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and equality. Among them, Henry David Thoreau author of Civil Disobedience and Walt Whitman the poet of democracy. Thoreau’s Civil disobedience Thoreau was an American essayist and philosopher who contributed to the development of a national consciousness. Like the transcendentalists, he believed that the spiritual reality (God) was embedded in physical reality (Nature). Thoreau's essay is both an abstract work of political theory and a practical and topical work addressing the issues of the day. On the one hand, Thoreau is making several theoretical claims about the nature of democracy and the relationship between citizen and government. On the other hand, he applies this theory to criticize American social institutions and policies, most prominently slavery and the Mexican-American War. Section I: Government and Democracy
Criticism of government and democracy Government does not achieve its duties
The American government is necessary because "the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have." However, the only times when government has been useful has been when it has stood aside. Thoreau says that government does not, in fact, achieve its duties: it does not keep the country free, settle the West, or educate. Rather, these achievements come from the character of the American people, and they would have been even more successful in these actions had government been even less involved. Thoreau views government as a fundamental obstruction to the people that it claims to represent. Thoreau cites as a prime example the regulation of trade and commerce, and its negative effect on the forces of the free market. Government is perverted and abused
His distrust of government stems from the tendency of the latter to be "perverted and abused" before the people can actually express their will through it. A case in point is the Mexican war, orchestrated by a small élite of individuals who have manipulated government to their advantage against popular will. Government inherently lends itself to oppressive and corrupt uses since it enables a few men to impose their will on the majority and to profit economically from their own position of authority. Majority rule
Deeply skeptical of government, Thoreau objects to the notion of majority rule on which democracy is theoretically founded, noting that the position of the majority, however legitimate in democratic terms, is not tantamount to a moral position. A wise man will not leave justice to the chance of a majority vote. The majority will end up voting their interest, voting for what will benefit them. In this sense, Thoreau criticizes the integrity of politicians and the voting process, which significantly limits the ability of ordinary citizens to express their will in the first place.
Individual duty Therefore, a man has an obligation to act according to the dictates of his conscience, even if the latter goes against majority opinion, the presiding leadership, or the laws of the society. Thoreau writes, “I think we should be men first, and subjects afterward." Thoreau evokes the figure of soldiers marching to their deaths in the cause of a conflict that they perceive as unjust because they consider service to their country to be an automatic virtue. However, any act of service must always be conjoined with the exercise of conscience. Utopic vision Saying that he agrees with the motto, "That government is best which governs least." expresses Thoreau's libertarian political sentiments and the idea that the most ideal form of government is one which exercises the least power and control over its citizens. Thoreau goes further to envision a society in which government is eliminated altogether because men have the capacity to be self-regulating and independent. The implied dissolution of the State is as much an expression of Thoreau's idealism a utopic vision. However, Thoreau then says that speaking "practically and as a citizen," he is not asking for the immediate elimination of government. Rather, for the moment, he is asking for a better government. Section II: Resistance to Civil Government
Everyone agrees that unjust laws exist. The question is whether we should be content to obey them, we should try to change them but obey until they are changed or we should disobey them at once. Primacy of justice over expediency Most people in a democracy believe that the second course is best. They believe that if they resist, the revolution would be worse than the injustice. Thoreau criticizes this attitude which aims at maintaining civil obligation for the sake of expediency and preserving the services offered by the government. Expediency Thoreau argues, does not take precedence over justice. People must do what justice requires even if the cost is greater than the injustice to be remedied. Duty of revolting against injustice In the American tradition, men have a recognized and cherished right of revolution. Thoreau argues that one have not only the right, but indeed the duty, to rebel against injustices. In cases where the government supports unjust or immoral laws, Thoreau's notion of service to one's country paradoxically takes the form of resistance against it. Resistance is the highest form of patriotism because it demonstrates a desire not to subvert government but to build a better one in the long term. Form of civil disobedience Civil disobedience does, however, involve at least three restrictions. -First, The act of resistance should specifically target the injustice to be remedied. Thoreau does not advocate a wholesale rejection of government, but resistance to those specific features deemed to be unjust or immoral. For instance, moral objection to a particular law does not authorize non-observance of all laws. Later in the essay, he will qualify his position by refusing to pay a poll tax (used to fund the Mexican war), but readily pays taxes for education and road maintenance. -Second, the only effective and sincere way to express opposition is through concrete deeds and acts of resistance. Thoreau believes that the real obstacle to reform lies with those who disapprove of the measures of government while lending it their practical allegiance. He attacks those in his native state who profess to be against slavery in the South while participating in the commerce and agricultural trade that supports it. Anti-slavery sentiment by itself does not exempt someone from the charge of moral responsibility. 2
At the very least, if an unjust government is not to be directly resisted, a man of true conviction must "wash his hands" of injustice and avoid associating with it altogether. Furthermore, he argues that if an individual supports the unjust government in any way--even by simply respecting its authority as a government-- then that person is involved in injustices forwarded by the government. Thoreau declares, "I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also."A man disgraces himself by associating with a government that treats even some of its citizens unjustly, even if he is not the direct victim of its injustice. Thoreau turns to the issue of effecting change through democratic means. Voting for politicians opposed to slavery, and thus for justice, does not in itself qualify as a moral commitment to the abolition of an unjust practice; it simply registers the desire of the people that the right prevail. -Third, The means of resistance advocated and practiced by Thoreau are nonviolent. This attitude explain his passive reaction to imprisonment. Consequence of civil disobedience Thoreau maintains, "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." He calls on his fellow citizens to withdraw their support from the government of Massachusetts and risk being thrown in prison for their resistance. Forced to keep all men in prison or abolish slavery, the State would quickly exhaust its resources and choose the latter course of action. For Thoreau, out of these acts of conscience flows "a man's real manhood and mortality." Thoreau explains that he has previously focused on imprisonment instead of confiscation of goods, primarily because those who are most committed to justice have typically avoided accumulating property and thus they have the greatest liberty to resist because they depend the least on the government for their own welfare and protection. However, the rich man is always sold to the institution that made him rich. The consequences of disobedience often seem too great, either to his property or to personal standing in society. Thoreau sees a paradoxically inverse relationship between money and freedom. As money increases, virtue decreases. Money is a generally corrupting force because it binds men to the institutions and government responsible for unjust practices and policies. The legitimate use of civil disobedience Thoreau faces the difficult philosophical task of circumscribing the legitimate uses of civil disobedience. While the essay focuses specifically on slavery in the United States, the logic behind civil disobedience could be applied more generally to any number of grievances against government. Thoreau then returns to the metaphor of the government-as-machine. He says that if an injustice is part of the "necessary friction" of the "machine of government," then it should be left alone. Perhaps the machine will wear smooth; in any case, it will eventually wear out. However, if the government requires one to be an agent of injustice toward another, then Thoreau says one must break the law regardless of the outcomes. He urges the reader to be a "counter-friction" to the machine and not to participate in the wrong. Section III: A Night in Prison
Thoreau now turns to his personal experiences with civil disobedience. He says that he hasn't paid a poll tax for six years and that he spent a night in jail once because of this. His contemplation of the prison walls leads him to reflect on the split between mind and body. Whereas the State considers physical confinement a form of punishment Thoreau realizes that the punishment is inadequate and useless in his case, since his thoughts 3
are more threatening to the State than any possible action he could undertake outside of prison. Thoreau's confrontation with the State proves to him that physical violence is less powerful than individual conscience. During his stay in prison, Thoreau comes to the realization that, far from being a brute force, government is in fact weak and morally pathetic. Thoreau reiterates the logic behind his refusal to pay the poll tax: while willing to support other activities of government, such as the building of roads and schools, he is unwilling to "abet the injustice to a greater extent than the State requires." Thoreau realistically recognizes that it is impossible to deprive the government of tax dollars for the specific policies that one wishes to oppose. Still, complete payment of his taxes would be tantamount to expressing complete allegiance to the State. Thoreau concludes by saying that no one with legislative genius has yet appeared in America--such people are rare in the world's history. He writes that government's authority is "impure." To be just, authority must be based on the consent of the governed; its only rights are the rights that the individual gives it. The movement toward democracy constitutes progress toward true respect for the individual. However, democracy is not the last step that can be made. This kind of State would prepare the way for an even more "perfect and glorious State." Influence of the essay
Thoreau's landmark essay has had a profound and well-documented influence on intellectual figures such as the Indian peace activist Mohandas Gandhi, black civil rights leader Martin Luther King and the American political landscape more generally in the nineteenth and twentieth century (the American Civil Rights Movement). King's Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963), while containing no direct reference to it, clearly mimics the format of Thoreau's own letter from jail, and relies on the essay's endorsement of civil disobedience as a legitimate response to oppressive government policies. Walt Whitman The emergence of a national spirit was revealed through the works of America’s first poet of Democracy, Walt Whitman. Throughout his life, Whitman was concerned with politics and sought to spread his democratic ideas, especially his opposition to slavery. While the country’s literature and intellectual life were still under the influence of motherland, Whitman poems were devoted to praising the newborn American Democracy. He considered himself a Messiah-like figure in poetry and certainly inspired the nascent or emerging national spirit. Leaves of Grass
National spirit Like his fellow citizens, he favored a break with European culture. They believed that the only way for the United States to find a cultural identity was to eradicate any form of foreign influence. The country had to free itself from ancient European ties to gradually discover a newborn nation’s own aspiration because, Whitman argued “up to present …the people have not determined tastes, are quite unaware of the grandeur of themselves and of their destiny”. In other words, the American nation was still evolving and a true rupture with the past presented a new step toward a bright future and the emergence of a new people.
Sovereignty of people American genius did not reside in its institutions but in the people who enjoyed all the attributes of youth, enthusiasm, love of freedom and curiosity. When the people meet the president, “the president takes off his hat to them not them to him”. This praise of the sovereign people revealed the poet’s ideal vision that only a true democracy could grant faith and vigor to the young nation. Grandeur of Religion However, this democracy is quite particular in the sense that according to Whitman, it was built on specific ideological and religious foundations as can be seen in his verse: “I say the real permanent grandeur of these states Must be their religion Otherwise there is no real permanent grandeur” Whitman focus on ethics and religiosity was an essential part of his conception of American Democracy. American democracy was to flower through the interaction between citizens and their beliefs and religion was to play a central role through intuitive power of poetry. “Religion must enter in the poems of the nation. It must make the nation,” Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas. He says in his preface to the Leaves of Grass, ” for America the supreme and final science is the science of God… the people must begin to learn that religion.. is needed too important the power of new world not to be consigned any longer to the churches.. it must be consigned to henceforth to democracy en mass an d literature.” Democratic Vistas
In Democratic Vistas, His second work after Leaves of Grass, Whitman explained his political view in the form of a prose essay. Complex and lacking logic and clarity, the work is nonetheless a great piece of writing that does not leave the reader indifferent for it condenses most of the principles of American Democracy. Literature Whitman longed for democracy in which the “common man” would act individually becoming an inspired good citizen through the means of great literature, which understood by all, would be a catalyst. To him the mission of government is not only to express or exercise authority on its citizens, but also to train communities in order that each man can rule himself. Like Emerson’s law of laws, brotherly love will take the place of civil law. And this is valuable for all nations as these fascinating aspects of American Democracy can bring fraternity all over the world making the races comrades. Religion The democratic system and people must be revitalized by religion ”for I say at the core of democracy ,finally is the religious element”. Whitman insistent emphasis on the religious element derives from his belief in a kind of deism that embraces all religions, he nevertheless pointed out that “clouded in their resplendent beauty” these religious groups had to bear spiritual fruit. Man and women In spite of menacing evils that existed in America, political democracy remained a “training school for making first class men”. Even though “the nation is still in a sort of geological formation state”, Whitman argued, “The sublimest part of political history, and its culmination, is currently issuing from the American people”. In his grand and prophetic vision of America, the Father of Democracy also considered the issue of 5
the gender roles praising the “divine maternity” of American women. “Democracy ponders on its own ideals not of literature and art only not of men only but of women” Whitman holistic vision of democracy seems to rest on a conception of American society composed of different individuals whose spiritual maturity will never reach the same level, as the puritans thought when they labeled themselves saints. This utopian dimension, contained in his ideas of sanctified citizens, was part of the poet’s dream of a perfect world. Conclusion Thus, under the influence of these literary and philosophical trends, America witnessed the rise of a national spirit in the construction of its identity. Always inspired by religiosity and a new metaphysics found in transcendentalists, the American mind was influenced by a literature celebrating the ambitious and utopian ideals of the young American republic. Thoreau and Whitman contributed to the development of this national mentality that led to the emergence of an inspired democracy.
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