The idea of government control over its people is something that has been debated about for centuries. How much power should the government have? How influential can people be in the governmental system? Who controls the potential of change within our governmental system? In “Resistance to Civil Government”, Henry David Thoreau attempts to enlightens his readers by attempting to answer these questions and more. By using several literary techniques such as imagery, rhetorical questions, analogies and tone when describing his opinions on the text, Thoreau challenges the morality of our civil government by questioning the people’s influence in the system, identifying the problem of government treatment of its people, and how to change the immorality of civil government as individuals within our government.
In his essay, Thoreau immediately challenges the notion of the people in the American truly having a voice in the government’s decisions and laws regarding moral outcomes that affect the nation as a whole. It is known that Thoreau is morally objective in all aspects of his life. He was against the destruction of the natural environment caused by human activity, he was against industrialism because it encouraged materialistic attitudes, and he was profoundly anti-slavery (Glick). In paragraph 3 of his essay Thoreau relates to the audience when stating, “But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” By this statement, he portrays his state of mind towards reforming the government. This initial proclamation of his belief is essential for progressing through the rest of his essay. In the next paragraph, Thoreau questions the idea of the people simply succumbing to the government’s will without first questioning it. He questions, “Why has every man a conscience, then?” (Thoreau, paragraph 4). He claims that every man has a conscience and has a right to use it, Thoreau implores his audience to do more than simply obey, especially over moral dilemmas.
Thoreau reaffirms his belief to the audience that he will always do what he believes is right and asks them to do the same. Later in paragraph 4, Thoreau questions if men are men at all in their current governmental situation. He does this when he proclaims, “Now, what are they? Men at all? Or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?” (Thoreau, paragraph 4) He soon after relates to men as machines stating that they do not have free will and solely only serve a purpose with no thought. Thoreau repeatedly uses this analogy throughout his essay when describing the people’s power or lack there of, within the government. Thoreau further attacks the role of men by using a sarcastic tone when he states that perhaps wooden men would serve the same governmental purpose. He questions what can be done to change this sad reality.
Before suggesting how the problem of immoral government power can be fixed, Thoreau first acknowledges how men cannot associate themselves with their own government without disgrace because it also the slave’s government. Here, Thoreau presents the moral dilemma in which his government is facing while also pronouncing his anti-slavery belief. From here on, Thoreau relates his question of morality and governmental power towards this idea that the people need to come together in order to change the government’s position on slavery. Thoreau begins to identify solutions in which could change the government’s immoral view of the slave trade. He states “All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counter-balance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it.” (Thoreau, paragraph 8) in which he quickly rebuts by saying it is not enough to wait for a change to happen on its own, he believes it must happen right away in order for true change to occur.
Thoreau recognizes the problems in wishing for immediate change to occur later in his essay. “We are accustomed to say, that the mass of men are unprepared; but improvement is slow, because the few are not as materially wiser or better than the many.” (Thoreau, paragraph 10) Here, Thoreau is able to define a beacon of hope for those that share his anti-slavery beliefs. He believes change will occur eventually but can be accelerated by affirmative action of the people. He goes on to state how many people actually are opposed to slavery in opinion but do not do anything to change the fact that is happening right before their eyes which essentially means they are supporting it the progression of it rather than the deletion. Thoreau uses a combative and persuasive tone in order to rally his audience to stand up and oppose their government in order to remove slavery from their nation.
Thoreau goes on to defend those who do not actively resist slavery and the laws of the government regarding slaves. Although his message throughout the essay until this point was persuasive to act now, he yet suggests a different but effective option. This choice being too disregard slavery and all that it entails rather than completely doing nothing about it. “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even to most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it…” (Thoreau, paragraph 13) It is with these words that he proclaims people can still make a difference without actively living an anti-slavery lifestyle. He later goes on to state how it is a man’s duty who holds such beliefs to bring this message to his neighbor as a form or eradication. With this passage, Thoreau provides a safety net for those of his readers that would not want to openly proclaim their rebellion due to fear.
Thoreau passionately fought for rebellion against his government throughout his essay. Despite his fiery rhetoric in which he uses to persuade his readers, it is clear that Thoreau walks the line of pacifism in his rebelliousness. Throughout his essay, Thoreau argues the best way to protest the government is to deny it’s authority. He implored a way of “fighting” the government would be to refuse to pay taxes even if it meant imprisonment. In fact, he welcomed this idea of protest and punishment. He believed this would rally the people and lead quickly to the abolition of slavery. (Newman) Thoreau’s non-violent form of protest was surprising in which the time period consisted of so many violent acts. He was truly a model of moral virtue and consciousness. Thoreau in this way modeled the path for famous activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi to go and change the world as he once did. (Zielinski, et al)
Throughout the essay, Thoreau examines ideals held by the citizens of time being controlled by their own government. He implores his audience through various methods for them to understand the message he is trying to get across. He wants to put the immoral government to rest by absolving slavery. The only way he believes he can do this is by the immediate action of people who share his beliefs. By his articulate writing, Thoreau was able to compose a persuasive essay that changed the viewpoints of his audience while calling an important moral argument into action.