Dial” where he wrote prolifically until his death on May 6, 1862.
He was an advocate of nonviolent resistance to oppression and served as inspiration to future civil rights leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience heavily influenced the resistance to civil government in the twentieth century United States and now again in modern day America with the Occupy movement and #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Thoreau’s ideas are known to have greatly influenced Leo Tolstoy and Gandhi.
Here are 53 powerful Henry David Thoreau quotes on civil disobedience that would certainly inspire you to take action today!
Related: Walking Away Quotes | Patience Quotes | Honor Quotes
Short Quotes by Henry David Thoreau on Civil Disobedience
The rich man is always sold to the institution which makes him rich. ―Henry David Thoreau
The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. ―Henry David Thoreau
Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? ―Henry David Thoreau
We should be men first, and subjects afterward. ―Henry David Thoreau
If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man. ―Henry David Thoreau
There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. ―Henry David Thoreau
A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority. ―Henry David Thoreau
A lawyer’s truth is not Truth. It is consistency, or consistent expediency. ―Henry David Thoreau
Your church is a baby-house made of blocks. ―Henry David Thoreau
That government is best which governs least. ―Henry David Thoreau
Powerful Henry David Thoreau Quotes on Civil Disobedience
I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. ―Henry David Thoreau
Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? ―Henry David Thoreau
I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly propose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions. ―Henry David Thoreau
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. ―Henry David Thoreau
Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already. ―Henry David Thoreau
He who gives himself entirely to his fellow-men appears to them useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist. ―Henry David Thoreau
I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. ―Henry David Thoreau
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. ―Henry David Thoreau
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 put 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? ―Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau on Why Civil Disobedience is Sometimes Necessary
For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever. ―Henry David Thoreau
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. ―Henry David Thoreau
It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey. ―Henry David Thoreau
Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. ―Henry David Thoreau
There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man. ―Henry David Thoreau
If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations. ―Henry David Thoreau
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. ―Henry David Thoreau
It is not so important that many should be good as you, as that there be some absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump. ―Henry David Thoreau
It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. ―Henry David Thoreau
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. ―Henry David Thoreau
Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary. ―Henry David Thoreau
I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. ―Henry David Thoreau
Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of free-trade and of freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation. They have no genius or talent for comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufacturers and agriculture. ―Henry David Thoreau
A common and natural result of an undue respect of 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. ―Henry David Thoreau
The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way. ―Henry David Thoreau
This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people. ―Henry David Thoreau
A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be “clay,” and “stop a hole to keep the wind away,” but leave that office to his dust at least: ―Henry David Thoreau
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. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. ―Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau Quotes on Civil Disobedience That Will Make You Question Everything
All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or back gammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. 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. ―Henry David Thoreau
The lawyer’s truth is not Truth, but consistency or a consistent expediency. ―Henry David Thoreau
I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. ―Henry David Thoreau
How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely, and enjoy it? ―Henry David Thoreau
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 judgement 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. ―Henry David Thoreau
Truth is always in harmony with herself, and is not concerned chiefly to reveal the justice that may consist with wrong-doing. ―Henry David Thoreau
But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. ―Henry David Thoreau
If a state is governed by the principles of reason, poverty and misery are subjects of shame; if a state is not governed by the principles of reason, riches and honors are subjects of shame. No: ―Henry David Thoreau
Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. ―Henry David Thoreau
If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. ―Henry David Thoreau
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 how much truth is stronger than errors, nor how much more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. ―Henry David Thoreau
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. ―Henry David Thoreau
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. ―Henry David Thoreau
“Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corpse to the ramparts we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O’er the grave where our hero we buried.”
―Henry David Thoreau
“I am too high-born to be propertied,
To be a secondary at control,
Or useful serving-man and instrument
To any sovereign state throughout the world.”
―Henry David Thoreau
“A drab of state, a cloth-o’-silver slut,
To have her train borne up, and her soul trail in the dirt.”
―Henry David Thoreau
Other Famous Henry David Thoreau Quotes
The path of least resistance leads to crooked rivers and crooked men. ―Henry David Thoreau
All good things are wild and free. ―Henry David Thoreau
Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify. ―Henry David Thoreau
When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. ―Henry David Thoreau
Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations. ―Henry David Thoreau
Life isn’t about finding yourself; it’s about creating yourself. So live the life you imagined. ―Henry David Thoreau
An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day. ―Henry David Thoreau
You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this. ―Henry David Thoreau
Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. He cannot inflame the minds of his audience. ―Henry David Thoreau
What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us. ―Henry David Thoreau
You cannot dream yourself into a character: you must hammer and forge yourself into one. ―Henry David Thoreau
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. ―Henry David Thoreau
As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. ―Henry David Thoreau
It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. ―Henry David Thoreau
A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting. ―Henry David Thoreau
There is no remedy for love, but to love more. ―Henry David Thoreau
Dreams are the touchstones of our characters. ―Henry David Thoreau
This world is but a canvas for our imagination. ―Henry David Thoreau
A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone. ―Henry David Thoreau
In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, they had better aim at something high. ―Henry David Thoreau
If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. ―Henry David Thoreau
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. ―Henry David Thoreau
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. ―Henry David Thoreau
The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. ―Henry David Thoreau
My greatest skill in life has been to want but little. ―Henry David Thoreau
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. ―Henry David Thoreau
The heart is forever inexperienced. ―Henry David Thoreau
Think for yourself, or others will think for you without thinking of you. ―Henry David Thoreau
What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on? ―Henry David Thoreau
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. ―Henry David Thoreau
Thought is the sculptor who can create the person you want to be. ―Henry David Thoreau
It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about? ―Henry David Thoreau
How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live. ―Henry David Thoreau
Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. ―Henry David Thoreau
Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake. ―Henry David Thoreau
Goodness is the only investment that never fails. ―Henry David Thoreau
I make myself rich by making my wants few. ―Henry David Thoreau
The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it. ―Henry David Thoreau
Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all. ―Henry David Thoreau
A lake is a landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. ―Henry David Thoreau
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. ―Henry David Thoreau
We are constantly invited to be who we are. ―Henry David Thoreau
That man is the richest whose pleasures are the cheapest. ―Henry David Thoreau
Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves. ―Henry David Thoreau
Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it. ―Henry David Thoreau
We are born as innocents. We are polluted by advice. ―Henry David Thoreau
Never look back unless you are planning to go that way. ―Henry David Thoreau
Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it. ―Henry David Thoreau
Best Henry David Thoreau Quotes on Civil Disobedience You’d Love to TweetLet every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it. ―Henry David Thoreau Click To Tweet for the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have. ―Henry David Thoreau Click To Tweet It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. ―Henry David Thoreau Click To Tweet A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. ―Henry David Thoreau Click To Tweet 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. ―Henry David Thoreau Click To Tweet
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Who was Henry David Thoreau?
He was an author, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic and a key member of the transcendentalist movement in mid-19th century New England and Massachusetts. His essay Civil Disobedience is thought by many people to be the basis for the idea of nonviolent resistance or noncooperation with arbitrary government oppression.
What are the benefits of civil disobedience?
Civil disobedience can create change, build community and enact justice. It allows us to stop being bystanders while witnessing social injustices happening around us.
What was Henry David Thoreau’s view on civil disobedience?
Henry David Thoreau believed that both those who make the law and those who follow it should come together to work out problems rather than resorting to violence. Furthermore, he believed that individuals have a moral obligation not only to refuse cooperation with an evil system but also engage in active opposition to it.
What are some of the most inspiring quotes by Henry David Thoreau?
We’ve compiled some of his most powerful quotes below:
* The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.
* If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.
* I ask for, not at once no government but at once a better government.
Hope you found this article on powerful quotes from Henry David Thoreau on Civil Disobedience helpful!
You can learn more about Henry David Thoreau by visiting iep.utm.edu.
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