Civil disobedience

Theory of principled law breaking.

The expression was used by the American writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) in his essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’, and put into action by Mahatma (Mohandas) Gandhi (1869-1948).

There is a conflict between a general obligation to obey the law in free and constitutional societies, and the obligation to follow one’s conscience.

If a major clash occurs, the citizens may express their disagreement by openly breaking the law to demonstrate profound dissent from a particular policy. In so doing they accept the penalties which follow such action.

Also see: satyagraha

H A Bedau, ed., Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice (Indianapolis, 1979)


An early depiction of civil disobedience is in Sophocles’ play Antigone, in which Antigone, one of the daughters of former King of Thebes, Oedipus, defies Creon, the current King of Thebes, who is trying to stop her from giving her brother Polynices a proper burial. She gives a stirring speech in which she tells him that she must obey her conscience rather than human law. She is not at all afraid of the death he threatens her with (and eventually carries out), but she is afraid of how her conscience will smite her if she does not do this.[4]

Étienne de La Boétie’s thought developed in his work Discours de la servitude volontaire ou le Contr’un (1552) was also taken up by many movements of civil disobedience, which drew from the concept of rebellion to voluntary servitude the foundation of its instrument of struggle. Étienne de La Boétie was one of the first to theorize and propose the strategy of non-cooperation, and thus a form of nonviolent disobedience, as a really effective weapon.

In the lead-up to the Glorious Revolution in Britain, when the 1689 Bill of Rights was documented, the last Catholic monarch was deposed, and male and female joint-co-monarchs elevated. The English Midland Enlightenment had developed a manner of voicing objection to a law viewed as illegitimate and then taking the consequences of the law. This was focused on the illegitimacy of laws claimed to be “divine” in origin, both the “divine rights of kings” and “divine rights of man”, and the legitimacy of laws acknowledged to be made by human beings.[5][6][7]

Following the Peterloo massacre of 1819, the poet Percy Shelley wrote the political poem The Mask of Anarchy later that year, that begins with the images of what he thought to be the unjust forms of authority of his time—and then imagines the stirrings of a new form of social action. According to Ashton Nichols, it is perhaps the first modern statement of the principle of nonviolent protest.[8] A version was taken up by the author Henry David Thoreau in his essay Civil Disobedience, and later by Gandhi in his doctrine of Satyagraha.[8] Gandhi’s Satyagraha was partially influenced and inspired by Shelley’s nonviolence in protest and political action.[9] In particular, it is known that Gandhi would often quote Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy to vast audiences during the campaign for a free India.[8][10]

Thoreau’s 1849 essay Civil Disobedience, originally titled “Resistance to Civil Government”, has had a wide influence on many later practitioners of civil disobedience. The driving idea behind the essay is that citizens are morally responsible for their support of aggressors, even when such support is required by law. In the essay, Thoreau explained his reasons for having refused to pay taxes as an act of protest against slavery and against the Mexican–American War. He writes,

If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, “I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico;—see if I would go;” and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute.

By the 1850s, a range of minority groups in the United States: African Americans, Jews, Seventh Day Baptists, Catholics, anti-prohibitionists, racial egalitarians, and others—employed civil disobedience to combat a range of legal measures and public practices that to them promoted ethnic, religious, and racial discrimination. Pro Public and typically peaceful resistance to political power would remain an integral tactic in modern American minority rights politics.[11]

In Ireland starting from 1879 the Irish “Land War” intensified when Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, in a speech in Ennis proposed that when dealing with tenants who take farms where another tenant was evicted, rather than resorting to violence, everyone in the locality should shun them. Following this Captain Charles Boycott, the land agent of an absentee landlord in County Mayo, Ireland, was subject to social ostracism organized by the Irish Land League in 1880. Boycott attempted to evict eleven tenants from his land. While Parnell’s speech did not refer to land agents or landlords, the tactic was applied to Boycott when the alarm was raised about the evictions. Despite the short-term economic hardship to those undertaking this action, Boycott soon found himself isolated – his workers stopped work in the fields and stables, as well as in his house. Local businessmen stopped trading with him, and the local postman refused to deliver mail. The movement spread throughout Ireland and gave rise to the term to Boycott, and eventually led to legal reform and support for Irish independence. [12]

Egypt saw a massive implementation on a nation-wide movement starting 1914 and peaking in 1919 as the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. This was then adopted by other native peoples who objected to British occupation from 1920 and on. However, this was never used with native laws that were more oppressive than the British occupation[specify], leading to problems for these countries today.[13] Zaghloul Pasha, considered the mastermind behind this massive civil disobedience, was a native middle-class, Azhar graduate, political activist, judge, parliamentary and ex-cabinet minister whose leadership brought Christian and Muslim communities together as well as women into the massive protests. Along with his companions of Wafd Party, who have achieved an independence of Egypt and a first constitution in 1923. Civil disobedience is one of the many ways people have rebelled against what they deem to be unfair laws. It has been used in many nonviolent resistance movements in India (Mahatma Gandhi’s campaigns for independence from the British Empire), in Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, in early stages of Bangladesh independence movement against Pakistani repression and in East Germany to oust their communist governments.[14] In South Africa in the fight against apartheid, in the American civil rights movement, in the Singing Revolution to bring independence to the Baltic countries from the Soviet Union, recently with the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2004 Orange Revolution[15] in Ukraine, among other various movements worldwide.


Henry David Thoreau’s classic essay Civil Disobedience inspired Martin Luther King Jr. and many other activists.

Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Resistance to Civil Government” was eventually renamed “Essay on Civil Disobedience”. After his landmark lectures were published in 1866, the term began to appear in numerous sermons and lectures relating to slavery and the war in Mexico.[16][17][18][19] Thus, by the time Thoreau’s lectures were first published under the title “Civil Disobedience”, in 1866, four years after his death, the term had achieved fairly widespread usage.

It has been argued that the term “civil disobedience” has always suffered from ambiguity and in modern times, become utterly debased. Marshall Cohen notes, “It has been used to describe everything from bringing a test-case in the federal courts to taking aim at a federal official. Indeed, for Vice President Spiro Agnew it has become a code-word describing the activities of muggers, arsonists, draft evaders, campaign hecklers, campus militants, anti-war demonstrators, juvenile delinquents and political assassins.”[20]

LeGrande writes that

the formulation of a single all-encompassing definition of the term is extremely difficult, if not impossible. In reviewing the voluminous literature on the subject, the student of civil disobedience rapidly finds himself surrounded by a maze of semantical problems and grammatical niceties. Like Alice in Wonderland, he often finds that specific terminology has no more (or no less) meaning than the individual orator intends it to have.

He encourages a distinction between lawful protest demonstration, nonviolent civil disobedience, and violent civil disobedience.[21]

In a letter to P. K. Rao, dated September 10, 1935, Gandhi disputes that his idea of civil disobedience was derived from the writings of Thoreau:[22]

The statement that I had derived my idea of Civil Disobedience from the writings of Thoreau is wrong. The resistance to authority in South Africa was well advanced before I got the essay … When I saw the title of Thoreau’s great essay, I began to use his phrase to explain our struggle to the English readers. But I found that even “Civil Disobedience” failed to convey the full meaning of the struggle. I therefore adopted the phrase “Civil Resistance.”


In seeking an active form of civil disobedience, one may choose to deliberately break certain laws, such as by forming a peaceful blockade or occupying a facility illegally,[23] though sometimes violence has been known to occur. Often there is an expectation to be attacked or even beaten by the authorities. Protesters often undergo training in advance on how to react to arrest or to attack.

Civil disobedience is usually defined as pertaining to a citizen’s relation to the state and its laws, as distinguished from a constitutional impasse, in which two public agencies, especially two equally sovereign branches of government, conflict. For instance, if the head of government of a country were to refuse to enforce a decision of that country’s highest court, it would not be civil disobedience, since the head of government would be acting in her or his capacity as public official rather than private citizen.[24]

However, this definition is disputed by Thoreau’s political philosophy pitching the conscience vs. the collective. The individual is the final judge of right and wrong. More than this, since only individuals act, only individuals can act unjustly. When the government knocks on the door, it is an individual in the form of a postman or tax collector whose hand hits the wood. Before Thoreau’s imprisonment, when a confused taxman had wondered aloud about how to handle his refusal to pay, Thoreau had advised, “Resign.” If a man chose to be an agent of injustice, then Thoreau insisted on confronting him with the fact that he was making a choice. But if government is “the voice of the people,” as it is often called, shouldn’t that voice be heeded? Thoreau admits that government may express the will of the majority but it may also express nothing more than the will of elite politicians. Even a good form of government is “liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.” Moreover, even if a government did express the voice of the people, this fact would not compel the obedience of individuals who disagree with what is being said. The majority may be powerful but it is not necessarily right. What, then, is the proper relationship between the individual and the government?[25]

In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls described civil disobedience as “a public, non-violent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about change in the law or policies of the government”.[26]

Ronald Dworkin held that there are three types of civil disobedience:

  • “Integrity-based” civil disobedience occurs when a citizen disobeys a law she or he feels is immoral, as in the case of abolitionists disobeying the fugitive slave laws by refusing to turn over escaped slaves to authorities.
  • “Justice-based” civil disobedience occurs when a citizen disobeys laws to lay claim to some right denied to her or him, as when blacks illegally protested during the civil rights movement.
  • “Policy-based” civil disobedience occurs when a person breaks the law to change a policy (s)he believes is dangerously wrong.[27]

Some theories of civil disobedience hold that civil disobedience is only justified against governmental entities. Brownlee argues that disobedience in opposition to the decisions of non-governmental agencies such as trade unions, banks, and private universities can be justified if it reflects “a larger challenge to the legal system that permits those decisions to be taken”. The same principle, she argues, applies to breaches of law in protest against international organizations and foreign governments.[28]

It is usually recognized that lawbreaking, if it is not done publicly, at least must be publicly announced to constitute civil disobedience. But Stephen Eilmann argues that if it is necessary to disobey rules that conflict with morality, we might ask why disobedience should take the form of public civil disobedience rather than simply covert lawbreaking. If a lawyer wishes to help a client overcome legal obstacles to securing her or his natural rights, he might, for instance, find that assisting in fabricating evidence or committing perjury is more effective than open disobedience. This assumes that common morality does not have a prohibition on deceit in such situations.[29] The Fully Informed Jury Association’s publication “A Primer for Prospective Jurors” notes, “Think of the dilemma faced by German citizens when Hitler’s secret police demanded to know if they were hiding a Jew in their house.”[30] By this definition, civil disobedience could be traced back to the Book of Exodus, where Shiphrah and Puah refused a direct order of Pharaoh but misrepresented how they did it. (Exodus 1: 15–19)[31]

One thought on “Civil disobedience

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