What criticisms of representative democracy go Thoreau raise in “Civil Disobedience”?


In “Civil Disobedience” thoreau not just calls for resistance come immoral and also unjust government actions, he likewise criticizes the foundations of representative democracy — bulk rule, voting, and representation.

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“Civil Disobedience,” through Henry David Thoreau, 1849.

Text Type

Essay, literary nonfiction.

Text Complexity

Grade 11-CCR intricacy band. For more information on text intricacy see these resources from achievethecore.org.

In the Text evaluation section, Tier 2 vocabulary indigenous are characterized in pop-ups, and Tier 3 words are defined in brackets.

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.


Common main point State Standards

ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.1 (Cite solid and thorough textual proof to support evaluation of what the text states explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.)ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.6 (Assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.)

Advanced Placement united state History

Key concept 4.1 – I.C (…Americans search to define the nations democratic ideals and to reform its institutions…Americans debated the limit of the government’s function in the economy.)Skill kind III: skill 7 (Analyze and also evaluate historical evidence, make supportable inferences, and draw ideal conclusions.)

Advanced location English Language and Composition

Reading nonfiction.Analyzing and interpreting purposeful writing. (understanding that what an writer is saying, how an author is speak it, and also why an writer is speak it)Create and also sustain original disagreements based on info synthesized from readings.

Teacher’s Note

While most civilization recognize that in “Civil Disobedience” parcel argues versus submission to federal government policies that people deem immoral, couple of note the he additionally issues a sharp critique the representative democracy. This lesson concentrates on the critique.

The an initial interactive exercise, encourage for usage after girlfriend have carried out the near reading, reviews the central points that the textual analysis. You may want to use its an initial slide to straight whole class discussion in which girlfriend ask college student to support their answer with proof from the text. The second slide gives the exactly responses with textual support.

The second interactive practice asks students to create a contrast paragraph, i beg your pardon will need pen and paper. It likewise encourages vocabulary building and calls upon students to draw an inference. It is most proper for separation, personal, instance work.

Teacher’s guide (continues below)Background noteText evaluation and nearby reading inquiries with price keyInteractive exercisesFollow-up assignmentStudent version (click come open)Interactive PDFBackground noteText analysis and close reading questionsInteractive exercises

Teacher’s Guide


Prompted by his opposition to slavery and also the Mexican war (1846–1848), Henry David package (1817–1862) created “Civil Disobedience” in 1849, however its central question — just how should people respond to a federal government that pursues plans they believe to be immoral — still difficulties us today.

For thoreau the score of any solution to unjust policies is to insure the the separation, personal, instance does not, either straight or indirectly, breakthrough them. “What I need to do,” he writes, “is to see… the I perform not loan myself come the dorn which i condemn.” that maintains the there space two ways to prevent lending oneself come the wrong: resistance to the state and separation from it. His refusal to pay his poll taxation to protest slavery and also the Mexican war was an act of resistance the landed that in jail for a night. Part time prior to that act, as soon as he was commanded to pay a taxation to support a clergyman, he not just resisted through refusing to pay it, he additionally proclaimed his separation indigenous the state: “Know all men… that I, Henry David Thoreau, carry out not wish to be regarded as a member that any… culture which I have actually not joined.” in ~ the conclusion that “Civil Disobedience” the even claims that democracy would certainly be enhanced if the state allowed some citizens come live beyond its reach. (We discover this point in the lesson’s second interactive exercise.)

Our chief concern here, however, is no Thoreau’s contact for resistance yet rather his critique the representative democracy. He bases his analysis on two basic assertions. First, the maintains that the individual is the resource of all ethical authority. “The only obligation i m sorry I have a right to assume,” the says, “is to do at any type of time what i think right.” Second, the contends that it is not enough simply to perceive the right. “How can a male be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely?” the asks. He requirements “action indigenous principle.” The “perception that right” must be accompanied by “the performance of right.”

We can respond by speak that, in a autonomous society, citizens “perform” the appropriate by deciding wherein they stand on issues and also voting follow to your principles. Thoreau would certainly disagree: “Even poll for the right,” that insists, “is doing nothing because that it.” as we shall watch in our evaluation of excerpts indigenous “Civil Disobedience,” his critique of voting walk hand-in-hand v his objections to bulk rule and representation. Take away together, lock strike, together one doubter has written, “at the very core principles of democracy.”1

1. Leigh Kathryn Jenco, “Thoreau’s Critique of Government,“ in A political Companion to Henry David Thoreau, (Lexington, college of Kentucky Press, 2009), p. 76.

Text Analysis

Paragraph 4
Activity: VocabularyLearn definitions by exploring how native are supplied in context.

1. According to Thoreau, what is the communication of majority rule?He contends that bulk rule is not based on justice or fairness however rather on nothing an ext than the fact that the majority is physically more powerful than the minority.

2. According to Thoreau, exactly how do federal governments decide inquiries of right and also wrong?They perform so top top the basis of bulk rule, on mere numbers, on the basic fact the one next of a inquiry gets more votes than the other.

3. In Thoreau’s view what should recognize right and wrong?Conscience.

4. Why go Thoreau thing to governing through legislators?Thoreau objects come governing with legislators since it method turning one’s conscience end to someone else. It method letting someone else decide our views on what is right and what is wrong. Us each have a conscience. We must not delegate its use to another person.

5. In his see what sort of questions can legitimately be determined by bulk rule?The bulk is fit to decide just questions come which the “rule that expediency” can be applied.Teacher’s Note: right here Thoreau is introduce to logistical or instrumental issues — taxes, roads, etc. — worries in which the general public must pick a way to a specific goal in a particular collection of circumstances, problems that advanced no moral questions.

6. The decisions of federal government are expressed as laws. Follow to Thoreau, how should people relate come the law and why?Men and also women have to value the right much more than the law because the law, determined by just numbers and not moral principles, may not embody the right.

7. What two threats does Thoreau watch in payment the legislation “undue respect”?First, if a law is unjust, and also we follow it, we are made “agents of injustice,” the is, we commit injustice ourselves. Second, one “undue respect because that the law” can lead us to follow it blindly, thereby giving up ours humanity, as Thoreau suggest in his description of soldiers whose unthinking adopt of their orders has actually turned them into “movable forts.”

8. Based upon your reading of this paragraph, why does Thoreau assert that “a government in i m sorry the bulk rule in all cases cannot be based upon justice”?The crucial word here is “all.” were the majority to dominance in “some” cases, those in i m sorry the “rule the expediency” could be applied, and also reserved worries of right and wrong to the individual conscience, its ascendancy would it is in just. But in leaving all problems — the expedient and ethical — as much as the majority, when justice is at stake, it can not be just because the majority will inevitably hurt the conscience the someone.

Teacher’s Note: to clarify Thoreau’s grammar here, girlfriend might suggest out that since “majority” is a cumulative noun, it have the right to be either singular or plural. Here he provides it in the plural. This day we would most likely use the in the singular: “…in which the bulk rules.”

Focusing top top the tension in between the separation, personal, instance conscience and bulk rule, this paragraph lies in ~ the heart of Thoreau’s critique the representative democracy.

<1> ~ all, the practical reason why, as soon as the power is as soon as in the hand of the people, a bulk are permitted, and also for a long duration continue, come rule, is not because they are most likely to it is in in the right, nor since this seems fairest come the minority, but since they room physically the strongest. <2> but a federal government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based upon justice, even as much as men know it. <3> can there not be a federal government in i beg your pardon majorities carry out not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? — in i beg your pardon majorities decide only those inquiries to i m sorry the dominance of expediency is applicable? <4> have to the citizen ever before for a moment, or in the the very least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? <5> Why has actually every male a conscience, then? ns think that we must be men first, and also subjects afterward. <6> the is not preferable to cultivate a respect because that the law, so much as for the right. <7> The only obligation i m sorry I have a right to assume is to carry out at any kind of time what ns think right. <8> that is truly sufficient said the a corporation has no conscience; yet a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. <9> legislation never made guys a whit much more just; and, by method of your respect because that it, even the well-disposed are day-to-day made the agents of injustice. <10> A common and natural an outcome of one undue respect for legislation is, that you may see a document of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and also dale to the wars, versus their wills, ay, against their typical sense and consciences, which renders it an extremely steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation the the heart. <11> They have actually no doubt the it is a damnable company in i m sorry they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. <12> Now, what are they? <13> guys at all? or tiny movable forts and magazines, in ~ the organization of part unscrupulous man in power?
Activity: Thoreau’s Criticism that Representative DemocracyReview the central points the the textual analysis.
9. Just how is voting like betting?They are both passive. In both us relinquish our capability to influence outcomes with action. In both expect takes the ar of action. Once we bet, we placed our money down and hope the our team wins. When we vote, we placed our money down and also hope that our candidate wins.

10. What go Thoreau mean when he claims that “the character of the voters is no staked” in voting?He way the voter’s character is no at stake in the election; the voter has actually nothing an individual to lose since he has turned over obligation for the decision come the majority.

11. Top top what grounds does Thoreau believe the majority will do its decision?On the grounds that expediency, top top what will certainly be most helpful to the greatest number of people.

12. According to Thoreau, when is the majority likely to poll for morality and justice?The bulk is likely to vote for morality and also justice when the problem has already been decided, when it bring away no courage to poll for the right, when, in other words, its vote no longer matters.

Activity: Thoreau, the Many, and the FewEncourages vocabulary building and also asks college student to write a comparison paragraph and draw one inference.
Majority dominance depends, of course, top top voting. Therefore what if the right, as dictated by her conscience, shows up on a ballot; you poll for it, and also it wins. Does the sequence bestow ethical legitimacy on government? In the paragraph Thoreau says no.

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All poll is a kind of gaming, favor checkers or backgammon , v a slight ethical tinge to it, a playing v right and also wrong, with ethical questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voter is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; however I am not vitally concerned that the right need to prevail. Ns am ready to leaving it to the majority. That is obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing because that it. That is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it have to prevail. A wise man will not leave the ideal to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail with the strength of the majority. Over there is but tiny virtue in the action of masses that men. As soon as the majority shall at size vote because that the abolition of slavery, it will certainly be since they space indifferent come slavery, or since there is but small slavery left come be abolished by their vote. They will certainly then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.

Follow-Up Assignment

“It is no desirable,” wrote Thoreau, “to cultivate a respect because that the law, so much as because that the right.” numerous have been affected by Thoreau’s distinction between what is law and what is right (moral), including Mahatma Gandhi, martin Luther King, President man F. Kennedy, and also Supreme Court Justice william O. Douglas. Your task is to choose an instance from history or existing events in i m sorry a law was viewed to dispute with what was right. Build an oral dispute that might be supplied in a mock attempt to safeguard someone who has actually violated such a law. You might investigate battle protests, civil rights struggles, police brutality, or other occasions as command by her teacher.

Divide your debate into three parts: state the law, define why it is not moral, and also offer a systems to deal with the conflict between the law and morality: must the law be denomination or must it be rewritten, and if so, how? Share her oral dispute with your class.

Vocabulary Pop-Ups

conscientious: governed by moral consciencewhit: little amountpalpitation: beat, throbunscrupulous: unprincipled, dishonestgaming: gamblingtinge: the top quality of being slightly marked or affected by somethingstaked: betprevail: win, triumphexpediency: practical, used here with the connotation of skipping moralityfeebly: weaklyindifferent: uninterested inhasten: to lug about an ext quickly


Rowse, Samuel Worcester. Henry David Thoreau, 1854 (crayon portrait). Courtesy Concord totally free Public Library.Henry David Thoreau, head-and-shoulders portrait, dealing with slightly right. Photographic print. C. 1879. Indigenous Library that Congress assorted Items in High Demand. Http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/95513963/ (October 10, 2014)Maxham, Benjamin D. Henry David Thoreau. Ninth-plate Daguerreotype. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of cotton donor. Http://npgportraits.si.edu/eMuseumNPG/code/emuseum.asp?rawsearch=ObjectID/,/is/,/31401/,/false/,/false&newprofile=CAP&newstyle=single (October 10, 2014)