On the Duty of Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau is an essay on the relationship between a citizen of the state and the state itself. An opponent of slavery & American imperialism, Thoreau argues that it is more crucial to be right (that is to say, just) than to be lawful. A prime example is slavery. Slavery was, for a long time, lawful – that is, it was allowed to exist and flourish under the auspices of a negligent government. Slavery is never just, however – and if you were to be an opponent of slavery, going against it and its followers at every turn, you would be right (just) in doing so but also, potentially, a lawbreaker.
Thoreau proposes that a government is, by its very nature, an agent of injustice. One doesn’t need to look far to see this to be a mostly true characterization – in the case of dictatorships, institutional racism, slavery, oligarchies, police states, and more. The right to revolt is not a mere option, but rather a duty for honest and just citizens of the state. This is most apparent in the most egregious and extreme cases – slavery, genocide, and their contemporaries.
A citizen cannot (and ought not) wait passively for change; they can instead be an agent of change. To be just – taking the action of living a just life, opposing injustice where you see it, and not supporting injustice – is the practical change required in order to improve the condition of the state. In his own fight against injustice, Thoreau stopped paying taxes to protest the Mexican-American War, a war he viewed as unjust.
Thoreau’s masterwork had an impact on no less than Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom claim that On the Duty of Civil Disobedience had a significant impact on their own works & actions.