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Jefferson, Thoreau, and King: Justice and Equality

Jefferson, Thoreau, and King: Justice and Equality

I wrote this paper during my Senior year in college for an English course. I received an A in the class, so this paper must have earned a decent grade. It is dated July 25, 1990.

Justice and equality are two ideals which Americans claim as of the foundations of the United States.  It is ironic when looking back through American history to see how those who fought for such rights have been treated by mainstream America at the time.  Three men who were dedicated to justice and equality in America were Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Each of these lived to promote equality, and left behind documents for generations to study.

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Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence as a statement of the United States’ independence, and as a means to express discontent with injustices promoted by King George.  Henry David Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience as a commentary expressing his objection to the United States government.  Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his Letter From Birmingham Jail in response to a plea from religious leaders who wanted him to subdue his opposition to racial inequality.  All three were proclaiming similar ideas, but with different means of achieving their goals.

It was Thomas Jefferson who penned the words “all men are created equal.”  In his time, this most logically meant all white men, and not women, blacks, or other minorities.  It was, however, a bold statement to the King of England that Americans would no longer be subservient to him.  Martin Luther King, Jr., nearly two centuries later, fought for the absolute of Jefferson’s statement.  Jefferson wanted the common man – which was defined in different terms in the 1770’s – to be equal and free.  King wanted all people, regardless of race or gender, to be equal and free.  Thoreau also fought for equality in his ambition to free the slaves in the South.

All three men may be compared in their pursuit of rebellion.  Each man, however, had different causes and different means of rebellion.  In Jefferson’s case, he was essentially declaring war against England.  His means was violence, if necessary, by saying, “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”  Thoreau agreed with this philosophy.  He was unhappy with slavery and the United States’ invasion of Mexico, and felt it was the duty of Americans to rebel “cost what it may.”

Unlike Thoreau and Jefferson, King believed in peaceful, “non-violent direct action.”  His cause was to eliminate racial inequality and discrimination.  Some of Thoreau’s influence is noticeable in King’s action.  Thoreau felt that a minority could make a difference when it “clogs by its whole weight,” and have an influence through “peaceable revolution.”  King, too, used this rationale through demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins – especially during a brisk shopping season such as Easter.  The difference between them was that Thoreau was willing to go beyond peaceful demonstrations to achieve his objective.

Rebellion in the minds of Jefferson, Thoreau, and King seemed to stem from what they perceived as justice.  They believed that a person should obey just laws, but not “unjust” laws.  King pointed out that a just or unjust law is determined by how it aligns with moral law.  In the case of segregation, he believed it was not just, and refused to obey it.  Thoreau, likewise, did not pay poll tax because he believed it to be unjust.  He would pay taxes that he believed would help men, but refused to pay taxes that he believed to help the state.  Jefferson’s reasoning for declaring independence was the unjust laws of King George.  He felt that disobeying English laws was a noble act.

The concept of time was easy in each of the three men’s minds.  They all wanted immediate action.  Jefferson’s document had the most ramifications, and was itself an action.  He was declaring freedom from British rule.  Thoreau and King also sought immediate action.  Thoreau demanded “at once a better government”, while King proclaimed “We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights.”

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