Civil Disobedience and Thoreau

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Are Thoreau’s Ideas About “Civil Disobedience” Outdated Today? “Civil disobedience” is an intentional and non-violent disobedience of law by an individual who believes that a certain law is unjust and who is willing to accept the penalty for breaking that law to bring about change and public awareness. When Henry David Thoreau wrote “On The Duty of Civil Disobedience” in 1849, he advocated that democracy in America could only be improved by individual activism and civil disobedience to unjust laws. Thoreau’s ideas in “Civil Disobedience” are outdated for contemporary American Society because the more effective solution for unjust laws today is active participation within the political system and not individual civil disobedience. The American political system allows the minority perspective to prevail, and any citizen can change the law through the courts, through Congress, and through the election of new government leaders.

Thoreau’s ideas that American democracy is run by an unresponsive and tyrannical majority and that “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority” (Thoreau 231) are wrong or outdated in today’s society. In the American concept of democracy, individuals can, and do, challenge unjust laws through the court system and through the election process. While civil disobedience by individuals has historically been credited for civil rights reform in America, the government institutions were ultimately responsible for the reform of unjust laws and unjust practices. Civil rights reform began in the court system. Ultimately, unjust laws were overturned by the new laws. The Fourteenth Amendment gave all citizens the right to due process and equal protection under the law. Women have the right to vote because of the Nineteenth Amendment. Thus, Thoreau is incorrect when he states “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it” and minimizes the effect that a citizen can have in the election process (Thoreau 226).

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