What should the citizen of a country do if some laws of the state are unjust, according to Thoreau?


Thoreau talks about the activities of the citizens of a country in a state of democracy when some laws are unjust. Elucidate.


Discuss Thoreau’s attitude towards unjust laws in a democratic state.


When should men revolt to remove injustice?

JosbdAnswer: Sometimes a state has unjust laws for its citizens. The state punishes those who break the law or do not support them. In such circumstances, Thoreau suggests several ways: the people can remain content to obey them, or they can endeavor to amend them or they can obey them until they have succeeded in their endeavor to remove or eradicate them or they can transgress them at once. Men generally think, under such conditions, that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to- alter them. They usually have the fear that if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. Their endeavor to remove the evil will bounce upon themselves, and they will be sufferers for their own efforts meant for bringing about some good. But if we think a bit more deeply it becomes apparent to us that the government itself is responsible for such a possibility. It is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. The government should have anticipated such predicament, and should have provided remedy for reform. The state’s responsibility it is to cherish the minority. It should cry and resist before it is hurt; that is, it should  measures for correcting an evil law even before it enacts the law.

The state should encourage its citizens to be alert to point out its faults. That means, it would be wise on the part of the government of the state not to enact such laws as are unjust for the people. Instead of doing such benevolent things, the state punishes good citizens, puts them into prison or excommunicates them. Under such conditions, what the people can do is to withdraw their direct and indirect support for the sustenance of such laws. That is the least measure they can take even if the direct revolution against such unjust laws is not possible.


The state sometimes gives penalty for an offence which is not proportionate to the offence. Thoreau addresses this issue thus:

“One would think that a deliberate and practical denial of its authority was the only offence never contemplated by government; else, why has not it assigned its definite, its suitable and proportionate penalty? If a man who has no property refuses but once to earn nine shillings for the state, he is put in prison for a period unlimited by any law that I know, and determined only by the discretion of those who placed him there; but he should steal ninety times nine shillings from the State, he is soon permitted to go at large again.”

The law of the government has injustice as a built-in element. In that case it will gradually wear out. But if the injustice has a spring, or a pulley or a rope or a crank, then the remedy may be worse than the evil itself. And if it requires one to be the agent of injustice to another, then that law must be broken. One should offer one’s life as a counter-friction to that machinery. Thoreau expresses his opinion very explicitly.

People should protest against unjust laws not violently but through peaceful measures. Thoreau has given a novel idea of a “peaceable revolution” in this essay. An unfair State, which has been termed a slave state by the author, may imprison a just man for violating the laws of the state, for example, for not paying taxes. The idea of a peaceful revolution was a source of inspiration for the famous non-cooperation movement by Mahatma Gandhi of British India. Gandhi expressed his real indebtedness to Thoreau for this idea of peaceful revolution. When the laws of a state are unjust, when the state imprisons a man for violating such unjust laws, there should be a peaceful revolution by the people. This revolution can be affected even by the so-called minority. The minority is so-called, for Thoreau does not regard a minority as a real minority if it is based on conscience, truth and justice. Such a minority is really a majority. “I think that it is enough if they have God on their side”. Thoreau says clearly such a majority can bring about a peaceful revolution by not conforming to the rules of the state, by not paying taxes, by refusing allegiance to the state, and by resigning their office. They should have recourse to such revolution if their conscience is wounded.

Thoreau has expressed his attitude towards unjust laws of the state and given his opinion regarding what the people should do regarding such laws. Here, the author’s attitude is quite consistent; he hates such laws, and holds the government of a country responsible for passing such unjust laws. Thoreau’s suggestion as to what the people should do towards such laws, is quite reasonable and consistent with his political philosophy. He also mentions some responsibilities of the State in the circumstances created by such laws. The State should be so democratic as to encourage people to point out faults. It means that according to Thoreau democracy is not a one-sided affair, an affair in which the state does everything automatically. Democracy is rather an affair in which both the state and the people should have equal contribution. The faults of the one should be removed by the benevolent interference of the other. If Thoreau’s suggestions were followed the state would be one of perfect democracy, and the people would be its ideal members.