Henry David Thoreau’s well-publicized essay, “Civil Disobedience,” has been a prized piece of literature in the hearts of many famous Americans and other leaders. Great political figures, such as Mohandas K. Gandhi and John F. Kennedy, have used Thoreau’s essay calling for the reform of government to their advantage when speaking to their fellow countrymen.
Writing in response to the United States annexation of Texas in 1845, Thoreau felt that this economic move by the United States expedited the Civil War, which many Americans disapproved of including he himself. In his essay, Thoreau argues that government should not be in control of the people and that the people should be able to rule themselves freely however they please. In addition, he clearly states and points out that in many instances it is best when individual rights take priority over state authority. Very often, the best authors, whether it be of a novel or an essay, clearly state their opinions and facts using various literary techniques and devices.
From reading other Thoreau works, such as excerpts from Walden and Excursions, I was able to infer that he has his own unique, unmatched writing style. Most ordinary and banal writers start their essays with long, tedious descriptions of the point they are trying to convey. But like all great writers and thinkers, Thoreau begins his essay with a strong, captivating sentence: “That government is best which governs least” (222). Thoreau’s opening line grabs and lets the reader know what topic(s) the essay will be discussing. As it turns out, this opening sentence is the basis for the rest of his essay as he encourages individuals to take responsibility for keeping the government in constant check.
He believes that the best way for a country and its people to survive is if individuals are willing to exert control over the government and not be ruled like sheep. Part of Thoreau’s writing style includes using examples to justify his opinions. Two such examples are the Mexican War and the slavery issues the country is facing at the time. Thoreau explains that “people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico” (225).
The constant references to multiple examples make Thoreau’s essay a strong advocate of reform in the American government. I think that if he did not use such examples, his call for reform in the government would not be as strong. In addition, Thoreau uses multiple similes to convey his point. He describes the American government as “a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend to his will.
It is sort of a wooden gun to the people themselves; and, if ever they should use it in earnest as a real one against each other, it will surely split” (222). When he describes the American government in comparison to a wooden gun, it gives the reader a clear description of how people should learn to think for themselves and speak out against any absurdities of the government. Throughout the essay, I was aware that Thoreau had a clear opinion of how government should be run (if there must be any government at all) and the true meaning of the essay itself. From beginning to end, Thoreau continues to encourage individuals to be aware of the actions of the government. He states that if a person does not believe in a certain law or something that the government has stated true but all-knowingly is false, he or she should not go along with the government and instead follow his or her conscience.
When he refers to his example of the Mexican War, he relates to the soldiers as “The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; .