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The mid-nineteenth century in the United States was a period full of changes, where little difference was made between beliefs, ideas, convictions, and ideologies. Yet their link to the political sphere – necessary for thinking of a new government – and the personal sphere – for shaping identities – is crucial to understanding how various and prosperous ideological and political thinkings were. When the provocative essay “Resistance to Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau was published in 1849, it found itself in a tumultuous time. Indeed, his essay put down roots in the wake of the annexation of Texas in December 25, 1845, and during the war of the United States against Mexico. Thoreau’s convictions were motivated by the idea that people should oppose the current government, abolish slavery and stop at once the massacre of the Native Americans and the war against Mexican. Transcendentalists, like Thoreau, could be analyzed as heirs of Federalist writers such as Hamilton, appropriating and reshaping that idea of democracy and exceptionalism. Transcendentalists would slant their doctrines in a much more individualistic way, caring along with many consequences on how thinking the democracy. That ideology refuted in many ways that of the Puritans.
That essay will intend to analyze and draw links between the ideologies of John Winthrop, Alexander Hamilton, John O’Sullivan, and Henry David Thoreau in order to shed light on the evolution of American ideology. I will first show how Thoreau, a staunch Transcendentalist, stood against the Puritan ideology, undermining the Manifest Destiny that was conceived to claim for a new order by freeing itself from the tyrannical British power. I will then delve into how Thoreau questioned the political grounds on which were established controversial ideas of freedom, in order to finally examine how Thoreau distanced himself from his predecessors in order to champion a new righteous government, putting nature at the center of his ideology.
Henry David Thoreau’s transcendentalism can be interpreted as the embodiment of an entirely new approach to American identity and institutions. He was capable of going beyond the old principles of Puritans, including that of the leading figure John Winthrop, adopting a much more individualistic approach.
In order to criticize the current political decision, which was the westward expansion justified by fighting Mexicans, Thoreau employed a cutting tone to condemn Puritans’ ideologies. Indeed, the essayist advocated against the commonly supported idea of expansion of the United States giving grounds for the Mexican-American war. One way to illustrate that is to refer to the incipit of “Resistance to Civil Government” where Thoreau debased the practice of his government that was sending soldiers to war. One of the arguments employed by the Democrats to justify the war lay on the traditional ideology of the Puritans and the concept of Manifest Destiny, a phrase coined by John O’Sullivan. That spiritual concept argued that it was the duty of Americans to expand toward the West, as they were exceptional people. It can be examined that such an idea contradicts Transcendentalism and Thoreau’s thinking. Transcendentalists’ specificity was to rely on themselves and to believe in a transcendence based on feelings and experiences nourished by an inner transcendental instinct that would help to acknowledge the real Truth. Therefore, discovering the world and expanding the territory would be pointless since it was seen as mere corruption. One can argue that Thoreau undermined that religious belief in order to promote his own credence of democracy, – a government not involved in the private sphere and with little power to run people in the public sphere. Although one can posit that both Thoreau and Winthrop shared an urge for democracy, each had disparate convictions. For example, on one hand, Henry David Thoreau favored a strong individualized democracy with little care for property and society, neglecting old Puritan ideologies. On the other hand, John Winthrop’s sermon could be invoked to oppose Thoreau’s individualism by calling for “material improvements, political democratization, and moral reform.” Settlers deeply believed in a reform that would reject European legacy, and somehow that specificity would pervade in Thoreau’s transcendentalism. As once again, it was high time to reform society.
In addition, “Resistance to Civil Government” was purposely written to resist the excessive freedom taken over by Hamilton’s corrupted government. The Federalist Papers were fueling the idea of exceptionality, so worshipped by O’Sullivan, strengthening that Manifest Destiny, and the exceptional, almost deliberate, history of the United States as, a beacon of hope and freedom. According to the canons of transcendentalism, individuals should not give credit to such ideology unifying the people and let alone to believe in a natural or divine hierarchy among people. In fact, people were thought to be “self-reliable”, led by that transcendental instinct, believed to be the only way to reach the Truth.
Although Winthrop, followed by John O’ Sullivan, was convinced that the solution was a communal life where the fate of all individuals was intertwined, Thoreau’s ideal was essentially different. He did not address people, conceived as a symbol of conformity, but individuals, urging them to adopt a new identity, not affiliated with a presumed supremacist white, Euro-American heritage, but radically reoriented towards nature and wilderness. In the end, the concept of manifest destiny illustrates the figurative acme of the American domination expressed by John O’Sullivan, leading to the Mexican-American war. That ideology incited Thoreau’s own ideology of return to nature. Finally, one can underline that American ideologies were nurtured by a strong sense of exceptional history, and identity, braving British and European legacy.
The interpretation of democratic ideologies will now be analyzed by evaluating the ideas of John O’Sullivan, Alexander Hamilton, and Thoreau and they will be highlighted with the use of Gordon Wood’s reflection on exceptionalism and identity. Although these writers would have seemingly based their appeals on the same political ground of “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness,” each thinker had its own way to approach that stance.
Thoreau never stated clearly in his essay “Resistance to a Civil Government” his political side, and that propagandistic rhetoric should be examined. One might argue that it was a rhetoric of rallying, not stating specifically one’s own convictions might be an intent to reach a larger audience. Furthermore, Thoreau could not have specified his political convictions because there was no need. As a result of extreme individualism, what mattered for Thoreau was neither society, nor opinion, but the very questioning of the government. It should have been very limited so it would serve its own interests, letting people decide in the participation in the Mexican War. But as a matter of fact, the historian Gordon Wood has shown that the Mexican War was popular, pushing into the background Thoreau’s effort. In this respect, Gordon Wood argued that the inherent and specific character of the United States, id est exceptionalism, relied on its formidable political institutions and stability. Although Thoreau tried to undermine the government, his efforts proved to be powerless. That ideology of exceptionalism originating from the exceptional government manifests itself in J.O’Sullivan’s and Alexander Hamilton’s work. It should be noted that both were convinced that they were paving the way to a fair, liberal, and democratic government. For instance, the Federalist Papers (1787-1788) were promoting a constitution unifying the United States. Yet, their ideology led ultimately to annexations and wars, reinforcing the very idea of exceptionalism for some, and compromising for others.
Moreover, a more specific criticism unbalancing the government could be underlined: the catalyst concept of the tyranny of the majority. That concept was highlighted first by European philosophers, however, Thoreau used it to his own advantage in “Resistance to Civil Disobedience”. Although the democratic ideology was to promote a representative government, done so ironically with suffrage given only to a white, upper-class, male population, for H.D.Thoreau, it did not hinder the government from corruption and self-interested decisions. Thoreau mentioned in his essay the paradox between the voting majority and the link to the American people as a whole. Even though the government was elected by a voting majority, it was still not representing the interests of each individual. Such a paradox was crucial to leading people to war or maintaining slavery easily. The key was to control suffrage. Thoreau blamed such an oppressive government to defend abolitionism and advance the return to nature. Finally, Thoreau can be understood as an individual who sought to challenge the fabric of American identity, ideologies and politics founded notably by Winthrop, Hamilton, and O’Sullivan and commonly adopted by Americans. Against his predecessors, he criticized the constraints limiting the actions and thoughts of American citizens. In a way his attitude was that of an early more progressive and liberal thinker, merging with unprecedented insights used to confront and undermine the American social and political systems of domination and oppression.
To conclude, it is crucial to understand “Resistance to Civil Disobedience” as an essay that was not an accusation against a despotic state as such, but rather a criticism of a state that could be aimed at more democratic goals. Henry David Thoreau is aligned to previous thinkers in the sense that he was also hoping for a revolution. A revolution of a new kind that would not have promoted a union in which the American Revolution was at its center but a revolution of nature. To some extent, whether it was John Winthrop, Alexander Hamilton, John O’Sullivan, or Henry David Thoreau, all were motivated by ideologies to make the society move forward; and whether their writings would agree or contradict each other, their ideologies are intertwined and intricate. Finally, it is important to highlight the key role of both political and religious culture in the American historical evolution of ideologies, for example through the struggle to reconcile social realities with democratic ideology, laying the ground for a richer memory and identity.
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