Thoreau Essay On Civil Disobedience

Thoreau Essay On Civil Disobedience-16
Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.

Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.

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What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army. Thoreau wrote during debates over the impeding Fugitive Slave Act, a law that put every person of color in the expanding country---free or escaped, in every state and territory---at risk of enslavement or imprisonment without any due process.

The figure he cites of “a sixth of the population” is not erroneous. Thoreau found both this developing nightmare and the Mexican-American war too intolerably unjust for the country to bear.

The present is rife with examples of oppressive governments. The question that presents itself to any opposition is what is to be done? Neither, of course, did Henry David Thoreau, author of the 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience,” a document that every student of Political Philosophy 101 knows as an ur-text of modern democratic protest movements.

The likelihood of success in such cases---depending on the belligerence of the opposition and the capabilities of the government---varies widely.

Within a year of his inauguration, he had declared full-scale war on Mexico because of squabbles over the Texan border, and was soon rattling his saber at Britain over the ownership of Oregon.

To complete the picture, Polk was a vigorous defender of slavery, who dismissed the arguments of abolitionists as naive and sentimental.And he recognized the limitations of elections to resolve them: “All voting is a sort of gaming...with a slight moral tinge to it,” he wrote, then observed with devastating irony, given total disenfranchisement of people who were property, that “Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.” “Unjust laws exist,” writes Thoreau, “I say, break the law.In July 1846, he walked into Concord, Massachusetts to get his shoes repaired and was arrested and thrown into the town’s jail.Thoreau saw nothing undignified about spending some time behind bars.This is an essay we have become all-too familiar with by reputation rather than by reading.Thoreau’s political philosophy is not passive, as in the phrase “passive resistance.” It is not middle-of-the-road centrism disguised as radicalism.What marked out a noble citizen of the republic, a real American, was not – in Thoreau’s view – that they respectfully shut up, but that they thought for themselves every day of an administration’s life.On the basis of just this kind of independent thinking, Thoreau signalled a radical opposition to Polk’s term.“To speak practically and as a citizen,” he wrote, “unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” He does not go to great lengths, as classical philosophers were wont, to define the ideal government. But as to what constitutes injustice, Thoreau is clear: When the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. Du Bois showed in one of his revolutionary 1900 sociological visualizations, during the time of Thoreau’s essay, one-sixth of the country’s population was indeed comprised of people of African descent, most of them enslaved.


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