Discovering The “Correct” Role of Government
Unlike that of any other leading nation in the world, American government has always guaranteed the preservation of justice for all men. However, in their works Civil Disobedience and “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Henry Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., excoriate the government’s use of the term “all men,” which fails to uphold the all-inclusiveness it implies, as it excludes many subclasses of people. They assert that it is not within the governments’ rights to require an individual to compromise his or her morality. Instead, the correct role of government is to remain constant and relative as a protector of every citizen’s innate rights to justice, morality and individuality, despite how society may change.
In his essay Civil Disobedience, Henry Thoreau cynically observes that government is typically more harmful than it is helpful, as it is an agent of corruption. Members of the army, he notes, are “a common and natural result of an undue respect for law,” as they march “against their wills” and “against their common sense and consciences” (Thoreau 768). Thus, the men who strictly abide by the law do so immorally. Because of this, he encourages citizens to “break the law” which “requires [one] to be the agent of injustice to another” (773). A law that requires a person to act against his or her conscience, therefore, is unjust, and an unjust law does not deserve the respect of a just law. Thoreau advocates reform of unjust laws, noting that if reformers were to “withdraw their support… from the [state] government” (773), injustice could be eliminated; he asserts that “what is once well done is done forever.” (774). He authorizes “breaking” unjust laws in order to forever obtain justice, but with an understanding that disobeying the law can result in consequence. Thoreau was imprisoned for refusing to pay his poll tax for six years, even though “the State met” him previously, saying “’Pay… or be locked up.