“When unjust laws exist, there are three choices: 1. Obey
them, 2. Obey them while working to change them, or 3. Transgress them
at once.” –David Henry Thoreau, Civil Disobedience.
“When unjust laws exist, there are three choices: 1. Obey them, 2. Obey them while working to change them, or 3. Transgress them at once.” –David Henry Thoreau, Civil Disobedience. In Thoreau’s essay, “Resistance to Civil Government,” he explains that he cannot support a government that permits the existence of slavery. He states that it is an individual’s conscience that must be followed and not a government that is acting immorally. People have the absolute moral duty to not support a government that they feel is acting in an unjust way, or follow laws that are evil. The individual has an obligation to follow his conscience and refuse to follow any law or policy set by a government that allows injustices against its citizens. Civil disobedience is a citizen’s right to act in opposition to an unjust government. Instead citizens must be true to the higher moral laws, because one must not do anything to support a wrong. The life of Frederick Douglass, and his courage in refusing to obey unjust laws and instead work for the end of slavery illustrates Thoreau’s ideals on civil disobedience and an individual’s duty to end injustice. Thoreau believed in the idea of having personal integrity, and living a life based on this ideal was the only way to be a good person. He felt that anytime you saw an injustice, you had to oppose it. Frederick Douglass recognized the fact that as a human being he should be allowed to be treated as having value and rights. Slaves were not accepted as being truly human or equal to whites, and he found the courage to oppose this injustice. In fact, Douglass understood how wrong slavery is at a young age, “I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell his birthday”(13). The inequality slaves are forced to live with makes Douglass wish to be seen as a human being and not simply property. As he says, “we were all ranked together at the evaluation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine”(51). He longs for freedom and liberty and begins to rebel against his master, an act of civil disobedience. He has a physical fight with Mr. Covey, which, “rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood”(79). He then continues his resistance to slavery, he manages to escape and become a free man. Frederick Douglass was willing to risk his life in order to run away from slavery. To him, there was no question that the only way to survive as a human being was to pursue freedom and attempt to find some sort of equality, even if this meant breaking the laws that were in existence at the time. He then led a crusade against slavery that went beyond simply speaking out in moral disapproval about the practice, but also taking part in activities to help bring about change. He wrote about the reality of slavery so that people in the North would understand what a horrible system it was. When his words did not bring about the change he wanted, he took action, working with Garrison on the newspaper, The Liberator. Just as Thoreau was willing to go to jail rather than pay taxes to support a government he did not believe in, Douglass was willing to break the law in order to run away and be free. He then does all he can to make a better life and encourage others to find the courage to fight for equality and liberty. Frederick Douglass takes the ideas of civil disobedience and injustice and turns them into action. He knowingly refuses to accept the laws he is forced to live under because he knows they are unjust. He understands that as a slave he does not have the power to change the law, so he risks his life and escapes in an attempt for freedom. He is willing to pay whatever price is necessary so that he does not have to live under the injustice of slavery. As he says, “my long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I know resolve that however long I might remain a slave in form the day it pass forever when I can be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me”(113). Douglass was willing to die for his cause of freedom and equality.