Civil Disobedience in an Unjust America

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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. 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...
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