Thoreau vs. Paine: Civil Disobedience & Common Sense

In America, individuals have always taken it upon themselves to right the wrongs that they see with society. This can be seen in our American roots, as our country exists on a foundation of rebellion and revolution. The revolutionary seeds from which our culture stemmed have given a revolutionary nature to the entire plant: the leaves and branches of modern society. One of the ways that we can see how Americans have always been a revolutionary, rebellious, free-thinking people is through the writings of American authors over the years. Throughout history, as the times have been changing, the revolutionary undertones of American can still be seen its writing. Some writers, from different periods, who display this are Henry David Thoreau, author of Civil Disobedience, and Thomas Paine, author of the pamphlet: Common Sense. Both authors existed at different times, but they both conveyed similar messages or rebellion in their works–messages that are still relevant in the context of modern society.

Essentially every student in American has read or will read Henry David Thoreau’s essay: Civil Disobedience. It is so well-read because it is relatable to so many historical events, modern day events, and events still to come. Basically, Thoreau’s point in writing the essay is to get across the idea that sometimes the government runs on principles of injustice, and when this happens it is the citizen’s duty to disobey and correct the unjust laws of the government. He wrote: “If…injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine” (Thoreau). Thoreau is saying that breaking the law is justifiable if the law that one is breaking is unjust and needs to be rectified. Thoreau also emphasizes the power of the individual in his essay, saying that an individual has the power to break one of the government’s laws, raise awareness of its injustice, and lead to a greater change being made. When one person takes action against an unjust law, it will cause the masses to see that “unjust laws exist,” and eventually ask themselves: “shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once” (Thoreau)? He also emphasized that men should not feel that they are simply subject to the law, they should be men first, and subjects afterward. “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right” (Thoreau). He is advocating for the higher power of reason over the law. Men know right from wrong, the government as a machine does not have this reason, therefore men must take it upon themselves to use their reason in order to defeat the corruption and evil that could potentially run through the icy veins of government. Even democracy, Thoreau says, is not always a just form of government. This is due to its heavy reliance on voting in order to get things accomplished. Voting, in Thoreau’s eyes, “is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it….[one casts his] vote, perchance, as [he thinks] right; but [he is not] vitally concerned that that right should prevail. [He is] willing to leave it to the majority” (Thoreau). If a man truly wanted to make a change regarding something unjust, then he should take actual action and be civilly disobedient, because “voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail” (Thoreau). Thoreau also argues against paying taxes, as it is funding the very injustices that he believes citizens should try to fight against. He himself “refused to pay his Massachusetts poll tax, denouncing the Mexican war. He was put in jail and spent one night there” (Zinn 156). Essentially, he encourages the people of America to think about the injustices they disagree with, and realize how much they can do to stand against those injustices. While Thoreau does not say that it is a citizen’s duty to devote his entire life to making sure the government is being just, he does make it clear that it is one’s duty to stand against it when one notices injustice.

Thomas Paine was another writer who preached similar ideas to Thoreau, perhaps he even influenced Thoreau, as Paine wrote before America was even its own country. Paine’s pamphlet has a beautiful progression, starting off with an explanation of Paine’s vision of an ideal government, one where people are voted for and elected to run the country (essentially the democracy we have today). He then goes on to criticize monarchies, specifically the British monarchy, saying that “In England a King hath little more to do than to make war and give away places; which, in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. A pretty business indeed for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling a year for, and worshipped into the bargain! Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived” (Paine). After his criticism of England, comes the most famous part of the pamphlet, where Paine explains why America needs to secede from British rule. He states that the only King America has is a king that “reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain” (Paine). The highest powers in America should be “the word of God…[and the law, for] in America THE LAW IS KING” (Paine). He also goes on, saying that it is natural and necessary that the United States should sever their ties with Great Britain and start anew, as “everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ’tis time to part” (Paine). The pamphlet was outrageously popular, as “it is probable that almost every literate colonist either read it or knew about its contents” (Zinn 69). After that kind of publicity and all that had happened between Great Britain and America, it was only right for America to secede.

In a sense, Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience can be seen as a response to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. One particular passage from Common Sense seems like it is almost directly a prompt that Thoreau could be responding to. Paine writes:

“Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least.”

This is very relatable to what Thoreau writes, because Thoreau does agree that government can be good, but sometimes there are cases in which human reason is greater than the laws imposed by a government. That is one of the main points where they differ, Thoreau thinks that human conscience has the ability to trump government, but Paine explicitly says the opposite, as he believes the human conscience to be too unclear and irrational.

It is interesting to see how Thoreau and Paine are both suggesting that the United States citizens should disobey their government, but the ways in which they are suggesting they disobey is subject to the government that the author wants to disobey. Paine wants to disobey the British monarchy, so the ways that he suggests taking action is by seceding, creating a new government, and creating new laws. Thoreau, publishing Civil Disobedience almost 100 years after Paine’s pamphlet, is suggesting that the people disobey the very laws and government that were the result of Paine’s disobedience. It is interesting to note how government will always cause individuals to want to disobey, and how disobedience simply leads to more disobedience

Paine’s disobedience and rebellion is rooted in the fact that he and other Americans were mistreated by the British monarchy. They were dissatisfied with their situation as a colony, so they chose to stop being one. Thoreau’s disobedience and rebellion is rooted in something much different. At Thoreau’s time period, he was a transcendentalist, meaning that he wanted his mind to transcend culture and society. Therefore, it is only natural that he thought his reason was more powerful and more correct than the laws imposed by the government. Both of these writers were influenced by the movements of their times. Paine, living right before the revolution, was upset by actual events and injustices occurring all over the colonies.

Paine and Thoreau both wrote to cause people to stand up against injustices imposed by governments. Their messages are similar, but subject to the context of the time period that the writers lived in. Thoreau lived in America after it had been established for almost a century, so the laws that he wanted to disobey were American laws. Paine wanted to disobey the British crown, since America had not yet been established when he was writing. Clearly, their messages are transcendent of time, while the specifics of their writings are based in their historical periods, the overall ideas of civil disobedience and rebellion are timeless. They can even be related to certain events that are occurring throughout the modern world today.

While the question of whether or not a law is unjust is dependent on an individual’s opinion, there are many laws in America that people believe are unjust and decide to civilly disobey. One interesting case that can be noted today is the usage of the illegal drug marijuana. While the punishments for possession and usage of marijuana vary by state , the general consensus across the nation is that possessing a small amount is a misdemeanor. Innumerable people disagree with marijuana being illegal, arguing that it grows naturally, and the government cannot outlaw nature, that it’s active ingredient is less dangerous than nicotine, which is the ingredient in cigarettes, and many other arguments. People who believe that marijuana should be illegal embody the civilly disobedient spirit of Thoreau and the revolutionary spirit of Paine in many ways. First off, they still smoke marijuana, civilly disobeying the laws that make it illegal. Second off, they rally to legalize marijuana, fighting to pass legislation that would make it legal–similar to the way Paine rallied the masses to fight against the British and change the injustices that they were being subject to. While the “injustice” of making marijuana illegal is not as drastic as the injustices faced by Americans before and during the revolutionary war, the activists fighting for the legalization of marijuana are embracing the same spirit as the revolutionaries who wanted to free themselves from British rule.

Another, not so recent, example of civil disobedience and rebellion in society is in the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King and his followers had the Thoreau-like spirit of wanting to abolish old, corrupt laws of segregation, and they also had the Paine-like spirit of making reform happen and wanting to make new laws. There are so many examples of civil rights leaders and activists being civilly disobedient. From Rosa Parks not leaving her seat on the bus, to the bus strike that her actions led to, to the civil rights march that was held, and so much more, the Civil Rights movement is a shining example of civil disobedience. They took it upon themselves to change laws that they knew, firsthand, were extremely unjust and disregarding of human reason. They knew that the best way to take action would be to protest nonviolently, and to push for reform in that way. In those ways, they embraced Thoreau’s philosophies, but civil rights protestors also embraced Thomas Paine’s ideals because they also sought to help carve out the new beginning that would be opened after their civil disobedience led to changes in the government. They not only wanted to get rid of old laws, they also knew what types of new laws that they wanted to make after their disobedience was successful. They learned from both Thoreau and Paine, and because of it they were so successful in their movement.

The ideas of Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience, and Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, were monumental during their times, and they still remain relevant to modern societal problems. Through the ages they have remained pertinent, these principles founded our country, helped it evolve, and are still helping it evolve today. Because our country is such a free place, people are free to be civilly disobedient, free to write pamphlets like Common Sense, and free to make changes to better the country and even the world. That is the beautiful thing about America. Through the writings of Paine and Thoreau, we can see the progression of thought in America. At first, Paine was trying to get America to detach itself from Great Britain’s rule, and he had ideas for a government after America became its own country. Later, Thoreau wrote about the government that Paine suggested would be ideal for American independence and criticized it for being unjust. From there, he made suggestions of how American citizens could fix the injustices of the country, and how human reason should be a higher power than the ideas of a few potentially corrupt individuals in power. It is interesting to note how what was once ideal at one time can become outdated so quickly. It is impossible not to wonder what thinkers will emerge from America next, what their ideas will be, and what movements they may start. Perhaps their movements have already started, like the Occupy movement, or the movement for cleaner energy. Only time will tell, but thinkers such as Paine and Thoreau will undoubtedly always have an influence on the thinkers of today and tomorrow.

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