Comparing Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King on Unjust Laws

Topics: Civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr. Pages: 3 (919 words) Published: April 11, 2012
In today’s society, it is often unclear where to draw the line between good morals and effective government. It is for this reason that many times, laws that are enacted for the “good of the people” can be in direct conflict with a person’s conscience. Due to the various struggles that the United States has faced in building a government, this topic has been a popular discussion throughout American literature. Although they did not live during the same time, American writers Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr. each wrote about how a person should not follow laws that they believe to be immoral. Thoreau’s main concern pertained to the legal existence of slaves and slave-owners, and a century later, King spoke out against legal segregation in the South. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. shares the same attitude with Henry David Thoreau’s work, “Civil Disobedience” concerning just and unjust laws; however, they each had different means of executing their beliefs.

Both men agree that if a law is unjust, it is one’s duty to break that law, and do instead what they believe to be right. Thoreau considers that when unjust laws exist, a person has three choices of action: obey them, obey them while working to change them, or transgress them at once. He proposes, “It is not a man's duty…to devote himself to the eradication of…even the most enormous wrong; …but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and…not to give it practically his support.” (Thoreau 4). Thoreau also ponders whether it is better to decide what is right and wrong by one’s own conscience. He declares, "It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right." (Thoreau 1). King, who was a devout clergyman, places one’s moral obligations under the eyes of God. He defines a just law as “…a man-made code that squares with the…law of God.”...

Cited: King Jr., Martin Luther. "Letter from Birmingham Jail". 50 Essays.
Boston: Bedford/St. Martin 's, 2004. Print.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience”. Part One.
September 27, 2011.
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