Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

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Civil Disobedience


People say that the biggest horrors are not in movies but in real life. Since the beginning of human history, we have practiced civil disobedience, which is the refusal to comply with the government. It is something that America specifically was partially built on, besides genocide and war. Even the first amendment, part of it states that Americans have the right to petition the government. America has a history of civil disobedience, for instance, the revolutionary war and how that war ultimately broke off the United States from Great Britain. It implies America refused to comply with the British government or protested their rule. Since then, Americans have practiced their first amendment right, including the Civil War, the Suffrage movement, labor strikes, the civil rights movement, and even in recent times, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Women’s rights movement. These different protests and movements shape who we are today, and without them, where would we be today? In “Civil disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau argues that Americans have more of an influence on this country than the government itself, and they should use that influence to refuse and resist laws that they feel are not right for change to happen, which is what America did throughout the 1960s with back-to-back protests exercising their first amendment right specifically with the Vietnam war.(Civil Disobedience Essay Example)

Civil Disobedience Essay Example


In Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 “Civil disobedience,” Thoreau argues better government and calls people to fight against laws that they deem to be unjust. He also criticizes three different types of people, including the high powers within the government, soldiers, and the general public. He starts by saying that the government’s primary role is serving the people. Therefore, the people should not let the government sway their conscience and practice their first amendment rights. He also argues that the government does not care about the people but its self-interests. Henry believes the government needs to be revised, including the court system or lady justice, and people must protest the unjust laws. Thoreau also criticizes soldiers, stating that the army is not humans but machines with no emotions, thoughts, or humanity. Thoreau says that the men who protest and resist fighting in a war are usually outcasts. Finally, Thoreau criticizes the general public, stating that people have a habit of thinking that voting someone into office is enough to bring change to the country. He says that people pass on the work of making changes to the government, which is not enough because the people should play an active role in change adoption and implementation. Thoreau encourages the public to resist unjust laws in the government.(Civil Disobedience Essay Example)

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Trial of the Chicago

The trial of the Chicago 7 movie shows how Americans in the 1960s took Thoreau’s words into action with protests opposing the Vietnam war. But, like the author had predicted a century prior, they would get punished for it. The movie’s main plot centers around eight men: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, John Froines, and Bobby Seale, who are on trial for inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention due to the Vietnam War. The film shows how differently these men approached protesting. Some people, like David Dellinger, protested peacefully, while others, like Abby Huffman and Bobby Seale, perceived peaceful protests as ineffective. Bobby Seale famously said in the movie, “Martin’s dead, Malcolm’s dead, Medgar’s dead, Bobby’s dead, Jesus is dead. They tried it peacefully; we’re gonna try something else”.

The movie also illustrates the extent of violence in the protests, specifically when Abbie Huffman and Jerry Rubin, founders of the Yippies, led a protest at the police station, which ended in a confrontation between the police and protesters. Toward the movie’s end, riots and uproars occurred as the police physically assaulted Rennie Davis. In this instance, Tom Hayden angrily said, “If blood is going to flow, then let it flow all over the city!” meaning that if they were going to be violated, the whole city should be. It is also shown when Hayden, in his closing remarks, reads off the names of all the 4,752 soldiers killed in the Vietnam War, sending the entire court into an uproar. The depiction of violent versus peaceful protest is essential as it shows that peaceful protests exist but can be ineffective in many instances. In the movie, even simple acts turn into an uproar, such as the last scene with Tom Hayden, which shows that violence in many protests is bound to happen, especially when it involves standing up against the government’s decisions.(Civil Disobedience Essay Example)

Primarily, people protest against the justice system due to its corrupt nature. Henry Thoreau talked about how the American justice system loses people through discriminatory behavior and corruption, shown in The Trial of Chicago Seven involving Judge Julius Hoffman as he interrupts one of the prosecutors, Richard Shultz, who says that he would like to clarify to the jury that Abbie Hoffman and himself are not related. Judge Julius Hoffman also displays unprofessionalism by pulling jurors in and out of the jury. In the first incident, he pulls out two jurors because he believes they will be more sympathetic to the defendant because of alleged threats from the black panther party despite the black panther party not writing these threats. Judge Julius Hoffman also charges the defendants with random things like contempt of court and disruption of the court. He was also corrupt outside the courtroom. The movie plays a tape on the night of the riots, showing police beating Rennie Davis with clubs because he tried to appease the officers not to arrest someone climbing a flagpole. Corruption in the justice system is critical because people have a say in who gets elected and can influence relevant changes. Protesting does not only mean going out in the street but also protesting by voting for the right people to prevent individuals like Judge Julius Hoffman from leading courtrooms.

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James Simon Kunen argues strongly on the unjust nature of the Vietnam war, saying in his book, “strawberry statement,” that if a country has to draft men to defend it, there is nothing to defend. He also believes that many wars are unjust, mainly that the Vietnam war was unfair and unnecessary. In the book, the soldiers are the people he feels were primarily affected by the war. Typically, men aged 18 to 25 from a lower class fought in the war. Kunen posits that there are better ways to solve problems than wars that will not cost people their lives. War is essential as it pertains to protests because it shows that the people were against the war for a good reason. The war mainly affected younger soldiers from low-income families or lower economic classes.(Civil Disobedience Essay Example)

Kunen talks about the American dream and how people must dream again. He says, “People think the U.S.A is special so that we can do anything, and it is okay. People should wake up and dream again” (Kunen, 1970). Kunen also talks about how since the beginning, America prevented their dream by voting laws that contradict it, for example, religious laws once the puritans came. The American dream is the ideal scenario in which every American, regardless of background or heritage, have an equal chance to make it in America. According to Kunen (1970), if you place laws that prevent others from getting opportunities, then the ideal is invalid. When he says that people should dream again, he does not mean the actual dream; he means the foundation and the system of America should be rebuilt again so that the American dream can be more attainable to everyone. The topic of the American dream relates to the importance of protest because fighting for the American dream is at the core of many demonstrations. In a fair and equitable society, everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, and class can attain the American dream. (Civil Disobedience Essay Example)


The events, from the revolutionary war to those of the 1960s, mirror what is happening today in America. I sometimes feel that, even though 1969 was 54 years ago, we as a society are still stuck there because we deal with similar social injustices. The corruption and unjust laws in the government are shown in instances like the overturning of Roe v Wade and making abortion illegal in many states, which strips women of fundamental human rights and autonomy. Examples of protests against war and the fight for human rights include protests against the Iraq war, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’s rights movement, and the struggle for LGBT rights. Corruption in the justice system exists today as police officers go unpunished for brutality, like in the Trayvon Martin case and the Michael Brown case. Still, 30 years ago, white police officers who almost bested Rodney King to death were acquitted, causing L.A. riots. Other examples include the Supreme Court and the Florida governor stripping people of the first amendment or freedom of speech. The unjust nature of war and how soldiers are affected are shown by the increasing number of disabled, maimed, and mentally ill soldiers. The inequality and social injustices experienced in America make the American dream unattainable. (Civil Disobedience Essay Example)

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Ultimately, we citizens have the power to change this country to make the American dream a reality for everyone. The preamble of the United States says we, the people, not the government nor the Supreme Court, have the power. Therefore, Americans should protest against unjust laws and for a better government, for soldiers, for unjust wars, a better justice system, and, most importantly, to live in a country where every American citizen can succeed. I recommend people protest for a cause they believe in or sign petitions to change unjust laws. People can also use their votes to influence positive change. Per an old saying, “one voice can change the world.” (Civil Disobedience Essay Example)


McCracken, S. (1970). The Strawberry Statement, by James Simon Kunen (Book Review). Commentary50(4), 100.

Sorkin, A. (2020). The Trial of the Chicago 7: The Screenplay. Simon & Schuster.

Thoreau, H. D. (1849). On the duty of civil disobedience. Feedbooks.

Thoreau, H. D. (2017). Civil disobedience. Lulu. com.

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