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Can something "wrong," really be something "right?"

America the Beautiful
Have you ever felt strongly about something? So strongly that you were willing to do almost anything for your belief? Maybe you cared about a woman's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. Perhaps you wanted to see peace in the Middle East or an end to violence in our nation's schools. Maybe you'd like the right to listen to whatever music you decide or to play any video game you want, regardless of its rating? When people have strong beliefs in what is right and wrong, we call those principles. What would you be willing to do to protect your principles?

Throughout our history, everyday people have stood up for peace, equality, freedom and other principles that were important to them. For instance, when Americans disagreed with our involvement in Vietnam's civil war, they staged peaceful protests in Washington D.C. to let the government know that they did not agree with their military action. And, to show how wrong it was to discriminate against someone based on the color of her skin, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus. In order to convince the government to recognize a woman's right to vote, Lucy Stone gave speeches and united women throughout New England. And in 1846, American philosopher Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail as a protest against America's imperialism in the Mexican American War.


Ever wonder why the happy yellow star...

When Thoreau was a young man, the United States extended from the east coast to the states just west of the Mississippi River. The states we know today as Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado all belonged to Mexico. Yet there were many Americans who felt that it was our "manifest destiny" (or God given right) to control the entire land "from sea to shining sea." The fact that these lands belonged to Mexico was a small inconvenience to then U.S. President James Polk, who had hoped to gain these lands peacefully, but was ready to go to war if Mexico put up a fight.

Since Mexico had no intention of handing half of their land over to the United States, President Polk forced the issue. In 1845, he annexed Texas (which had claimed independence from Mexico in 1836, although Mexico did not recognize it) as a U.S. territory, angering Mexico's government. Then Polk ordered U.S. troops to station themselves at the Rio Grande River in Texas, and Mexico attacked the US forces in defense of what they still considered their land. This gave the president the excuse he needed to ask congress to declare war on Mexico. And so they did, believing that Mexico had shed U.S. blood on our lands.

True, American soldiers had been killed by Mexicans, but did those American soldiers have any right to be there in the first place? Where was the US/Mexico borderline exactly? A brand new US congressman from Illinois felt that President Polk was not being fair to Mexico. He challenged the President to specify the exact spot of "American soil" where our blood was shed. This representative, named Abraham Lincoln, spoke poignantly for his political party when he said that "the marching an army into the midst of a peaceful Mexican settlement, frightening the inhabitants away, leaving their growing crops and other property to destruction, to you may appear a perfectly amiable, peaceful, unprovoking procedure, but it does not appear so to us."

The President had been looking for a reason for war so that the United States could acquire the lands from Texas to California from Mexico. Many Americans at the time wanted those lands as well, agreeing with an 1847 New York Herald article that remarked, "we believe it is a part of our destiny to civilize that beautiful country." Polk made sure this war would happen by antagonizing Mexico when he placed those American troops on an imaginary borderline.

So the war was, of course, controversial among the American public. While some people felt that the entire continent should belong to the US, others recognized that the land belonged to Mexico. Many citizens would agree with the young lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant who believed that the Mexican American War was "one of the most unjust [wars] ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation." In addition to the division over manifest destiny, slavery also came up as an issue for Americans. Southern slave states were hoping to add more territory in the south through this war, which would give them more representation in congress. Fearing that more slave states would be added to the union, U.S. abolitionists were totally opposed to the war and Polk's expansionist policies.

Enter philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau grew up around great thinkers and abolitionists (people who wanted to end slavery) in his mother's boarding house in Concord, Massachusetts. He was extremely opposed to slavery, and to the war that President Polk had entered with Mexico. In order to make his disapproval known, Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax to the government. Since a portion of his tax money would go to the military budget, which paid for the war in Mexico, Thoreau considered it his moral obligation not to contribute. He would later write that he did not want "to trace the course of [his] dollar... till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with." Not paying his taxes, however, was illegal, and his crime caught up with him one day as he walked to the local cobbler to have a shoe mended. On his way, he ran into the tax collector who told Thoreau that he needed to pay up soon. Thoreau responded that he was certainly not going to pay his tax, and if the tax collector (who was his friend) did not like it, he could quit collecting taxes. Rather than leave his job, the collector took Thoreau to jail. Thoreau spent only one night in jail, (because a mystery person paid Thoreau's tax for him), but those few hours would be the beginning of something huge; an entire movement of peaceful protest. His actions would later be called "Civil Disobedience," and practiced from India to Denmark as a way for common people to change things about the system that they don't like.

Thoreau was against using violence to solve problems, but was willing to go to jail to protest something he didn't think was right. In his writings, Thoreau talked of obeying a "higher law" than the law of the government. He believed in following his conscience, or "inner voice" to tell him what was right and what was wrong. If the government law and his idea of higher law did not agree, he felt it was his duty to "deliberately violate the law of the land" and be willing to go to jail for his actions. Thoreau hoped that going to jail would call attention to the wrongs of the Mexican War, and help bring an end to the bloodshed it caused. Ultimately, he felt that if enough good men went to jail for their peaceful protests, their acts would "clog the machinery of the state," which would force an end to the war.

Unfortunately, Thoreau's act of Civil Disobedience did not clog any government wheels, because it didn't catch on at the time. He noted that although "there are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war," these people "do nothing to put an end to them..." Since he was not joined by the masses in his protest, this unjust war against Mexico went on, and the United States eventually took 500,000 square miles of land from Mexico. However, Thoreau's idea of peacefully protesting something to create change did not go away. Instead it echoed throughout the world as a way for people to affect change in something that they did not think was right.

*In India, Mahatma Gandhi brought Thoreau's idea of Civil Disobedience into the limelight when he practiced it himself. His hunger strikes and famous march to the sea were demonstrations against offensive laws that had been passed by the Imperialist government. These demonstrations brought the world's attention to the injustices that were occurring there, and eventually won India's complete freedom in 1945.

*In Denmark during World War II, the Nazis issued a law requiring all Jewish people to wear a six-pointed yellow star on their clothing. Rather than isolate their Jewish neighbors, the citizens pulled off a great act of Civil Disobedience. "Virtually every citizen in Denmark, Jew or Gentile (non Jew), appeared in the streets wearing the yellow star." The Nazi law then became worthless because no one obeyed it.

*In the United States, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached Civil Disobedience as a way for African Americans to demand equal rights. King believed that "he who passively accepts evil... without protesting against it is really cooperating with it."

What an inspiration a night in jail can create!

When I arrived in Thoreau's hometown to take a look around, I asked the worker at Thoreau's gift shop where the plaque was that marked his long-gone jail site. The man responded briskly, as if annoyed by my question. He told me that "Thoreau only spent one night in jail, and it was probably the most insignificant event of his life." The worker laughed off the idea of a plaque, letting me know that he had "lived in Concord for thirty five years," and if there were any sort of plaque he would surely know about it. Politely smiling at the man, and thanking him for his "help," I left his store thinking about Gandhi, the people of Denmark, Dr. King, and countless others who have been inspired by Thoreau's philosophy. It may have been one night, but I couldn't dismiss it as easily as the man at the counter did. The significance of Thoreau's night in jail is still being felt as people stand up for their principles in countless situations today.

Oh. One more thing. As I walked through downtown Concord, something caught my eye. Just behind monument square, twenty feet from the sidewalk and placed under a leafy bush, sat a small bronze plaque. I crossed the lawn to take a closer look. Can you guess what it said?

I guess even after thirty-five years, there's always something left to learn.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


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MAD - English only? No, nyet, nein!