Civil Disobedience is the act of knowingly breaking a law that an individual feels is morally unjust. We all have a moral compass, and a perception of what is right from wrong. Many individuals see injustices in our democratic system, yet few actually make a stand for what they believe is right. The United States was founded under an idea that All men are created equal. However, that motto was not entirely true. When we look back in time and examine our past, one can see a plethora of injustices among minorities in this country. The Mexican-American War was a bloody conflict between the two countries in which many lives were lost due to an unjust cause. The slavery riddled south selfishly wanted the state of Texas to expand their borders in hopes of spreading slavery. This essay will explain and analyze two essays by individuals who express entirely different opinions of civil disobedience. In his essay, Civil Disobedience: Destroyer of Democracy, Lewis H. Van Dusen strongly discourages the use of civil disobedience as a means for change. He feels that this act of disobedience directly contradicts our democratic system. The other individual being compared in this essay is Henry David Thoreau; who in his essay, Civil Disobedience, supports the act of peacefully challenging or protesting unjust laws. He impugns us to do what is morally right, and to not be afraid to take a stand against injustice. Henry David Thoreaus position on civil disobedience is neither morally irresponsible nor politically reprehensible.
Civil disobedience is technically illegal, and is punishable, but who is ultimately responsible for determining what is right or wrong? Van Dusen strongly believes that defiance of
laws go against the democratic nature of our government: Bit civil disobedience, whatever the ethical rationalization, is still an assault on our democratic society, an affront to our legal order and an attack on our constitutional government (Van Dusen 634). To Van dusen, knowingly defying laws is unconstitutional and infringes upon our democratic system. Van Dusen goes on to note, The lesson of history is that civil insurgency spawns far more injustices than it removes (Van Dusen 633). He feels that when we attempt to defy unjust laws and challenge our democratic system, all we do is create more transgression.
Henry Davis Thoreau felt entirely different from Van Dusen in his stand or civil disobedience. Thoreau was a strong supporter of civil disobedience as a means for change. Thoreau challenges the individual to go with the current of in justice: Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is prison (Thoreau 228). If a government unfairly imposes upon a just individual, then the only suitable place for said individual is prison.
Next, we will tackle the issue of violence versus order. Van Dusen notes, If there is no popular assembly to provide an adjustment of ills, and there is no court system to dispose of injustices, then there is, indeed, a right to rebel (Van Dusen 633). Van Dusen is stating that civil disobedience should only be used as a last resort effort when all other methods have been exhausted. But when is there ever no court system to dispose of injustices? He goes on to teiterate that civil disobedience creates chaos and disorder: To indulge civil disobedience is to invite anarchy, and the permissive arbitrariness of anarchy is hardly less tolerable than the repressive arbitrariness of tyranny (Van Dusen 634). In other words, civil disobedience is on the same wavelength as chaos and anarchy. That tyranny is also equal to civil disobedience.
Thoreaus view on violence versus order are entirely different: All men recognize the right of revolution: that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable (229). It is our constitutional right to challenge unjust laws and violence and order may be encountered by the opposition. When a law becomes tyrannical, then it is our duty to challenge it. He goes on to call out the opposing forces: See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard of some of my townsmen say, I should like to have them order me out to put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico,-see if I would go, and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so directly, at least, by their allegiance and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute (Thoreau 233). Thoreau is taking aim at those individuals who do not feel that change should happen. These individuals take a stand against civil disobedience because they feel that it spawns disorder and they themselves stated that they will strongly oppose all efforts by their foes.
The last issue being covered is the idea of conscience versus convenience. Our conscience is our moral compass that tells us what is right from wrong. Unfortunately, following our conscience may not ultimately be convenient. Van Dusen goes on to mention the Greek heroine Antigone, who willingly disobeyed state law by burying her treason riddled brother: Conscience motivated Antigone. She was not testing the validity of the law in the hope that eventually be sustained (Van Dusen 631). It was Antigones moral compass that told her to defy a law that she felt was unjust. She was however, testing the validity of the law. Se directly opposed to law that she was not allowed a proper burial for her sibling so therefore she did, in fact, test the validity of the law. He goes on to define his idea of a civil disobedient: The civil disobedient has been has been nonviolent in his defiance of the law; he has been unfurtive in his violation; he has been submissive to the penalties of the law he has neither evaded the law nor interfered with anothers rights. He has been neither a rioter nor a revolutionary. The thrust of his cause has not been the might of coercion but the martyrdom of conscience (Van Dusen 632). But it takes coercion to bring change. An individual lobbying for change must coerce the opposition in means of bringing forth change. Thoreau strongly believes that one must follow their conscience, however inconvenient it may be: The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right (Thoreau 227). His only duty is to follow his heart and do what feels right, however hard that may be. Thoreau goes on to criticize the individuals who morally agree with injustices yet fail to act upon them: There are Thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them (Thoreau 231). These individuals see the injustices yet turn a blind eye when it comes for change. It is too inconvenient for these individuals who see that a change must be made yet fail to make a change.
In conclusion, Civil disobedience is morally right, and our responsibility to be defiant of unjust laws. It is our moral duty to bring these injustices to the grave. Change does in fact spawn some disorder, however it does not always incite violence as Van Dusen believes. The violence is usually carried on by the opposition anyways, out of fear of change and justice. Thoreau challenges us to follow our conscience, to not let the inconvenient nature discourage us. It is hard to stand up for what you believe is right, especially when it is not the popular choice. But I would rather be put in a physical jail for standing up for what I think is right; than to be in a jail of the mind, being a prisoner of my own guilty conscience. Thoreaus essay strongly motivated myself to look past the convenient nature of going with the flow. Jail does not scare me anymore; as long as I get sent there for something that I feel is just.
Taylor, ZacharyMexican-American War. PBS. KERA. 19 April 2011. Web. 26 April 2011
Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience.Exploring Literature. Ed. Frank Madden.New York: Pearson Longman, 2004.
Van Dusen, Lewis H. Jr. Civil Disobedience: Destroyer of Democracy.American Bar Association Journal. 1969.