The 1849 essay “Resistance to Civil Government”, better known as “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”, by Henry David Thoreau is one of the most influential writings of the 19th century. Written to expound Thoreau’s ideas on resistance to a U.S. government that at the time permitted slavery and was waging an unpopular war against Mexico, the essay inspired other famous activists, most notably Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, to espouse the notion of changing unjust laws and government policies through active but non-violent resistance.
In this media-driven age civil disobedience seems to have taken on yet another meaning. Today it most often refers to instances in which activists for a particular cause engage in public lawbreaking (usually trespassing or blocking access to public facilities) designed primarily to attract attention and/or provoke authorities into arresting them.
As a result we have actions such as PETA’s public displays of nudity and their attacks upon fur wearers; Greenpeace’s placement of banners in unauthorized locations; anti-war protesters trespassing upon, vandalizing or defacing military installations or missile sites; abortion clinic blockades; gay activists disrupting Catholic Masses; and pro-life activist Randall Terry’s entering the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last fall and tearing up a copy of the 2,000-page healthcare bill, all being characterized as “civil disobedience” in the tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King.