Some of the most inhuman acts in the history of mankind include war and slavery. Before the slave trade was abolished, slaves were brought from Africa and sold in America and parts of Europe. The enslaved Africans were forced to work in European and American plantations under inhuman conditions such as being overworked, being offered little food, few pieces of clothing, no decent housing, and no beds to sleep on (Douglass 23). Many slaves ended up dying or even being killed by their masters. As a result of the inhuman treatment, activists began campaigning for the abolition of the slave trade. Some of these activists included writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Frederick Douglass. While Thoreau expresses his concerns about war and slavery in his text 'Resistance to Civil Government,' Douglass does it in his 'Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.' Although the two writers take different approaches to condemn atrocities against humanity, the main ideas that they front include slavery and the struggle for freedom.
To begin with, the two authors are against slavery. They seem to vehemently advocate for its abolition due to its inhumane nature. Interestingly, the two authors were born at around the same time. Thoreau was born in 1817 while Douglass says that he is not sure of his birth date since there is no authentic document to that effect but approximates it as 1818. Since they were born around the same time, the two authors must have witnessed the atrocities of slavery. Having been born a white, Thoreau was lucky not to have been subjected to slavery. However, his counterpart, Douglass, was born to a slave woman, Harriet Bailey, and an American who is rumored to have been his mother's master, Captain Antony (Douglass 2). Due to unavoidable circumstances, Douglass was forced to work as a slave from an early age. As was the custom for slaves' children, Douglass was forcefully separated from his mother at a very early age; when he was still an infant. He says that he only saw her about five times before she passed on. At the age of seven, Douglass was already working as a slave in Baltimore for Hugh Auld, a brother to the son-in-law of Captain Antony. Thoreau, on the other hand, was not as unfortunate as Douglass. He only witnessed the cruelty meted on slaves and decided that enough was enough.
Another interesting aspect is that both texts, Thoreau's 'Resistance to Civil Government,' and Douglass' 'Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,' were published at around the same period. While the one by Douglass was published in 1845, the one by Frederick was published in 1849. During this period, slavery was still legal in America. This explains why the two writers are seemingly bitter with the act and are obviously campaigning against it. Thoreau seems to use the allegory of slavery to criticize the government. He refers to the American government as a 'slave's government' since most people serve it using their bodies like machines with no moral sense (Thoreau). This is a kind of slavery that Thoreau is against. He adds that one-sixth of the population are slaves and one cannot be proud of such a government. He then calls for the abolition of slavery alongside the cessation of the Mexican war as the two are evil and an abuse of human rights. On the same note, Douglass explains how he suffers as he is juggled from one slave-owner to another. As a child, he begins working in the household of Colonel Lloyd. He later works for Hugh Auld who, afterward, rents him to Edward Covey who later rents him to William Freeland, and the chain continues. This renting of the slave demonstrates that slaves are treated like property and are expected to behave like the machines that Thoreau talks about. The whipping and other mistreatments are enough to make the slaves and activists clamor for freedom.
The American government does not seem to care about the welfare of humanity. This explains why it allows atrocities such as slavery and the American-Mexican war to go on unabated. The two writers seem to ask some philosophically construed questions on what a good government entails. Although Douglass does not directly criticize the government, he insinuates that it was brutal as was unheeding to the torture meted on colored people as he explains how they were whipped, slashed and neglected as they worked for their masters who were white. This could, of course, not happen without the government's knowledge. The reader is left to judge what kind of government that this was, and the most probable word that could describe it would be: barbaric. This is a cruel government that does not deserve to be installed in the first place. The writer may have deliberately failed to judge the government or directly attack it in his text but he gives the reader an opportunity to do this.
In the same breath, Thoreau seriously criticizes the American government of the time. He begins by stating his belief that the best government is the one that does not govern at all. He then censures the American government for consenting to the Mexican war. Throughout his text, Thoreau explains how the government seems to have enslaved its citizens and held the elite, including politicians and lawyers, captive (Thoreau). He demonstrates the fact that there is a need for doing away with the government by disobeying its laws and making it dysfunctional since it has lost its integrity by engaging in slavery and war. He says that it is more reasonable to follow one's conscience since it is the only way of realizing true democracy. Such sentiments by Thoreau are likely to provoke the thinking of the reader regarding good governance. Both Thoreau and Douglass do not give answers to the all-important questions regarding governance, but present provocative pieces that leave the reader answering broader questions than what seems to be obvious criticism.
The struggle for freedom is another issue tackled by both Thoreau and Douglass. They seem to ask what freedom means to a human being. The people referred to in the two texts are in a kind of slavery that they must get themselves out of. However, freeing themselves of this slavery is not as easy as hinted by both Douglass and Thoreau. They must first realize that they are enslaved. It is only after recognizing this that they will endeavor to be free. Otherwise, they will remain in slavery albeit unawares. Thoreau highlights ways in which the government has enslaved its subjects and wishes they would be free. He emphasizes this by using the verse: I am too high-born to be propertied/To be a secondary at control/Or useful serving-man and instrument/To any sovereign state throughout the world (Thoreau). Similarly, Douglass stresses the need for freedom by using his own experience. He is a former slave who has had to come up with ways of freeing himself.
The road to freedom is not easy. It is a road full of obstacles and various forms of difficulties as demonstrated by the two authors. In 'Resistance to Civil Government,' Thoreau explains that a government is a tradition or a complicated machine that people believe they must have so as to satisfy their idea of a governing body. Thoreau is against the idea of a democratic government which draws its premises on the rule of the majority; a situation in which the minority have their say but the majority have their way. He claims that there can be no justice in a government that allows the majority to rule. Following laws, according to Thoreau, does not mean that there are justice and freedom. He suggests that a conscience is enough to ensure justice is executed. Thoreau, for example, compares an army that goes to war on command, or in obedience of the law, to small movable magazines and forts that are doing nothing more but serving some unscrupulous person who is in power. In his view, such an army is made up of people who have no use for their conscience. Thoreau emphasizes the use of common sense, other than blindly following and respecting the law. He says that one has to lose their honor for them to be associated with the American government. In such a case, he seems to imply that there is no need for a government. People can govern themselves using their conscience to differentiate right from wrong, hence behave as expected. However, bringing people to accept that there is no need for a government since they can use their conscience to govern themselves is not an easy task.
On the same note, Douglass suggests that the road to freedom is difficult. He uses his experience to demonstrate this. Having been born into slavery, it is inevitable for Douglass to become a slave at a very early age. However, as soon as he is able to reason, he tries to look for a way out. He knows that an education is going to enlighten him. While working for Hugh Auld, he is lucky to get to learn. The wife of his boss is the one who starts teaching him how to read and write. Unfortunately, her stern husband, Auld, warns her against it and orders that she stops coaching Douglass. Auld argues that if slaves get an education, they become unmanageable. This may be true because if the slaves can read, for instance, they will become liberal thus begin fighting for their rights. In the process, a revolution may be born and the slave-owners will no longer be at ease. Gaining an education is not the only attempt that Douglass makes to secure his freedom. While working for William Freeland, he plans an escape but it is foiled when someone betrays him. He and his three accomplices are even jailed for this offense. Although it is not easy to secure freedom, it is not wise to give up yet. This is true of any endeavor that requires a strong will and the desire for a revolution.
In their texts, both Thoreau and Douglass recount the sacrifices that they have had to make as they struggle for freedom. In 'Resistance to Civil Government,' Thoreau proposes the decline to pay taxes as a good way to resist the civil government since it does not respect human rights. He suggests that if people fail to pay taxes, and the government officers resign, that will be the beginning of the success of a peaceful revolution. He explains that he has had to spend a night in jail for declining to pay taxes - he had failed to pay the poll tax for six years (Thoreau). This is an example that he had to set. Thoreau does not see the need to pay taxes to a government that is involved in slavery and war. Although he says that he has always paid the highway tax, as a good neighbor, Thoreau does not approve of those who pay poll taxes, and the person who paid his for him to be released from jail. He believes that continuing to pay poll tax is akin to abetting the injustices perpetrated by the American government. Although Thoreau's argument makes sense, it would be rather difficult to implement since most people would rather pay their taxes to avoid getting in trouble with the authorities. Thoreau's sacrifices notwithstanding, it would be a bit difficult to convince people to go against the law since the law forms the basis of their tradition.
On his part, Douglass explains how he has had to fight with brutal slave-owners such as Covey to whom he had been rented by Hugh for one year. Covey was known to beat the hell out of slaves but after the fight with Douglass, he does not whip him again. Another sacrifice that Douglass has to make is to plan an escape with fellow slaves but it is thwarted, and this leads to his imprisonment. When he is sent back to Baltimore after his jail term, Douglass learns the ship caulking trade. However, all the money he earns is taken by Hugh Auld. Fortunately for him, Hugh later allows him to work extra time and earn his own money. With this, his desire to escape is renewed as he has some money to make good his escape. He eventually escapes to New York. This was a dangerous unde...
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