Ahmed Syed Professor Ravy Eng 112-536 04/27/2010 Civil Disobedience in an Unjust America According to the infamous essay by Henry David Thoreau, civil disobedience is the conscious and intentional disobeying of a law to advance a moral principle or change government policy. Throughout the essay, Thoreau urges the need for individuals to put their personal and social consciousness before their allegiance to their government and its range of policies. Thoreau believed that if a government is unjust, citizens should simply refuse to follow the law and eventually begin to distance themselves from their government in a variety of ways.
Although published 105 years one of the most turbulent and crucial times in American history, the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement saw the congruence between their plight and the teachings in Civil Disobedience. The protests led by legendary activist Martin Luther King and the watershed event of Rosa Park’s infamous bus ride were just two instances in which civil disobedience came to fruition in modern day America. The following quote by Thoreau laid the groundwork for the basis of the actions of many civil rights activists, King and Parks included, “I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward...
The only obligation which I have is the right to do what I think right. ” (Civil Disobedience 475). The aforementioned quote reveals Thoreau’s belief that it was a citizen’s obligation to withdraw from participating in an unjust and evil government and gives support to future opposition to the American Government as scene during the 1950s and 1960s. Thoreau argues on several issues throughout his essay which include disassociation and reform, however one overarching and undeniable argument that is present throughout his essay is that the American government is an unjust government that must be corrected.
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This belief was also held by civil rights activists. Through this research paper, the foundation of Thoreau’s ideas and their penetration into modern American history will be explored. The social context surrounding Thoreau and his work includes two prevalent issues: slavery and The Mexican-American War. During the 1840s, when Civil Disobedience was published, the North and South were at odds over the issue of slavery. During the same time, many Americans also believed it was their “manifest destiny” to claim parts of Mexico as the United States.
Based on these two issues, Thoreau argues that the United States is an evil and unjust government. Thoreau and Paul Power’s Civil Disobedience as Functional Opposition both argue that if the government were not evil in its objectives and agenda then the idea and practice of civil disobedience would not have been needed nor created. According to Powers, “due the established evil of our government, there are both moral and ideological grounds for justifying civil disobedience,” (Powers 37). This is because civil disobedience is a reaction to unjust government.
Although many argue against civil disobedience by saying unjust laws made by a democratic legislature can be changed by a democratic legislature and that the existence of lawful channels of change make civil disobedience unnecessary, Thoreau and Powers would argue that the constitution and said laws are the problem, not the solution. According to Thoreau, governments are often “abused and perverted” (Civil Disobedience 249) so that they no longer reflect the needs and opinions of the common people.
The American government showcased the aforementioned abuse and perversion during Thoreau’s time in their partaking in the Mexican-American War. The main objective of the war was the take land from Mexico in order to create a larger and more powerful America. According to Thoreau, the American government achieved these objectives through an unfair armed conflict that was reminiscent of the long arm of European monarchies Thoreau also argued that the American government was unjust in its total support of slavery.
Thoreau believed that citizens of the United States must stop slavery and the war with Mexico, even if it costs them their existence as a people. In order to truly make his arguments effective, Thoreau used ethos and pathos to persuade the people of his era. His use of ethos is evident throughout the entire essay. Thoreau establishes that he is a credible source as he himself has practiced civil disobedience and has been imprisoned for doing so. Thoreau says, “I have paid no poll-tax for six years.
I was put into jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone…I cold not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution” (Civil Disobedience 249). In the aforementioned quote, not only does he build his own credibility as a sort of martyr for his cause, but he discredits the opposition, the government. Thoreau engages the audience by way of pathos as he speaks on such an emotional level about pressing issues that almost every American had an opinion on, the war and slavery (Civil Disobedience 243. Thoreau’s use of ethos and pathos was so successful and convincing that that it resonated with Americans over 100 years later. Thoreau’s teachings helped to form and energize the American civil rights movement. His ideas and teachings were applied to sit-ins at lunch counters, the freedom ride to Mississippi, peaceful protests in Georgia, and the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. All of these defining moments were the outcome of Thoreau's insistence that “evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice” (Thoreau 244).
Thoreau also uses sensory imagery to convince and reach his audience in the following quote: “If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil…Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine” (Civil Disobedience 248). This quote applies Thoreau’s somewhat abstract theories and ideas about evil and injustice to tangible and common objects, allowing all members of his audience to understand the major arguments of his essay.
The use of the concrete words machine, spring, pulley, rope, and crank allow Thoreau’s audience to take what he is saying and apply it to common processes and mages that they understand because they are parts of their common and everyday lives. Columnist Bob Herbert, of the New York Times, recently wrote an article about Martin Luther King’s opposition to the Vietnam War, which can be compared with Thoreau’s thoughts on the Mexican-American War. Herbert cited King as saying the United States Government, in regards to their war efforts was, “Corrupt, inept, and without popular support,” (Herbert 2010).
Herbert went on to further to say, “Dr. King spoke about the damage the Vietnam War was doing to America’s war on poverty, and the way it was undermining other important domestic initiatives. What he wanted from the U. S. was not warfare overseas but a renewed commitment to economic and social justice at home. As he put it: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” (Herbert 2010). Not only did King agree with Thoreau on the social, piritual, and moral wrongs of war, but he also practiced civil disobedience and was sent to jail just as Thoreau was. In April of 1963, King was imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama for his participation and leadership of the Birmingham campaign, a planned non-violent protest conducted by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference against racial segregation (King). While imprisoned, King wrote a Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which is equivalent to Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience in that he demonstrated that he was in Birmingham in the first place because injustice resided there.
Within the letter he also stated the sole reason for his imprisonment was for protesting those injustices. Letter from a Birmingham Jail was the root of King’s views on civil disobedience. As the primary leader the Civil Rights Movement, King was known for his views on the value of civil disobedience as a way to achieve political attention and change, similar to Thoreau. Specifically, King studied and used methods of Thoreau’s civil disobedience to combat and change segregation laws.
King’s thoughts on civil disobedience raised similar theoretical questions to Thoreau’s about the relationship between an individual, their government, and one’s moral and political duties in upholding their personal social contract with the US government (Melendez). Within the letter, King utilizes the same ethos and pathos that Thoreau used 100 years earlier. King builds his credibility and rapport by explaining himself as a reliable, competent, activist who has the utmost respect for his audience's ideas and values. This can be seen as he writes, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B. C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail 207). In conclusion, while Thoreau and his disciple Martin Luther King Jr. ncourage the need for individuals to correctly and justly prioritize their individual conscious and the laws of their government, they essentially argue that the reason for the institution of civil disobedience is because the American government is and will always be an unjust government. Thoreau believes this is true not only because of their involvement in the Mexican-American War and their firm support of slavery, but because the American government’s actions are derived from the needs, opinions, and desires of a small group of citizens who fail to represent the majority.
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