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Rhetorical Analysis of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience

Henry D. Thoreau essay, “Civil Disobedience,” is a personal view on how a perfect government should conduct itself. He claims that the source of power for any government is the majority. His opinion is clear when he states that, “That government is best which governs not at all” (Thoreau, and Archibald, 6) his statement does not mean that he is an anti-government but an activist for a better government. He states that there are unjust laws within the government of which people should not just follow them blindly. Just like he puts it, men should “seek to amend them” rather than waiting for the majority to decide on the next course of action. Thoreau is not afraid to state that the United States of America has an unjust government because they practice aggressive war techniques and slavery.

            A good government must be just, respect all human rights, and be led by self-thinkers. He says, “There will never be a free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly” (Thoreau, and Archibald, 63). The essay “Civil Disobedience” argues that citizens of a country should not allow their governments to atrophy or overrule their consciences and that they have a responsibility of preventing such acquiescence to give power to the government which makes them the proprietors of injustices. Thoreau wrote this essay after motivation from his disgust with the Mexican-American War and slavery. He uses rhetoric to convince his audience to listens to his opinions of how a just government should operate.

            He wrote his work in 1849, during the Mexican war. For this reason, he can come up with credible arguments about abuse of power by the authorities. However, he also blames the people for failing to stand up against the bad governance by the authorities. Of all his tactics to support his ideas, logic takes the leading position. Thoreau states various logical ideas which include; “a laissez-faire government is better, most men do not judge their work morally, citizens might make an immoral decision for following the government blindly, citizens have the power to change an unjust government to be just, and that the government should respect its citizens.” He also uses repetition to put across his points. This helps his audience to understand his main ideas. He uses imagery which makes his essay lively. For example, he says, “If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself” (Thoreau, and Archibald, 12). This imagery implies that if one disagrees with government’s actions, then they must stand up against it.  He uses textual features such as syntax and diction reveals his persona. The tone and syntax used are eloquent, formal and academic.

            The essay has relatively long sentences with frequent semicolons and commas which has an appeal of a written speech, Thoreau speaking to his audience, lecturing even. He also uses parallelism to put across his ideas. He says, “Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished” (Thoreau, and Archibald, 41) He frequently uses the word “machine” to refer to the government and those who support it. His works set up “us”- the free-thinking, free-minded and responsible citizens-against them- the unjust government and its accomplices. Thoreau uses “We” often to emphasize the rift between the government and the citizen while creating a connection with those who agree with his ideas.

            His work is significant, in particular for this period since it reveals a man whose views are against taxes and government. It presents the readers with a chance to have a comprehension to the feelings of unjust and corrupt government practices that he was aware of. At one time, the author spent some time in jail for refusing to pay taxes. He was an anti-slavery activist that why he refused to pay his taxes after he realized they were used to support it indirectly. His essay on civil disobedience will impact hundreds of generations to come on the opinions of slavery and how “weak” people who cannot stand up against the government are encouraging it to be more unjust.

            I admire Thoreau for his courage; he is not afraid when criticizing an unjust government and when in “line of fire” he does not give up. He is a man of his words. A man who does not preach water and drink wine. For example, he opposes taxation which leads him to jail. It is encouraging to hear that he was among the few humanitarians in the 17th century who fought against slavery. I support his statement that the government should not intervene in a man’s daily affairs. He says, “There will never be a free and enlightened state until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its power and authority are derived” Thoreau, and Archibald, 146) However, it leaves me with more questions than answers. Should we have a “less-involved” government to govern us? What is the purpose of a “less-involved” government?

            His work is memorable for the firm stance he took against the government. His opinions and rhetoric fascinate the reader, therefore, making it difficult to ignore his ideologies. For example, he says he is not against taxes but those that are unjust. He says, “It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it.  I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually” (Thoreau, and Archibald, 151) in short, his statements make the reader review their personal opinions of government and eventually compare them with Thoreau’s.

            Thoreau contributed significantly toward the fight against oppression and injustices propagated by the government as well as the fight against slavery. Thoreau advocated for swift actions towards criticizing an unjust government. We have a lot to emulate from Thoreau gentle who sacrificed his lifetime by dedicating it towards humanity. I would recommend people to read this essay because one can get inspiration to face corrupt and unjust government. We all should emulate the type of confidence Thoreau had to stand up against the ills of our society. More importantly, the government needs to realize they have responsibility for their people which they should conduct in faith and confidence. Thoreau work is a masterpiece whose ideologies should be passed to the generations to come.

Works Cited

Thoreau, Henry David, and Archibald MacLeish. Civil disobedience. Chadwyck-Healey Incorporated, 1987.


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