Justice in Civil Disobedience Essay

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Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"

Henry David Thoreau's essay on "Civil Disobedience" inspired many leaders, spanning from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr., to use nonviolent resistance to enact change. King wrote: "I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau" ("Civil Disobedience," Introduction). In the case of Thoreau, the Transcendentalist author of Walden refused to pay taxes to support what he considered to be an unjust conflict, the Mexican-American War. However, in his essay, Thoreau's argument has far greater implications than a single war, and instead he argues that all forms of collective representation including democratic ones are fundamentally less just and valid than the individual conscience. " This American government -- what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will" (I.2). In terms of a means of political resistance, Thoreau's nonviolence is laudable, but his idea that every person must decide what it a 'good' law him or herself would make it impossible to govern a modern nation if it was fully taken to heart.

Rather than viewing the American republic as an ideal example of government 'for the people, by the people,' Thoreau argued that the real engine behind democracy was merely another form of the ideology of 'might makes right.' "After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest" (1.4). Simply because the elected representatives of the American people had decided to go to war with Mexico, argued Thoreau, did not mean that this action was moral or even truly endorsed by 'the people.'

Thoreau's view of the illegitimacy of the American government was partially based in the fact that large populations were prevented from voting, most notably slaves. Thoreau rejected the idea that the courts and elected forms of governance were adequate means of changing society. "As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man's life will be gone" (II.6). Thoreau pointed out that the people whom the government is profiting from and does not help, such as slaves, are denied the ability to make use democratic methods of change because they are politically disenfranchised. Going along with these slow-moving (or unmoving) institutions like voting does not change the system. But a meaningful action which can enact change is withholding the funds that allow the government to function. "I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name -- if ten honest men only -- ay, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America" (II.8).

Subjects must refuse allegiance when a government is unjust -- by refusing to pay taxes, refusing to hold offices and opting out of a system, rather than relying upon the vote, which merely perpetuates the system. "Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence" (II.9). In a nation that enslaves other people and goes to war for territorial gain, the only places to find 'just' men are in prison, in Thoreau's view.

Thoreau's expression of frustration is frequently echoed today, when people complain of having to choose between the 'lesser of two evils' at the ballot box, rather than being able to select a candidate for whom they truly wish to vote. Our government is supposedly democratic, but people feel they have no voice. Although there is universal suffrage of all legal citizens in America, many Americans feel shut out of the political system because of the tremendous…[continue]

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