pp2 - Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience advocates...

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Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience advocates the need to prioritize one's conscience over the dictates of laws. It criticizes American social institutions and policies, most prominently slavery and the Mexican American War. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau introduces the idea of civil disobedience that was used later by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In fact, many consider Thoreau as the greatest exponent of passive resistance of the 19th century. The usual title given this essay is Civil Disobedience but despite Gandhi's attribution of this term to Thoreau, Thoreau himself never uses the term anywhere in any of his works. When given as a lecture at the Concord Lyceum on January 26, 1848, the essay was titled "On the Relation of the Individual to the State." Only after Thoreau was dead for four years did the essay assume the title that finally stuck. (Click, 1973) Thoreau begins Civil Disobedience by arguing that government rarely proves itself useful and that it derives its power from the majority because they are the strongest group, not because they hold the most legitimate viewpoint. He argues that people should not follow the law dictated by the majority but rather do what they believe is right. He contends that when a government is unjust, people should refuse to follow the law and distance themselves from the government in general. According to Thoreau, if the government is an unjust institution than one does not have to be a member. He further argues that the United States fits his criteria for an unjust government, given its support of slavery and its practice of aggressive war. According to Thoreau, civil disobedience was preferable to pushing for reform from within government because he contends that one cannot see government for what it is when one is working within it. He also doubts the effectiveness of reform within the government arguing that voting and petitioning for change achieves little. In Civil Disobedience not
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only does Thoreau dissociate himself from the government by refusing to participate in its institutions; he relates his own experiences as a model for how to deal with an unjust government. Protesting slavery in the 1840’s, Thoreau refused to pay taxes and spent a night in jail. I believe that although Thoreau may have misrepresented many particulars, his blending of pacifism and support for political revolution inspired the particular successes of both Gandhi's first civil-rights campaign in South Africa and King's leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott. Civil Disobedience inspired the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War protest and the student unrest of the sixties. Yale University chaplain and anti-war activist William Sloane Coffin Jr. championed during a 1972 debate the question:”Civil Disobedience: Aid or Hindrance to Justice?” Thoreau, Gandhi and King are “heroes to us today because they represent those individual consciences of the world which, as opposed to the mass mind, best represent the universal conscience of mankind” (Carton,
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This note was uploaded on 04/14/2008 for the course BIO 140 taught by Professor Chace during the Spring '08 term at Salve Regina.

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pp2 - Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience advocates...

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