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Henry Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience in reaction to the government's position in governing the people. He asserts that it is the responsibility of people to oppose the government's control over their consciences. Furthermore, people have a responsibility to prevent any acts that may enable the government to become agents of oppression. He contends that the government would be better off if it focused less on ruling the population. Thoreau's main reasons for taking that stance were the Mexican-American War and slavery, all of which he saw as oppressive acts by the nation. Therefore, it was necessary for the citizens to become resistant to the government by ensuring they act in a manner that reduces any cases of increased oppression and injustice in the society.
Thoreau holds the position that the government is the agent of injustice and corruption. It does not have the will of the people at heart; hence, there is a dire need for the citizens to rebel against such acts by the government. Despite the fact that America is a democracy, the rule of the majority does not entirely represent justice to all people. Therefore, no citizen is supposed to obey the laws to the letter without questioning the effects it has to the masses. One of the major criticisms that he builds on is that of the political philosophers who state that revolutions are expensive and cause a lot of suffering. He agrees that in some cases that might be true, but it is not supposed to mean that there should be a focus on the cost-benefit analysis if the government is not just. It would be better for the citizens to pay heavily, but at the same time ensure that the government upholds justice at all levels. Besides, the people should be willing to devote their lives to force the government to take the necessary measures that would ensure there are no cases of slavery and also there are no wars such as the Mexican-American War. It does not sense for the citizens that stand for justice and peace in the society to recognize a government that facilitates slavery and war as legitimate.
Thoreau also states that voting does not ensure there is justice in the society. The government has crafted a way of ensuring it misuses the power that has been bestowed upon it by the people. As a result, voting does not necessarily signify the will of the people regarding justice. Each citizen is supposed to do more than voting if they want to see a just society. Even though one should not devote their entire life advocating for justice, they ought to take action that will make a significant impact in enhancing justice. In this case, therefore, the people should not pay taxes because they are used to facilitate the aspects of injustice in the society. For instance, it is the tax payers' money that is used to fund the military to engage in war. It would be hypocritical for one to state that they stand for a just country, yet they are funding the government to continue with their actions. The citizens should take it up to themselves to rebel and revolt against paying taxes, which would be the first step in making their voice be heard (Thoreau 2). Showing the practical support of ensuring that there is a just cause for the enhancement of justice would be a significant way of showing the government that the power belongs to the people. Consequently, there would be a possibility of ensuring the government changes for the better.
The political process that most of the countries that have a constitution follow, such as the United States, are usually long and bureaucratic. Therefore, it would be illogical to continue obeying the laws that may be regarded as unjust as the people wait for the conclusion of the process. In some cases, the process does not allow for fast adjustment of the law to incorporate aspects that are viewed as just. For instance, if there is a law that advocates for slavery, it is not right for the people to continue obeying it as they wait for its amendment. It is supposed to be rejected immediately and disobey the said Constitution. It is only in such a way that the government would be able to understand the seriousness of the matter and the need by the citizens to ensure there is justice to all in the country. Thoreau, therefore, aimed at sensitizing the people to understand the dynamics of the government and rebel against all aspects that they believe would reduce the power of the citizen. Civil disobedience is the best way that the people can exercise their power and ensures that the best type of government is put into place to act as a protector of the people (Thoreau 5).
Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience provides a rigid foundation on the manner in which the citizens are supposed to act in an attempt to develop a just country. It is important to note that he points out some of the underlying aspects that the people are exposed to that do not represent their will. The elements of war and slavery do not depict the way the people want to live in a peaceful country. His focus on the best method that the citizens are supposed to use to ensure they determine the way government conducts itself is effective. Being disobedient to the government has been an effective way of keeping checks and balances as well as enhancing the role it plays in providing services to the people. Moreover, it also ensured that the citizens were conscious on the issues of governance by understanding they have the power to determine the course of action the government ought to take regarding matters of national interest. Besides, it was a way of making the people aware that they can engage in actions that would play a central role in changing the view of the leaders on the aspects of injustice.
The essay influenced various civil activists in undertaking their duty of sensitizing the masses against injustice and inequality in the society. One of the great leaders that were influenced by the works was Mohandas Gandhi. He translated some of the parts of the essay in Indian with the aim of ensuring the people understood the concept of civil disobedience elaborately. In his quest to ensure the end of inequality in South Africa, he followed the teaching by Thoreau as the basis for making the people understand the need to take action against the government (Hendrick 465). He also acknowledges the fact that the essay was instrumental in ending slavery in America; hence, it would be effective in other parts of the world. Despite the suffering Thoreau went through, he was able to sensitize the people against the injustices of the government and that was an instrumental aspect in Gandhi's quest for freedom. Martin Luther King Junior was also significantly influenced by the essay, and it became a referral for his march of freedom for the black people. It was the primary source for his call for a non-violent approach in rebelling against the government. He borrowed the idea of not cooperating with an evil system in an attempt to make the voice of the people be heard. He held similar views that no man should be made to adjust to the injustice in the society (Powell 27). Every moral man had an obligation to take action and ensure that justice prevails no matter the repercussions. The essay has a significant impact on the future of civil movements since it aims at ensuring that there is justice in the society. It describes how individuals can engage in non-violent resistance through non-cooperation with the government.
To sum up, the essay Civil Disobedience provided a foundation for the people to resist the injustices and slavery advanced by the government. It was a way of asserting that the people have the power to influence some of the decisions that the government may take that are not in line with the will and aspirations of the citizens. It played a role in ending slavery; hence, showing the importance civil disobedience may have in enhancing the governance of a country. It has also influenced activists such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Junior in achieving freedom to the people.
Hendrick, George. "The Influence of Thoreau's" Civil Disobedience" on Gandhi's Satyagraha." New England Quarterly, 1956, pp. 462-471.
Powell, Brent. "Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., and the American Tradition of Protest." OAH Magazine of History vol. 9, no.2, 1995, pp. 26-29.
Thoreau, Henry David. Essay on Civil Disobedience. Pyramid Books, 1964.
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