Thoreau & Gandhi

January 26: Henry David Thoreau’s thoughts on “Civil Disobedience” werefirst aired on this day in 1848, in a talk delivered to “an attentiveaudience” (Bronson Alcott’s journal) at the Concord Lyceum. Originallytitled “The Relation of the Individual to the State,” the talk became”Resistance to Civil Government” when published in 1849, and then”Civil Disobedience” when republished four years after Thoreau’sdeath. The increasing militancy in the various titles may reflect a publisher’smarketing ploy, but it seems justified:

If the injustice is partof the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go;perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If theinjustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively foritself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse thanthe evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent ofinjustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that Ido not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

TheIndian National Congress, led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, issuedtheir Declaration of Independence on this day in 1930; on this day in 1931,Gandhi was unconditionally released from jail after serving eight months forhis salt rebellion; and on this day in 1950, with the legalization of its ownindependent constitution, India officially became a Republic. As early as 1907,when he was still an activist-lawyer in South Africa and urging on the localIndians to nonviolent protest, Gandhi cited Thoreau’s essay and example:

Thoreau was a greatwriter, philosopher, poet, and withal a most practical man, that is, he taughtnothing he was not prepared to practice in himself. He was one of the greatestand most moral men America has produced. At the time of the abolition ofslavery movement, he wrote his famous essay “On the Duty of CivilDisobedience”. He went to gaol for the sake of his principles andsuffering humanity. His essay has, therefore, been sanctified by suffering.Moreover, it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.