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Book Comparison: Paine’s Common Sense and Thoreau’s CivilDisobedience
The books Common Sense by Thomas Paine and CivilDisobedience by Thoreau, though published in the dawn of Americanindependence, continue to be relevant in enlightening the peopletoday. They provide important insights on how individuals shouldrespond to their respective governments. By looking at these twobooks, this paper seeks to compare and contrast two different rolesof government and the individual as presented by the two authors.
According to Paine, one of the roles of the individuals is tochallenge the government of the day. He personally said that he knewthat many would not favor his argument because it challenged the waythe British government operated. He said that if individuals did notquestion the way things are done or run by governments, then it makesthem appear right (Paine and Isaac, 40). At the time, most of thecolonists were satisfied with the way events were unfolding and theway things were being done. He says that no one was invincible exceptdivine power. Similarly, Thoreau advocated for individuals toquestion the laws of the land. His view was thus in conflict with theexisting laws on slavery then. The fact that Thoreau advocated suchas stance might have been judged to equate to inciting people perhapsin civil disobedience or by other means. Thoreau further argued thatindividuals should only obey divine laws. Understandably, such asuggestion clearly ignored the legitimacy of the government in powerand equates to treason. By extension, Thoreau considered the stateand the church as the same. In fact, the church should be the onlythat has the right to interpret and enforce divine laws on thepublic.
On the contrary, Paine and Isaac (62) in their book Common Senseadvocate for the legitimacy of governments. The authors argue thatthe government is necessary to manage the evil of the people.Therefore, to these authors, human beings are evil in nature and inorder to avert anarchy, there was a need to have a body thatformulates laws that dictate how people interact and relate with oneanother in order to have any sense of order. This body was envisionedas a government (Paine and Isaac, 62). Furthermore, while governmentsare formulated in order to control the evil in people, people shouldalso seek to control the government so as it does not overstep itsmandate in order to promote the common good.
Further to that, Paine (62) wrote that individuals should judge thegovernment based on how well the government accomplishes itobjectives which include protecting life, liberty, and property(Paine, 12). As long the government is playing that role, then theindividual should recognize its legitimacy. This is in contrast tocivil disobedience that informs the individual not to follow the lawwhich is unjust. This is irrespective of whether the government isperforming its function as required by law or not. Civil disobedienceadvocates that the individuals have roles in declaring independencefrom unjust laws. The individual should not surrender their right tolawmakers even if the lawmakers are the majority.
According to Paine, every society requires ways to regulate itsactivities. An individual has a role in creating laws that rule themwhich would make them happier. This is contrary to civil disobediencethat tells the individual not to participate in the institutions ofthe government. Also civil disobedience proposes that the individualshould not follow the law even if that law is dictated by themajority, but instead do what they think is right. Thoreau advocatesthat the individuals have roles in declaring independence from unjustlaws. The individual should not surrender their right to lawmakers.That, however, could be compared to Paine’s views that oppressivegovernments are not recognized by the individual.
Paine wants the individual to always question the status quo. Failureto do that would lead to governments that do not care about thewelfare of the people. It reiterates that people would realize theirright to question the government and keep it on its toes. It saysthat that the entire humankind would always fight for independencesince it appeals to everyone (Paine and Isaac, 51). It terms thegovernment as a necessary evil whose function is to stop the peoplefrom engaging in evil acts. Therefore, Paine insinuates thatindividuals should participate in their governance. Rules and lawsshould not be imposed on the individuals without their participation.The individual has a duty to play their roles for the common good ofwhole societies. This notion is similar to that of Thoreau in CivilDisobedience. In relation to the independence of the nation,Thoreau advocates that the individuals have roles in declaringindependence from unjust laws (Thoreau and Joseph 43). The individualshould not surrender their right to lawmakers. The right of theindividual should reign supreme ultimately. It is, therefore, therole of the individuals to fight for their rights and question theactions of the government. Individuals, however, should be ready tosuffer the consequences just like Thoreau was jailed for failing topay tax. He had been jailed for questioning a bad law, slavery law.
Thoreau’s book advocates that individuals have roles in declaringindependence from unjust laws. This is comparable to Paine’s viewswhen he wrote that individuals must fight against any form ofoppression and should be independent in their thinking. Theindividuals should, however, be able ready for resistance by thegovernment of the day. The individuals should engage in a continuousendeavor to fight for the strengthening of good governance of theircountry. This is a legitimate role that individuals should play withpride. It is only when the individuals play their roles well ofpointing out the existence of bad laws in their constitution thattrue liberation can begin to manifest.
In Thoreau’s book, progressive laws would contribute to theprogressiveness of states in all other sectors. It is also the roleof the individual to engage in nonviolent resistance to laws that arerepressive in nature (Thoreau, 25). It is also the role of theindividuals to sanctify the authority of the government. This impliesthat the government should recognize the fact that it derives itsauthority from the individuals. However, common sense advocates for arevolution by the people in the achievement of good governance. Theindividual should be able to fight and suffer the consequences. Thisis demonstrated after Paine was fired from his position foradvocating for the rights of the emerging working class.
Thoreau called for individuals to engage in a continuous endeavor tofight for the strengthening of good governance of their country. Thisis a legitimate role that individuals should play with pride(Thoreau, and Joseph, 58). Progressive laws would contribute to theprogressiveness of states in all other sectors. Similarly, Paine alsoproposed that the individuals demand changes to improve the welfareof the people, even if revolutionary means are used to achieve that.
In conclusion, Thoreau’s and Paine’s approach to civildisobedience are different in their approaches and definition. Paineviews government illegitimate and that its place should be occupiedby religion while Thoreau feels that governments should rule at themercy of individuals. However, they have a common objective ofpromoting the welfare of the individual. They also strive to makegovernments address the interests of the people in more comprehensiveand inclusive ways. Thus, the two authors shared some ideas ongovernment and the role of the individual and at the same timediffered on others.
Paine, Thomas. Common sense. London J. Almon 1776.Print
Paine, Thomas, and Isaac Kramnick. Common Sense. HarmondsworthMiddlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1986. Print.
Thoreau, Henry D, and Joseph W. Krutch. Walden, and OtherWritings: By Henry David Thoreau. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1981.Print.
Thoreau, Henry D.Civil Disobedience.London:1849. Print.