Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience is conscientious defiance of a law or a legal official to protest a law, policy, or officially sanctioned injustice, or to be faithful to a principle, value, or higher law. Persons engaging in civil disobedience risk or expect to suffer legal sanctions, including detention and imprisonment, as a result of their refusal to obey a law or legal authority. Civil disobedience differs from rebellion or revolution in that it is generally expected to be nonviolent and those engaging in it are not seeking political power or the overthrow of an existing legal regime. It is an extraordinary means by which private persons communicate objections to law or by which they refuse to be co-opted into participating in practices, institutions, or policies mandated by law. It may be a principled response in circumstances in which secular authority is unavoidably in conflict with a higher law or a social or religious obligation or is otherwise judged to be unreasonable.

How those engaging in civil disobedience behave is also important in judging its legitimacy. While each behavioral norm is a matter of debate and prudential judgment, persons engaging in civil disobedience are held to certain standards of conduct. They are generally expected to defy the law openly and publicly, since openness communicates conscientious objection and moral responsibility in accepting consequence. They are usually expected to be willing to accept legal sanctions, including imprisonment, to show respect for law and the integrity of their purposes. They are typically expected to abide by the principle of proportionality, violating the law only to the extent necessary to achieve legitimate purposes. The law violated need not be the unjust law, but there should be a reasonably clear connection between the law violated and the unjust law or action. Perhaps most significantly, nonviolence is often cited as a requirement in the practice of legitimate civil disobedience. However, some believe violence may be justifiable on occasion, especially if it is self-inflicted. For instance, the example of a Buddhist monk in South Vietnam, who had set himself on fire to protest oppression under the American-sponsored leadership of Diem, inspired antiwar protestors, such as Alice Herz and George Winne Jr., to engage in acts of self-immolation to protest the Vietnam War.


America's history and legal traditions have been shaped by numerous incidences of civil disobedience, from the colonial era to today. In colonial America, the profession of religious belief or the expression of political ideas was commonly punishable by law; the very act of engaging in political or religious speech could be an act of civil disobedience, especially in the colonies of Massachusetts governed by Puritan leaders. Roger Williams ( ca. 1603–1683 ), a theologian, advocate for Native Americans, and proponent of the separation of church and state, engaged in civil disobedience simply by challenging Puritan orthodoxy. He was banished from the Massachusetts settlements by the colonial government for heresy and subsequently founded a settlement in Rhode Island in 1636. Anne Hutchinson ( 1591–1643 ) was likewise tried and exiled to Rhode Island the following year for expressing religious views that challenged the political and religious authority of ruling elites. Their examples influenced Americans eventually to embrace religious tolerance and the separation of church and state. A century later, John Peter Zenger ( 1697–1746 ) engaged in civil disobedience by publishing a newspaper critical of New York's colonial governor. He was tried for seditious libel but was acquitted by a jury in 1735. His trial established the legal precedent that truth is a defense to defamation, a significant advance for freedom of speech and of the press.

The prerevolutionary era was marked by many instances of resistance to British rule. The Boston Tea Party was its most famous instance of civil disobedience. On December 16, 1773, local Patriots, some disguised as Mohawks, boarded three vessels containing chests of tea and threw these into the Boston harbor. These Patriots broke the law in destroying property, but they had broad domestic support because their actions were justified by the principle of “no taxation without representation.” The Massachusetts colonial assembly refused British demands for compensation, and the Boston Tea Party encouraged similar acts of resistance in other colonies. In response to this perceived lawlessness, the British passed the Coercive Acts of 1774, which escalated tensions and excited revolutionary sentiment. The American Revolution ultimately vindicated the principle of taxation by consent of the governed.


In the antebellum era, abolitionists engaged in many acts of civil disobedience to emancipate slaves. Among those who took the greatest personal risks were black abolitionists, notably Harriet Tubman ( ca. 1820–1913 ) and Frederick Douglass ( ca. 1817–1895

Other nineteenth-century reformers engaged in more public displays of civil disobedience for the purpose of advocating political reform. Henry David Thoreau ( 1817–1862 ), a highly influential American author and transcendentalist, was arrested and imprisoned in 1846 for refusing to pay a poll tax to protest both legalized slavery and the Mexican War. In 1849, he published Civil Disobedience, an essay encouraging others not to lend tacit support to a government that perpetrates injustices. Susan B. Anthony ( 1820–1906 ) engaged in civil disobedience as a means of advancing the suffrage movement. On November 5, 1872, she cast a vote for a member of Congress, an unlawful act for which she was subsequently arrested and indicted. She was convicted and fined $100, which she refused to pay. For Thoreau and Anthony, civil disobedience drew public attention to political causes.


In the twentieth century, civil rights reformers, such as Rosa Parks ( 1913–2005 ) and Martin Luther King Jr. ( 1929–1968 ), also advocated resistance to injustice following high-profile cases of civil disobedience. When Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat to a white passenger aboard a city bus on December 1, 1955, she violated the segregation laws of Montgomery, Alabama. While she did not plan to engage in civil disobedience on that occasion, her defiance became a cause célèbre among civil rights organizations that capitalized upon her experience to lead a bus boycott attracting national attention. Martin Luther King Jr. was likewise charged with minor violations of the law for his involvement in the civil rights movement. He penned “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on April 16, 1963, following his detention for demon-strating without a permit. In this highly influential letter, King drew from Christianity, Thoreau, and Mohandas Gandhi ( 1869–1948 ) to explain when civil disobedience may be justified and to describe the nonviolent methods he regarded as legitimate. King argued that it is unjust for a majority to inflict upon a minority a code that it is unwilling to accept for itself. In the case of segregation laws, when the majority acquires a false sense of superiority, while the minority experiences a false sense of inferiority, the true value of persons is distorted. King advocated a four-step process for redressing injustice: “(1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, (2) negotiation, (3) self-purification, and (4) direct action.”

Civil disobedience became widespread as opposition to the Vietnam War mounted in the late 1960s. American youths engaged in illegal nonviolent protests, burned draft cards, and evaded the draft. While draft dodgers were criticized for not accepting the consequences of their unlawful actions, Howard Zinn argued on their behalf that if it is morally justifiable to break an unjust law, then it is immoral to punish those engaged in civil disobedience. According to Zinn, protestors need not be willing to accept punishment to engage in civil disobedience. They also drew support from such stalwarts of principled civil disobedience as Dorothy Day ( 1897–1980 ), a pacifist who had engaged in civil disobedience from 1955 to 1959 in refusing to participate in legally mandated civil defense drills. The effect of widespread youth resistance was to substantially weaken domestic resolve in waging the war. Draft dodgers received an unconditional presidential pardon for their breach of law in 1977.


American journalists also count among those who have engaged in civil disobedience. Journalists may be required by law to reveal their sources in criminal proceedings in light of the landmark case of Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 ( 1972 ). Yet journalists are also bound by professional ethics not to disclose a source without that person's consent. Caught between professional ethics and the law, Judith Miller, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, spent eighty-five days in jail in 2005 for not cooperating with a court order to disclose the identity of an informant who had illegally named a covert operative of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Civil rights activist Rosa Parks sitting toward the front of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, 1956.

Civil rights activist Rosa Parks sitting toward the front of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, 1956.

The practice of civil disobedience carries with it the potential to influence the law to render it more consistent with principles of justice. It is also an indispensable means by which persons may preserve freedom of conscience. At the same time, it can be a perilous practice, being at odds with Abraham Lincoln's exhortation in his address before the Young Man's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, on January 27, 1838: “Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well-wisher to his posterity swear by the blood of the Revolution never to violate in the least particular the laws of the country and never to tolerate their violation by others.”

SEE ALSO Anthony, Susan B. ; Civic Duty ; Civic Participation ; Civil Rights Movement ; King, Martin Luther, Jr. ; “Letter from Birmingham Jail” ; Nonviolent Resistance .


Bedau, Hugo Adam, ed. Civil Disobedience in Focus. London: Routledge: 1991.

Dworkin, Ronald. “Civil Disobedience.” In Taking Rights Seriously, 206–222. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Perry, Lewis. Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.

Zinn, Howard. Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order. New York: Random House, 1968.

Seana Sugrue
Ave Maria University