Thoreau Essay, Research Paper
There are times throughout the history of the United States when its citizens have felt the need to revolt against the government. Two such cases occurred during the time of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Henry David Thoreau. Both men courageously confronted the mighty us government; both spent time in jail as a result of their defiant actions; both men stood for a belief in a better future, and both presented their dreams through non-violent protest and civil disobedience. The similarities in their course of action are undeniable, but each man used different terms on which they based their arguments. Martin Luther King Junior’s appeal through the human conscience, and Henry Thoreau’s excellent use of patriotism, present similar issues in very dissimilar ways.
King’s letter, written while in jail, is in direct response to a letter written by a group of “fellow clergymen”. His letter clearly and effectively responds to each of the five examples given by the clergymen. He opens his letter by recognizing that he believes their complaints to be “sincere” and of “genuine goodwill”. The respect given to these men in the first few sentences immediately present King as a man of equal standards and beliefs. It also has a subtle and maybe subconscious affect as he asks for the same respect in return. The letter is noticeably divided into 6 major components. The first five sections are in direct response to the letter from the clergymen, and the last is his final plea for justice. He opens each section by conceding to the clergymen, and uses direct quotes from their letter to support is argument. Following this opening, he uses a variety of strategies to drill his point. “Broken promises” and the “dark depths of prejudice” portray segregation as the ultimate “evil” he believes it to be. He pleads for protection from the “[hateful] mothers in New Orleans…[which] can be seen on television screaming ‘nigger, nigger, nigger’.” This is obviously is emotional appeal, of which the majority of his essay is comprised. Later he criticizes the white moderates for their lack of courage and apparent loss of concern for the atrocities being committed in their own cities. This is only one of the many noticeable tone shifts and different persuasive techniques used in his essay. His logical arguments come directly from examples in our history books and are used to convince the clergymen of their own acts of rebellion. Being all of a Christian faith, this is especially effective because of its direct correlation of the teachings of Jesus Christ:
“So when [the crowd] continued asking him, [Jesus] lifted up himself and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her… And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.”
Later in the essay, he again uses highly respected people from the Bible and even our own government to identify the “extremists” already irreversibly integrated into our society such as Jesus, Paul, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Probably the most convincing strategy king uses lies in the many examples from our own history and his reoccurring references to the very religion that the clergymen were so dedicated to upholding. After reading the entire letter, you are left with almost no choice but to side with King’s glorious battle and his fight for equality through peaceful means.
As an opposite, peace is not necessarily the means by which Thoreau wants to achieve is purposes. His article entitled “Civil Disobedience” was written while he also spent a night in jail, but was not published until some time later. His charges were that of refusing to pay the poll tax. This tax was being put to use in the Mexican war, which was “the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool…” Here he directly confronts the problem of our government in an attempt to rally forces into a revolution. We can speculate on the logistics of this, but it is reasonable to believe that even Thoreau new that something this drastic would not take place –at least not for the same reasons he believed in. He believed that the “machine” that is our government has grown to have far too much “friction”. The real beauty about his claims of our government being like a machine is that every example he gives is spoken of as a hypothetical situation. He does not say, “our government is a machine”, but rather “if a government becomes like a machine…”; this technique tends to avoid offending anyone. After this, he uses statements like “overrun and conquered by a foreign country” and “subjected to military law” to provide evidence for the transformation of our government into a machine. Later he compares the struggle between an acorn and a chestnut that fall side by side to the way man should live. “If a plant cannot live and grow according to nature, it dies; and so a man.” The many similes he uses throw his emotional and ethical argumentation at us together. This seems to be especially effective in his piece. His attitudes on the power of the government are rather unique; “[the government] can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it.” After analyzing all of these points, there is a distinct impression that Thoreau believes that the average American is ignorant of their own rights and duties as a citizen. To capture the “fruit” of these people, his closing sentences provide the call to action that he has built up to. The perfect government he has “…imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”
To form this perfect government we must learn to obey a higher law and the only way to achieve higher laws is to raise our level of understanding a governing along with it. Each author attacks a similar subject, each essay provides extremely convincing support, and each piece is successful in achieving their goal; but should we follow Thoreau and let the building turmoil lead to revolution? Or should we hearken to King and let it guide us to a better understanding of each other? Through our differences we can find a unity that is present among us all, but who will lead us to that glorious day?
“I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State…”