What should the people do, if the government of a country proves tyrannical?
When does a government prove tyrannical or oppressive? What should the people do to resist the government and to remove injustice?
Answer: The writer, H.D. Thoreau, of the essay Civil Disobedience thinks that people should have the right of revolution if the government proves tyrannical. Whatever the weapon of tyranny may be, the people would revolt against it. The revolution may often be a peaceful one. In regard to any kind of revolution, people must develop their human quality and strengthen their conscience.
A government proves tyrannical or oppressive when the freedom of the individual citizen is curtailed, when the majority rules without any consideration for individual citizen’s freedom of thought and action, and when conscience of man is not allowed to decide the question between right and wrong. The writer finds his contemporary government as tyrannical, so he raises the question of how the people would behave with the government. He asks, “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today?” The people have respect for the law of the state, but law cannot make men just. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is that you see a file of soldiers, captain, corporal, privates, powder monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order, through hill and dale to the wars, against their will, common sense and conscience. The author does not consider them as men, but they are small moveable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power. Such a government reduces a man to a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing and already buried under arms with funeral accompaniments. A man cannot be associated with such a government without disgrace. Such a government is a political organization which is a slave’s organization. The people have the right of revolution when such a government exists. Men in such a government should have the right to refuse allegiance, to resist the government, because its tyranny or its inefficiency is great and unendurable.
A state tyrannizes its citizen by imposing unjust laws. The state punishes those who break such laws, or do not support them. In such circumstances, Thoreau suggests several ways: the people can remain content to obey them, or they can endeavor to amend them, or they can obey them until they have succeeded in their endeavor to remove or eradicate them, or they can transgress them at once. Men, generally think under such conditions that they ought to wait till they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They usually have the fear that if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. Their endeavor to remove the evil will bounce upon themselves, and they will be sufferers for their own efforts meant for bringing about some good. But if we think a bit more deeply it becomes apparent to us that the government itself is responsible for such a possibility. It is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. The government should have anticipated such a predicament, and should have provided a reform The State’s responsibility is to cherish the minority. It should cry and resist before it is hurt, that is, it should provide measures for correcting an evil law even before it enacts the law. Instead of doing benevolent things or wise things, the state punish good citizens, put; them into prison and excommunicates them. Under such a condition, what the people can do is to withdraw their direct and indirect support for the sustenance of such laws. That is the least measure they can take even if the direct revolution against such unjust laws is not possible.
This point of people’s right to revolution is the most important one in the whole essay. It touches the key point of Thoreau’s political ideal propounded here. Mahatma Gandhi expressed his indebtedness to the author for his idea which inspired his non-cooperation against the tyranny of the British government in India.
It is a matter of extraordinary boldness on the part of the author to encourage such “peaceable” revolution. When the laws of a state are unjust, or when the state imprisons a just man for violating such unjust laws, there should be peaceful revolution by the people. The so-called minority can bring about a peaceful revolution by not conforming to the rules of the state, by not paying taxes, by refusing allegiance to the state, and by resigning their office.
Thoreau puts utmost emphasis on conscience and development of human qualities. Conscience is the quality in man which enables him to do justice to all his fellow beings, and behave with others with all fairness. Since a state consists of men, and since men possess conscience, then conscience should be the ruling principle, not majority. When the government proves tyrannical, it suppresses the human qualities in man and reduces them to beings which are fairly comparable to animals. To live under such a government and to pay moveable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous which is allegiance to it is tantamount to degrading man’s higher self based on clear conscience. Thoreau expresses this idea in a very powerful way thus: “Now, what are they? Men at all? Or small man in power?” If a man does not wish to debase himself, or to become merely a slave, or an animal devoid of all human qualities, he should revolt against such a government.