In the 1840’s, slavery, unjust wars, and oppression of people by the government were a common phenomena in England. In 1848, Henry David Thoreau delivered a passionate speech dealing with slavery, and touching on the neocolonialism in America. Thoreau wrote the speech as an essay, which was published in 1949. The aim of this paper is to explore the essay, Civil Disobedience, by David Thoreau, and explain how the theory was implemented by world leaders in different parts of the world.
Civil disobedience is an essay written by Thoreau, and first published in 1849. In the essay, Thoreau teaches that individuals should not allow governments destroy their beliefs by making them follow the discriminatory laws. Thoreau taught that the government unjustly caused harm to its citizens; he argues that democracy is not the solution, as the views of the majority do not necessarily reflect what is right. Thoreau says that an individual should do what is right, but not follow the law blindly (Thoreau, 1996).
In the essay, Thoreau teaches that the government is an agent of corruption; therefore, people should not obey laws of the government. As a result, citizens must revolutionize against the government, in order to end the injustice. The essay goes ahead to note that there is no peaceful revolution. Concerning slavery, Thoreau argues that the leaders for it are not the only culprits, but also those that are not willing to stop it, and are concerned about business and agriculture only, without caring for humanity. Thoreau continues to advise his audience not to pay taxes to the government, as the funds the government received propagate evils, like unjust war, as the war in Mexico (Thoreau, 1996).
Thoreau responds to claims that revolutions are expensive, and argues that the cost of revolution is worthy in order to prevent the evil happening. Thoreau tells people that they should not expect to have a possibility to vote against injustices, but have the power to push through not supporting injustices; and paying tax, on the other hand, is supporting the injustices (Thoreau, 1996).
The essay by Thoreau inspired many civil rights leaders and movements. One such leader is Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi, inspired by Civil Disobedience, developed Satyagraha, which was a philosophy to use non-violent resistance. Gandhi deployed the philosophy on India seeing the independence of India. Gandhi deployed the philosophy in South Africa too. The philosophy stressed on the importance of truth, thus compelling its followers to resist the colonialist by believing that they were standing for the truth. The philosophy saw the success of many civil right movements (Maynard, & Barksdale, 2005).
Martin Luther King Junior was yet another civil rights leader inspired by the essay. In his autobiography, King says that the ideas of Thoreau fascinated him. The inspiration he got from the essay made him one of the greatest civil rights leaders, who never feared prison when fighting for the truth. King used civil disobedience in the fight against racial discrimination, and racial segregation in the United States. King’s efforts were usually successful, and saw the upgrade of civil rights in America (Maynard, &Barksdale, 2005).
Political leaders who were influenced by the essay include, Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa, and an American president, John F. Kennedy. Nelson Mandela used Thoreau’s proposal on civil disobedience in the struggle in South Africa under apartheid. By standing on the truth, as described in the essay, Kennedy helped to end communism in Latin America (Maynard, & Barksdale, 2005). The essay shows the basis of human life. A human being should never be a servant of the laws put in place, but should, instead, accept the right to do what he/she feels is right. According to McNary, the laws of a country cater for the interests of the status quo, and consider the majorities’ view of what is acceptable. The laws might compromise one's beliefs. The question here is whether an individual should obey the law recklessly, or should follow his/her conscience. The first group of men categorized by the essay is police and military; those who follow the government on whichever case, the groups serve the government with their bodies. The other group of men is one that serves with their heads, seeking to gain power always. The second group consists of the leaders. The other group of men serves the government with their conscience. The third group will fight for the truth always through resistance. The essay directs a person on the best group to be in, and that is the third group (McNary, 2000).
The ideas, given by Thoreau, have helped many people in different parts of the world. People from India gained their independence through application of the ideas of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience realizes many civil rights as in the case of the racial discrimination in America; its end came after a struggle with the government. Through civil disobedience by the women suffrages in Germany, women rights were realized (McNary, 2000).
Thoreau suggests that we should be there to correct the government’s actions, in order to ensure justice to all. The conscience is the most critical part of our personalities. The values person gains from the time he is born shapes his conscience. Conscience, therefore, is superior to the laws of any country. In the argument regarding the superiority of the conscience, Josh McNary (2000) puts the argument that the government should do what its people desire. In order to evaluate, whether an action is moral or not, one must have set standards, on which he will establish his judgment. Internal values, in a person, guide the standards, for example, the Bible guides the values of a Christian. The government, being a tool for the people, should reflect these values in the laws it makes. In case any person feels that the laws do not reflect his values; he should offer resistance (McNary, 2000).
The theory stated in the essay may be positive, but can not be practically adopted by the contemporary society. The essay suggests that one should resist every attempt of exploitation by a government, and should avoid anything that promotes the propagation of the injustice. According to the theory, people should abandon their civic duties, such as refusal to pay taxes, and disobedience to some of the laws. Obliging to this may cause arrest, going to the court, and even imprisonment. Arguing your case in court helps the government and other people recognize the injustices it commits to its citizen, which is useful. Conversely, in the modern world of seeking financial stability, the courts and prison will waste personal time that can be used to improve the economy. The time wasted in courts of law, and prisons is the price that Thoreau talks about. He states that the worth of the price to pay lies on individuals. Some might not be prepared to pay the price, while others will be willing to pay the price for justice (Mark, & Klosko, 1998).
Conclusively, the essay “Civil Disobedience” by Thoreau is the basis of the human life. Any person may follow Thoreau’s arguments that the government should not overpower the conscience of individuals, making them agents of injustice. Individuals should offer resistance to the unjust laws; one should never support in any way any law that propagates injustice. The disadvantage of civil disobedience is the price one must pay for justice.