Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) are two authors who extensively dealt with the topic of revolution. The common definition of revolution is that it is an elementary change in power or a governmental configuration that takes place in a short period of time. These two authors approached this issue from a different perspective by depicting revolution as being multifaceted. By exploring the books written by these two individuals, several similarities can be observed in their approach to revolutions and revolts despite them living in different times.
In his book titled “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau explores the topic of revolution in a more engaging manner by not particularly relating revolution to any major course of action, but rather to a spiritual call for the inviolability of principles in all issues. Thoreau explains civil defiance as the active rejection of certain regulations, demands and instructions of a regime or of an occupying authority, without consequential physical aggressions. The most conspicuous issues of discussion in this book by Thoreau are the concern on government, war between conscience and collectiveness, war and slavery, and the blind obedience of the state or ruling circle. As he tacked revolution through the subject of governance, Thoreau apparently concurs with the earlier work of Jefferson on the suitability of a government. Jefferson had argued that that the best type of government is the one that administrates the least and just like him, Thoreau agrees that best type of government is the one that does not govern at all. Thoreau additionally states that people always have their way when it comes to governance by eventually having the kind of government that they are prepared or willing to have. By stating that the best government is one that does not govern, Thoreau does not imply that a government should not have an administrative structure but rather, that any government should make it a priority to satisfy the wishes and desires of it citizens.
The issue of revolting against the government is also tackled by Thoreau in his book “Civil Disobedience.” On this issue, Thoreau states that obedience to any government should not come automatically without much thought since obedience is mutual and should be earned instead of being offered unconditionally or automatically (Thoreau 4). Moreover, Thoreau suggests that obedience should never be extended to unjust governments which have little regard for the rights of their citizens.
Thoreau’s criticism of unjust governance can be connected to the rebellion by the Americans people during the independent era when they rebelled against the unjust colonial government. As one reads Thoreau’s book, it becomes apparent that he detests authoritative governments that are unjust to their citizens. According to him, when a government frequently tolerates acts of injustice, then its citizens are justified to stage a revolution that will see a change in the way they are governed and those who are to govern them. Thoreau seems to agree that a revolution is justified should a majority feel like their government does not represent their wishes. He further states that such kinds of governments are those that choose to satisfy the rights of a few politicians at the expense of the citizens. He further warns that should the public choose to do nothing about such a situation, their government will continue disregarding their wishes (Thoreau 16). Thoreau also explains that even an excellent form of administration is likely to be abused and misused if the citizens choose not to keep a close eye on the running of their government. His book gets even more interesting when he states that even in situations where a government seems to reflect the views of the majority, those in disagreement with their government need not fully obey it since the majority may hold the power but this does not imply that they are at all times right (Thoreau 47).
Thoreau, in addition explored the dilemma faced by soldiers in the Mexican-American war used war and slavery to explain why they (soldiers) could not engage in a revolution. He points out that the solders that participated in this war and ended up taking the lives of other individuals in the name of obedience. By the virtue of total submission to the state, these men ended up losing their human nature and became more of machines or tools of oppression that were at the service of some unprincipled man in command (Thoreau 52).
He then notes that the solders in this war could not see that they were being abused since they had families and dependants who depended on them. This he attributes to their fear of the government confiscating their properties and leaving them with nothing to support their dependants if they chose to revolt against the wishes of the government. Furthermore, they thought that if the government could not go ahead with its taxation and slavery plans, it would not have enough to pay them. Thoreau was a strong opponent of both taxation and slavery for which he even went to jail for. He took his principles a step further by refusing to settle his taxes to the government and argued that if he did so, the government would utilize the same tax to finance the war which he was against. This action depicts Thoreau as an individual with a very strong personality who could go to great lengths to defend what he believed.
Just like Thoreau, Thomas Jefferson is known for tackling the issue of revolutions and also seems to encourage people to stand strong for what they believe in. In his book titled “The declaration of independence,” Jefferson brings out a radical definition of revolution by relating revolution to the uprising during the fight against the colonial forces headed by the English king. Jefferson observes that when ruled by an unjust administration, there will always come the time when the citizens will find it necessary to challenge the tight grip of the oppressive regime with the aim of replacing it with self governance (Jefferson 388).
He then states that when the laws given to people by God are taken away or censored by the authorities, then they need to revolt and demand for their rights. The need to revolt, according to Jefferson, may be realized when other non-combative measures such as round table dialogue fail to bear any fruit. Jefferson seems to imply that failed talks portray a clear sign that more needs to be done and in such situations, citizens should demand for their rights through pressurizing the oppressive regime by all other means just as the American people did to attain independence from the British. When it comes to governance, Jefferson seems to agree with Thoreau on the need of a just government. He notes that citizens should always have strong minds so they can confront their government whenever it takes the wrong direction in governance.
He further states that without a strong mind, confronting the government will be difficult. Jefferson also observes that every generation requires a revolution to address its most pressing needs and grievances, be it political or any other. When the desires of the multitude are realized either through dialogue or combative revolts, Jefferson claims the revolution was worth being spearheaded. (Jefferson 160) From this article, it can be observed that the two prominent figures tackled the issue of revolution from similar perspectives. Thoreau may have used the example of oppressive governments to state his point while Jefferson based his arguments on oppression from foreigners but the message that clearly comes out from their works of the two is the call for action by the citizens to defend their rights and freedom against oppressive forces.
The influence of the works of both men outlasted the periods for which they were written. Jefferson’s work inspired many generations that followed including Abraham Linkoln during the Civil war, Elizabeth Candy in her demands for the voting rights of women and most notably, Martin Luther King as he motivated African-Americans in their fight for their rights. Similarly, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” has been christened as one of the most influential American works (Karoubi 47). Thoreau’s works also influenced many including prominent transcendentalists such as Gandhi and Dr. King, who both credited Thoreau as having greatly inspired them in their works.
Jefferson, Thomas and Fink, Sam. The Declaration of Independence. New York: Scholastic Inc publishers, 2002.
Print. Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience. New York: Forgotten Books, 2008. Print. Karoubi, Mohamed Taghi. Just or unjust war?: international law and unilateral use of armed force by states at the turn of the 20th century.
Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2004.