Political Science IUB

A Brief Conceptual History of Civil Disobedience: From Thoreau to Gandhi and King

Professor Russell L. Hanson

Department of Political Science, Indiana University

Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience is widely said to have influenced Mohandas K. Gandhi’s nonviolent campaign for Indian independence, which in turn is thought to have inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.’s direction of the American civil rights movement. In this presentation I recast that genealogy, showing that King construed elements of satyagraha in ways that served the political agenda of the civil rights movement in the United States, while playing down aspects of satyagraha that did not fit the American case or even clashed with Christian themes that were important within the civil rights movement. Of course, Gandhi did the same thing with Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience, which he borrowed selectively in making satyagraha the defining feature of a protest movement in South Africa and the independence movement in India. What was left out, and indeed what had to be excluded, was Thoreau’s famous skepticism regarding reform movements, and his veneration for John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry and the Hall’s Rifle Works.

Thus, Thoreau’s work as it is widely interpreted today—as a general injunction to disobey unjust laws by nonviolent means—is the result of a series of political appropriations, each building on the other, all of them leading toward a conclusion quite different from the author’s intent and original meaning. We need to know how, and why, that happened, and a model of the selective appropriation of ideas offers greater purchase on these questions than a genetic account of the “influence” of earlier thinks upon later descendants.


Friday October 13, 2017 11:00 AM
Friday October 13, 2017 12:30 PM
Woodburn Hall 218
Bill Scheuerman
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