In A Plea for Captain John Brown, Thoreau writes:

Any man knows when he is justified, and all the wits in the world cannot enlighten him on that point. The murderer always knows that he is justly punished; but when a government takes the life of a man without the consent of his conscience, it is an audacious government, and is taking a step towards its own dissolution. Is it not possible that an individual may be right and a government wrong? Are laws to be enforced simply because they were made? or declared by any number of men to be good, if they are not good? Is there any necessity for a man’s being a tool to perform a deed of which his better nature disapproves? Is it the intention of law-makers that good men shall be hung ever? Are judges to interpret the law according to the letter, and not the spirit? What right have you to enter into a compact with yourself that you will do thus or so, against the light within you? Is it for you to make up your mind,—to form any resolution whatever,—and not accept the convictions that are forced upon you, and which ever pass your understanding? I do not believe in lawyers, in that mode of attacking or defending a man, because you descend to meet the judge on his own ground, and, in cases of the highest importance, it is of no consequence whether a man breaks a human law or not. Let lawyers decide trivial cases. Business men may arrange that among themselves. If they were the interpreters of the everlasting laws which rightfully bind man, that would be another thing. A counterfeiting law-factory, standing half in a slave land and half in a free! What kind of laws for free men can you expect from that?

Of what judge, God?, does Thoreau speak here? What might be meant by descending, dying?, here to meet the judge? Does the author mean the day of reckoning when he speaks of meeting the judge on his own ground.

1 Answer 1


The "judge" Thoreau refers to here is not God, but an ordinary courtroom judge.

To summarize the larger passage: Thoreau is arguing here that you should follow your conscience rather than blindly obeying the law or the government. Ordinary laws can be unfair or unjust; for example, they might permit or promote slavery. But your conscience is in touch with "the everlasting laws which rightfully bind man", i.e. the laws of God and/or nature, which enables you to really know the difference between right and wrong. Your conscience (according to Thoreau) is "higher" or more important than (human) law.

I do not believe in lawyers...because you descend to meet the judge on his own ground.

When you choose to enter a courtroom, you agree to play by the court's rules. In other words, you agree to be bound by the law, even if the law is unjust. Thoreau sees this as "lowering" yourself.

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