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Does Thoreau have a valid argument in the essay, "Civil Disobedience"?Can you give me...

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gsstom | Student, College Freshman | Honors

Posted July 26, 2012 at 6:06 PM via web

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Does Thoreau have a valid argument in the essay, "Civil Disobedience"?

Can you give me some ideas on your thoughts about it.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted July 26, 2012 at 7:15 PM (Answer #1)

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To this day, Henry David Thoreau's theme of the inalienable right of the individual to answer to a higher power by following moral law over civil law remains a powerful and influential piece of writing. Certainly, his method of non-violent resistance and protest has been emulated by such world figures as Matahma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as by groups such as those who protested against what turned out to be an unnecessary Vietnam War and others who staged "sit-ins" in objection to policies or laws.

Thoreau's argument that the government is not right simply because a majority rules by being "the strongest" is in keeping with John Stuart Mill's cautions against the "tyranny of the majority." In contemporary times the proof of Thoreau's wisdom regarding this statement has been clearly apparent as powerful special interest groups often have their own agenda in mind without regard to the welfare of others or even the country's future.  For instance, part of the failure of the American automobile industry is evidence of the "tyranny" of the unions which had assembly employees making much higher salaries that the average consumer whom they expected to purchase their product. Unfortunately, as Thoreau writes, "the mass of men serve the state...,not as men mainly, but as machines with their bodies." 

Thoreau's breaking of a law that he felt was unjust is the only thing that a person can do if he/she feels such a law is wrong.  In the history of mankind, there have been countless people of integrity and strong moral convictions who have gone to the Gulag or been in other prisons of totalitarian governments in the struggle for the rights of man. Certainly, America's colonists broke the law of England in their struggle for equitable laws; one famous example is the Boston Tea Party, proof of Thoreau's words,

The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had no sometimes got in its way.

In the case of the Boston Tea Party, of course, it was the British government that "got in the way." Nevertheless, even in contemporary times, protests beyond the law are essential because certain laws are made for the convenience of special interests groups, and not the majority of a country.  In accord with Thoreau's rhetorical question,

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?

the answer, indeed, must be his second rhetorical question, "Why has every man a conscience, then?"

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