In Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”, he criticizes American policies and institutions by making demands of American democracy. Thoreau attacks the idea of government and deems it rarely useful. He stresses that people must act in a justified way, regardless of the cost, and this is shown not only in the many personal experiences he shares within the dissertation; But also in how he describes the corruption of the government. His essay covers three main ideas, these include the Mexican- American war, American slavery, and Native American injustice. It’s these topics and events that have assembled his own ethics and morals and were displayed throughout his life as he remained a dedicated abolitionist. This essay will analyze the several main themes that are seen throughout the composition, why Thoreau was critical of them, and how they displayed our flawed democracy.
The Mexican- American war of 1846 was indefinitely opposed by Thoreau. The war itself was between the United States and Mexico, it was a dispute over territory. The U.S believed it was their “manifest destiny” to acquire as much land as possible, and as a result, we claimed most of the land that we would consider to be the “southwest” today. Thoreau and other abolitionists disagreed with the colonialism and thought it was more out of arrogance rather than a justified obligation. After spending a short amount of time in jail for essentially protesting the war, Henry David was inspired to write “Civil Disobedience” showing that this event heavily inspired it. The quote “Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool: for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure” (1097) shows generally that the government is abusing its power. They are abusing their rights to get what they want, by appointing people who didn’t want to go off to war. The soldiers have no opportunity to express their own moral views and are emotionally stripped by the government while being painted as a “hero”. It’s this quote that begins to convey Thoreau’s true thoughts on the government and how corrupt it truly is.
In addition to the Mexican- American war, Slavery is another prominent theme in the essay. At the time of publishing, regions had been divided over the question of slavery. Thoreau’s main issue with the topic is how there are thousands of like-minded people that also oppose slavery, but choose to do nothing about it. He condemns waiting around for the government to fix the issue and believes that it needs to be taken into the people’s hands if any change is going to occur. The essay made it clear that slavery indirectly impacts everyone, and that all citizens are affected by it. Thoreau says “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also” (1099). This quote displays his true disdain for the government, and how he will continue to protest until slavery has been outlawed. He believes that a political system that supports enslavement will never be supported by him and won’t even recognize it as a government. The way he speaks about slavery in the paper shows that it is a very real problem, and he calls to the reader to join him in fighting it.
The last eminent theme this essay will discuss is the presence of Native American injustice in civil disobedience. Thoreau believed that Native American culture was declining and was disappointed in the governments little involvement to slow the decrease. The Indian removal act of 1830 allowed the forcible movement of Native Americans from their native grounds. It is acts like this that inspired the essay to explore many of the governments problems with corruption. Henry David is profoundly concerned about the unfairness surrounding the treatment of native people.