Do you agree with Thoreau's view on civil disobedience?

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Thoreau actually believed that civil disobedience need not always be peaceful; sometimes, he thought, violence could be necessary. For example, he was a passionate defender of John Brown and Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. Brown was a fervent abolitionist, and he attempted to take control of this U.S. military arsenal in the hopes of arming a group of free slaves and striking terror into the hearts of those who supported slavery. Men, of course, did die during this attack. However, when Brown was captured alive, convicted of treason and sentenced to hang, Thoreau spoke out, quite publicly, supporting Brown's methods. Thoreau called him a true patriot because he was willing to stand up to his government and protest, risking life and limb, against this unjust institution.

That being said, I have a difficult time deciding whether or not I agree with Thoreau because I have to wonder, at what point is one qualified to decide whether or not another person's life should be forfeit in the fight for justice? It is one thing, I think, to refuse to obey an unjust law, like Thoreau did when he refused to pay his poll tax because he knew the money would be used to support the war against Mexico, a war that he opposed on moral grounds. He did not pay his tax, he went to jail; only he bore the consequences of his civil disobedience. However, when one kills another person in the pursuit of justice, as Brown did, it becomes another matter. What gives one person the right to kill another? If it is not right that a man owns a slave, does it follow that it is right that he be killed? Martin Luther King, Jr., obviously believed in peaceful civil disobedience; however, we still do not have racial equality in this country and racism is institutionalized in our systems of government, law, and so on. Perhaps violence would have been more effective? On the other hand, do two wrongs make a right? Or, is it even a "wrong" to kill an oppressor? The issue seems very gray to me. There are, certainly, other methods of fighting injustice, and they can be peaceful. There have been any number of peaceful resistance methods used over the centuries, and they have, at times, been effective.

So, the short answer to your question is "sort of." I agree that we have the right, even the moral obligation (as Thoreau calls it), to resist unjust laws. However, I cannot agree that we have the right to take another's life as a part of our resistance.

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In 1849, Thoreau, a Transcendentalist writer in Concord, Massachusetts, wrote the essay "Civil Disobedience" (first published as "Resistance to Civil Government") about the right of people to resist following laws they considered unjust. Thoreau had served one night in prison in 1846 for refusing to pay the poll tax to protest American involvement in the Mexican War. He and other abolitionists thought the war was a means of expanding American slavery. He wrote of this time:

"I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way."

Thoreau's means of protest was peaceful, and he found it ironic that the country should imprison him for following his conscience. He asked, "Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? — in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable?" In other words, Thoreau envisioned a government in which the majorities only decide issues that need to be taken care of, such as road building, but in which larger issues are left to individual conscience. 

When he wrote this essay, he and others were outraged by the Compromise of 1850, which concluded the Mexican War. One of the terms of the compromise was a new and more forceful Fugitive Slave Law, which required northerners to return escaped slaves to the south and hence to the horrors of slavery. Thoreau felt that slavery was a great evil and that people had to resist it.

When considering whether or not to agree with Thoreau, the reader must decide which issues are important enough to provoke resistance to government laws. In addition, the reader must decide how to protest these laws. Thoreau's means of resistance were peaceful. Thoreau's peaceful resistance inspired later civil rights leaders, such as Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States. 

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