Civil Disobedience: Thoreau, King, and Gandhi

Civil disobedience is described as “the refusal to obey certain laws that are considered unfair, as a peaceful form of political protest” (Brownlee 34). Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King are three of the most well-known advocates of civil disobedience. Thoreau’s call for civil disobedience was motivated by his dislike of slavery in America; Gandhi opposed British invasion of India; and King called for civil disobedience in his struggle against segregation of African-Americans in the United States. The common factor among all three writers is that they all advocated for a form of resistance to unjust rule in society and considered civil disobedience to be their moral obligation.

Comparison and Contrast

The thesis in Gandhi’s essay is that civil disobedience is the most commendable approach to resisting unjust rule as opposed to violent retaliation. Essentially, Gandhi advocates for civil disobedience in the form of satyagraha. This method of combating injustice demands self-sacrifice and hence, inflicts suffering only on one party. “He has to be prepared to die himself suffering all the pain” (Gandhi 1). Gandhi makes a reference to the adoption of this method in the fight for justice in South Africa. “We made it clear to the said Government that we would never bow to its outrageous laws” (Gandhi 1).

Alternatively, King advocates for civil disobedience while serving his jail term for partaking in a nonviolent demonstration in Birmingham. King’s passion for the fight against segregation of black people in America was unprecedented. According to King, civil disobedience in the form of non-violent campaigns is the most optimal approach to combating injustice. King supports the use of nonviolent campaigns despite the fact that they may precipitate violence. He states that it is an act of immorality to prompt a person to withdraw his endeavors to acquire one’s basic constitutional rights on the grounds that this may precipitate violence. According to King, the reason why nonviolent direct action is the most optimal method of combating injustice is that it establishes creative tension and urges the society to address an issue that has been neglected. “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come” (King 4).

Thoreau viewed civil disobedience as a necessity and a moral obligation of a citizen living in an unjust society. He was strongly opposed to the Mexican-American war and slavery (Thoreau 1). According to Thoreau, every individual has a right to revolt. I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward” (Thoreau 2). His argument is that citizens must not allow the government to subjugate their consciences; rather, they are obligated to resist permitting such obedience to facilitate the government in making them partakers in injustice (Thoreau 2).

Based on their proclamations, it is evident that Gandhi and King were greatly inspired by Thoreau’s approach to combating injustice in the society. King directly attributes his initial introduction to nonviolent resistance to the example set by Thoreau when he refused to pay taxes and opted for jail as opposed to supporting a war initiated to expand slavery (Brownlee 89). “He was one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced. He went to gaol for the sake of his principles and suffering humanity” (Gandhi 1).

In comparison, Thoreau’s views are considerably more aggressive than Gandhi’s and King’s. His words clearly indicate a disinclination to hail the government and abide by all its rules blindly. Thoreau urges people to always do what they think is right from an individual perspective regardless of what the government may require of them (Thoreau 2). According to him, the government is a significant agent of injustice and corruption.

Similar to Thoreau, Gandhi and King consider it every citizen’s moral obligation to resist unjust rule. None of them advocate for violence means of doing so. Conversely, they call for civil disobedience. One should not be acquiescent to unjust rule. Gandhi asserts that civil disobedience is effective since there can be no sovereign without the subjects. Should the subjects simply refuse the rule of the Government, the latter will be automatically stripped of its authority. He claims that he will never obey suppressive laws even with the prospect of punishment for disobedience.

Thoreau, King, and Gandhi assert that silence and obedience are enablers of injustice. For instance, King elaborates his position by giving an example of the modern church. “It is often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are” (King 5).


Conclusively, all three writers propose civil disobedience to combat unjust rule. Essentially, they facilitate the simple notion that one does not have to accept rules that contradict one’s own moral views and practices. Civil disobedience is a form of resistance that keeps the peace while simultaneously declaring one’s adamancy to not support oppressive rule.

Work cited

Brownlee, Kimberley. Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience. Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2012. Print.

Gandhi, Mahatma. On Civil Disobedience. 1916. Online Source.

King, Martin. Letter from Birmingham Jail. 1963. Online Source.

Thoreau, Henry. Civil Disobedience. 1849. Online Source.

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