Comparison Of Thoreau And King Essay, Research Paper
Throughout the history of the United States, there have been many times when citizens have felt the need to revolt against their government. “…A little rebellion now and then is a good thing…It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government”. Henry David Thoreau, a Transcendentalist from the mid-19th century and Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights movement leader of a century later both believed in the necessity of medicine for government. Although they showed disagreement of opinion on issues regarding voting, both writers agreed on the necessity to reform the government and the means of accomplishing it. In King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, both agreed on injustice of majority to rule over minority, both resisted the government passively, and both wanted a better government immediately; they differed in the fact that Thoreau says to resist the government by any means necessary and King wants to do so in a nonviolent manner .
The majority is not necessarily right, but they have always been the ones in power because they are the strongest and the most influential, with their policies based upon expediency. Therefore, all the laws are written by the majority, almost all are in favor of the majority, and all are enforced by the majority. According to King, a law drafted by the majority is only just when the minority are willing to follow it. He wrote “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself” (662). In other words, if a law denies the right of the minority or is inflicted upon the minority by force, then it is not a just law. Similar opinions are shared by Thoreau, when he writes “But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice…”(638). He then states that the person who has experienced little injustice for the sake of justice is more effective, as truth is stronger than error. Thoreau then speaks to us:
Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. (Thoreau 645)
Thoreau declares he cannot associate with the American government because it s a slaves government. He states, A sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves . He criticizes not only slave owners but merchants and farmers who care more about commerce and agriculture than they do about humanity. Thousands are against slavery and war, but they do nothing. Thoreau accurately predicts that by the time the majority abolishes slavery there will be no slavery left to abolish. Although it is not necessarily a man s duty to work to eradicate a wrong, it is his duty not to support a practical wrong. He must not only refuse to fight in an unjust war, but also refuse to support the unjust government which conducts war.
Both agreed that if a law is unjust, it is the duty of the opposition to break the law, and do what they believe to be right. Once a law is broken, the person must be willing to accept the consequences, which may be the penalty of imprisonment. Thoreau asks whether it is better to decide right and wrong by conscience which everyone has. 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 (638). Although laws may be unjust, but it must be respected regardless. King fears that anarchy will result if laws are not respected; Thoreau describes that rebellion will be the consequence if laws are not given respect. Thoreau states that when unjust laws exist , there are three choices: obey them, obey them while working to change them, or transgress them at once. Consequently, both chooses to passively resist the laws they believed that are against their morals, and are prepared to accept imprisonment .
The exercise of passive resistance is the basis of the title of Thoreau’s work, and King presents several examples of “civil disobedience” in his letter, including the Boston Tea Party. King not only exercises passive resistance, he also provides the procedure to be followed for any nonviolent campaign. Nonviolence offers a creative outlet for represses emotions which might otherwise result in violence. If King was an extremist, then he was an extremist for love. There were four basic steps in his nonviolent campaign: collection of the facts to determine whether injustice exist, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action (King 658). He points out that he has gone through all the steps, and direct action is what brought him to the Birmingham Jail. Recognition of injustice and passive resistance described by both authors is to point out the need of government reformation.
Thoreau recommended using direct action to create social tension, thus leading to the reform of unjust laws practiced by the government. He voiced civil disobedience as, An expression of the individual s liberty to create change (642). Thoreau felt that the government had established order that resisted reform and change. Action from principle, the perception and performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary (643)
Thoreau calls for a better government, immediately, and points out that the fastest way to improve government is to “Let every man make know what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it” (638). He states his views in the following passage:
But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it. (638)
King does not directly states the need to reform government, but instead, he states the need to reform the existing social structure, which goes hand in hand with governmental progress. He advocates social equality and racial justice, believing “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds” (657), and passively fighting against unjust laws forced upon the minority.
Even though Thoreau agreed with King on the issues, he also made contradictory statements directly against what he supported. He wrote “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go… (Thoreau 644), stating that if injustice was inevitable and helped to improve government, then it was justified. Opposed to his passive resistance, he also justified bloodshed as he stated “But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded?” (Thoreau 646). As for improvements to government, he believed “That government is best which governs least” (Thoreau 637).
Thoreau expresses an eagerness to conform to the laws of the land as long as there is no moral principle to be violated. He is willing to obey those who know more than he; yet the authority of the government depends upon the consent of the governed. There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all it s own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly (654).
Thoreau would rather up end in jail than go against his will. The passage, Your money is your life, why should I haste to give it my money? (648) illustrates how strongly he felt. Thoreau never rallied hundreds of thousands of people together, violently or nonviolently, to get reactions. Instead, he went to jail to protest and wrote his essay, Civil Disobedience. King took the same idea of direct action to protest the injustices brought upon black Americans in the United States. He used peaceful sit-ins and rallies to unite the black community. These non-violent acts of public speech and action eventually lead to King s arrest. Here in Birmingham, Alabama he wrote, Letter from Birmingham City Jail telling the clergymen he wanted direct action, which purpose was to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation (659).
Thoreau’s writing is vague, and mostly an appeal to the intellect, which sharply contrasted with the writing of King, an appeal to the emotion of the readers. Although both writing made similar points, they are also a sharp contrast of the other and undoubtedly very unique. Both used civil disobedience to change people s ideas and beliefs to stop the injustice brought against them and their nation. Thoreau and King definitely shared many of the same ideas of how to deal with unjust laws performed by the government. Thoreau didn t have the legions of followers King did, but he still made a long-term impact. King actually adopted Thoreau s teachings and ideas of direct action and used them in leading the movement to end racial segregation in the United States. Both men inspired reforms and also much overturning of unjust laws and customs in our country. We, as a society, should look at these two people as heroic figures and learn from their teachings. This will help us better our knowledge of how to use non-violent direct action for future national and international problems we may encounter.