Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau Essay
In 1849, Henry David Thoreau established the idea of “civil disobedience. ” In his paper “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau encourages the reader to recognize when the government is doing something unjust and wrongful to the people. He then declares that the people should non-violently protest these actions of the government by not following the laws that intrude on the people’s freedom. He introduced this idea during the Mexican War, which was fought for the territory to join the United States as a slave state.
Martin Luther King, Jr. used Thoreau’s idea in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in regard to the segregation of African-Americans during the mid-twentieth century. Although Thoreau was first to introduce the idea of “civil disobedience,” King was better at illustrating this idea through his rhetorical strategies of ethos, pathos, and logos appeals. Henry David Thoreau was first to convince readers that disobeying the law was in right in some circumstances through his use of ethos, pathos, and logos appeals.
Thoreau’s ideas were not small suggestions and could drastically change the reader’s life. If a writer tells someone to do something as drastic as breaking the law, the reader is more likely to comply if they know that the writer is someone they can trust and rely on to be giving the right information. To gain the reader’s belief and trust, Thoreau uses the ethos appeal to give him more authority and influence over the reader. He wrote about how he refused to pay the taxes for “the support of a clergyman,” (Paragraph 27) as well as poll-taxes.
Thoreau was arrested for not paying poll-taxes and stayed in jail for one night. When he was locked up, he sees jail differently than most people. “I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar…The night in prison was novel and interesting enough. ” (Paragraph 28) Thoreau makes jail seem appealing to the reader and like a place you can observe and learn about people and the government. Sharing his ideas and experiences of breaking the law, and his education in jail gives the reader more reason to believe his writings.
With the assurance of Thoreau’s legitimacy, readers listened to his arguments he created through logical thinking. He argues that the government does not always act in the interest of the people and continues to do so because it carries a large power over the people. He explains this by stating, “After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. (Paragraph 4) Thoreau uses the logos appeal to make people realize that just because everyone is doing it, it does not make it right. The minority, even though smaller, has the power to overrun the majority because they stand for what is right, and breaking the law is justifiable if you are breaking it by doing something that is morally correct. Through the use of his civil disobedience, the minority can be heard and not let the majority be able to tell society what is considered right and wrong.
To relate even further with the reader, Thoreau turns to using the pathos appeal to emotionally grab the reader. He makes the idea personal by writing, “If you are cheated out of a single dollar by your neighbor, you do not rest satisfied with knowing that you are cheated…Action from principle, the perception and performance of right, changes things and relations; it us essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not only divides States and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine. (Paragraph 17) First, he makes the idea of the government deceiving the people personal to the reader by comparing it to their neighbor cheating them. This causes emotional impact because neighbors are someone you should trust and create a relationship with. If someone a person trusts and has a connected relationship with swindles them, it is much more personal than a government because a government is seen more as a “thing” instead of a person. Then, Thoreau continues to stir the reader emotionally by stating that the personal opinion of what is right can divide families and the individual.
When Thoreau describes the people who he believes are morally unjust as “diabolical,” it makes the reader want to side with Thoreau in fear of being labeled as so. Not only does the reader want to be divine instead of diabolical, but they want their loved ones to as well. A bona fide author such as Thoreau is effective in introducing the idea of “civil disobedience” by his logical and emotional arguments, but is soon to be upstaged by another author who uses Thoreau’s ideas in a new setting. Martin Luther King Jr. ses the ethos, pathos, and logos rhetoric much like Thoreau, but portrays Thoreau’s ideas in a more effective way. In the spring of 1963, clergymen from a church in Birmingham, Alabama published a statement that Martin Luther King, Jr. should not be involved in the racial clash of Birmingham because he was considered an outsider. While King was in jail for protesting for civil rights for African-Americans, he wrote a response to the clergymen, justifying his actions. First, King also uses the ethos appeal to persuade the clergymen that he did have a right to be in Birmingham and be involved in the civil rights movement.
He states, “I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference…I am here because I have organizational ties here. ” (Paragraph 2) King also refers to himself as a “fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. ”(Paragraph 40) Declaring he is a part of a respected organization that works for human rights that has an affiliate in Birmingham gives him more credibility for working and protesting in Birmingham. He also makes a connection with the clergymen on a religious level by often mentioning he is a man of God and believes in the same things they do.
King does a better job at proving his validity than Thoreau because Thoreau bases all his authority on spending one night in jail while King has spent a longer time in jail and has been more active in supporting what he believes in, not just refusing to pay taxes. He also has the same Christian foundations as the clergymen, while Thoreau does not have much in common with his audience. Another powerful way King upholds his ideas is through emotional connections, much like Thoreau, but much is more meaningful. Thoreau’s paper tended to be logical and business-like while King’s was full of passion and zeal.
King uses the pathos appeal when he writes, “when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky,” (Paragraph 12) and not only this, but mentions of people being beaten and his son questioning “Why do white people treat colored people so mean? (Paragraph 12) Using children creates a strong pathos appeal from the innocence of children realizing how cruel their race is being treated. When children realize their freedom is being compromised, it shows how obviously wrong the discrimination laws are. This text pulls at the heartstrings more than Thoreau’s and creates a better emotional argument than his dry and hard informative writing. Not only does King use emotional arguments to persuade his readers, but he also uses logical arguments. He argued, “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority groups compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.
This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal…A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. ” (Paragraph 14) King argues the laws that were discriminatory towards African-Americans were wrongly passed because the only people the law affected had no say in the passing of the law. It is only logical that the people who are majorly affected should be the ones to determine whether the law gets passed.
It gives more reason for the protesting of the law and a strong logos appeal. A majority may be pro the laws, but how wrong the law is outweighs the number of people that support it. King’s logical appeal is less drastic than Thoreau’s and more people can relate to King’s plea rather than Thoreau’s. Since the formal introduction by Henry David Thoreau in 1849, “civil disobedience” has been used to peacefully send a message and change the way the government restricts certain peoples their freedoms. Martin Luther King, Jr. ses it again in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to encourage African-Americans to stand up against the discrimination of their race. King’s strong emotional arguments, logical reasoning, and validity of his authority outshines Thoreau’s effectiveness in his original work. The ethos, pathos, and logos appeals were all strong, but King emerged as the one who could achieve the reader’s admiration and more easily change their beliefs. After over one hundred years, the common theme of helping the people get the freedom which is rightfully theirs is still the passion of both writers.