When for people to try peaceful means to

When Thoreau wrote the “Resistance to Civil
Government”, the two main issues being debated in government and civil
life were “the abolition of slavery” and the “Mexican American War”.
About ten years’ later, he wrote “A Plea for Captain John Brown”, in support
of John Brown, who was an abolitionist and whose hanging paved the way for the
American Civil War.

             In the first, he advocated for people to
behave with moral consciences rather than blindly following the laws of the
nation where they lived. It was the moral duty of citizens to oppose any
government which enforced unfair laws. He was contemptuous of his fellow
citizens of Massachusetts who were in principle opposed to slavery and the
Mexican American War, but would rather leave protesting against atrocities
perpetrated by the government in Washington, by other people.  During the time of the “Resistance to Civil
Government”, Thoreau asked for people to try peaceful means to protest against
policies which were against humanity like “slavery” and “the Mexican
American War”. He wanted people to be free thinkers and not take decisions
just because everyone else took the same decision. People should stand against
that which they knew and believed to be “wrong”. Thus, in the
“Resistance to Civil Government”, Thoreau might be thought of to be a
“Pacifist”.  On the other hand, he
comes across as an advocate for peace, but said that he could understand and
foresee circumstances in which “killing” would be “unavoidable”. (A Plea for
Captain John Brown). He agreed with Captain John Brown, who did not hesitate to
forcefully intervene with a slave owner and get him to release his slaves. He
criticizes William Lloyd Garrison of the Liberator, for disowning John Brown,
when he needed him the most and also said that John Brown could not be tried by
a group of peers in a court of law, for he had no peers to condemn him. He
hailed the death sentence of Captain John Brown by saying that “these men, in
teaching us how to die, have taught us how to live”.

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            The
apparent dramatic change in the philosophies of Thoreau over the years’, would
seem to be a conglomeration of his beliefs in Transcendentalism and his
thoughtful observations of the life he saw around him. Transcendentalism talked
about “immanence” or that God dwelt within the soul of the individual
(Elizabeth Witherell). The beauty of creation can be appreciated by a soul only
when the light that comes from that creation is received by the soul. The
Thoreau of “Resistance to Civil Government” was convinced that every human
being had a right to do what he thought was right and that nature was a
manifestation of the divine force from the spiritual world. In the Thoreau of
this time can be seen the seeds of the discontent against slavery with a belief
that divinity was equally manifest in all creatures. But his viewpoint was his
own against which he protested as an individual by not paying his poll-taxes.
In later years, his moral conscience, so activated him to participate in
organized reform movements against slavery, particularly seen in his discourse
“A Plea for John Brown”. My belief is that the seeds of discontent and discord
were already within Thoreau during the writing of ” The Resistance to
Civil Government” but only showed itself more strong and pertinently
during  “A plea for Captain John Brown”.

             Superficially, it would seem as though Thoreau
espoused his belief in the power and the democratically elected government, but
one which ruled very little and allowed most citizens to do as they wished, in
“Civil Disobedience” but in actuality, he wanted the individual to take
his own decisions and not be dictated upon by the state in those decisions. He
talks of ” any man more right than his neighbors, constituting a majority
of one already”, in “Resistance to Civil Government”  (Resistance to Civil Government). He
practiced what he preached, unlike others who might have thought like he did,
but could not be bothered enough to resist injustices. The pacifist that
Thoreau might have portrayed himself was to be essentially an individual man,
who thought alone and behaved in isolation. 
In “Resistance to Civil Government”, he advocates for people to
refuse  to pay taxes that year because
taxes enabled the ” State to commit violence and shed innocent blood”; this
would be a peaceable revolution against the Mexican American War and Slavery”(Resistance
to Civil Government). To his own self, he entreated to “refuse allegiance to
the state of Massachusetts to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State
rather than to obey the state laws that seemingly endorsed slavery and
bloodshed in the name of war. 

During the ten years’ that passed between the “Resistance
to Civil Government” and “A Plea for John Brown”, a series of
revolutionary movements were sweeping across the North America. These issues
were all radical and ranged from the emancipation of women and slaves’,
religious reform, educational reform, food and so on, pervading all aspects of
human life. In almost all of these spheres of reform, Thoreau kept up with his
individualist viewpoints, except in the case of slavery and abolitionism. He
observes “very modest in his demeanor, apparently inoffensive, until the
subject of slavery was introduced, when he would exhibit a feeling of
indignation unparalleled” (A Plea for Captain John Brown). He goes on to extort
” When a government puts forth its strength on the side of injustice, as ours
to maintain slavery and kill the liberators of the slave, it reveals itself as
merely brute force, or worse, a demoniacal force” (A Plea for Captain John
Brown). He advocates that anyone who opposes slavery should be able to abolish
slavery and not wait for the President or a political party to do so. This can
be extrapolated as his support for people like Captain John Brown, who take
arms for a cause they believe in. In his final sentences in “A Plea for Captain
John Brown”, he says ” when at least the present form of slavery shall be here
no more, we shall be at liberty to weep for Captain Brown but until then, we
will take avenge his death”.

During the time of the writing of the “Resistance
to Civil Government”, America was undergoing social upheaval at many
levels, many of which affected Thoreau and his thinking, but forced him to act
against two main events of the time, slavery, and the Mexican American War. His
non-payment of the poll-tax was his “Pacific” way to protest against
these excesses by the civil government of America of the time. “A plea for
Captain John Brown” was in response to John Brown’s   sentence to be hanged for leading a raid on
the federal arm collection in order to equip slaves to fight for freedom.
During the “Resistance to Civil Government”, Thoreau was an
individual revolutionary, who believed and supported the cause of abolition,
but during the “Plea for Captain John Brown”, Thoreau had become
sufficiently militarized in his viewpoints as to say that though there was more
market value for a quart of milk than a quart of blood, that was not the market
“heroes would carry their blood to”.

 

 

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