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Essay: Declaration of Independence/Civil Disobedience/The Crucible

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Words: 2,561 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 11 (approx)
  • Tags: The Crucible (Arthur Miller)

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Author Dr. Seuss once wrote, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not” (Brainy Quote). Dr. Seuss believed that until a person realizes injustice and cares to protest it, the injustice will just keep growing past control. Injustice is something that is forced upon people, and only they have the power to fight against it with protest. Unfortunately, protest has never been seen as a good thing while happening; only after is it realized what change the sacrifice and suffering of the protesters brought about. Just as Dr. Seuss believed, influential historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and Arthur Miller all voiced their protest against unjust laws and ideologies. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson listed his grievances against the King of England and Parliament’s unwillingness to treat Colonists fairly and their ongoing abuse of power. During the presidency of James K. Polk in 1849, who favored pro-slavery laws and war against Mexico, writer Henry David Thoreau crafted an essay named “Civil Disobedience”. He talked about his resistance to civil government, for example, by not paying taxes, and as a result, spending jail time, and his respect for living a simple life. In the McCarthyism era of the 1950s, when the fear of Communism in America was running rampant, thousands of Americans were accused of Communist sympathy and subject to aggressive investigating and blacklisting, tarnishing their reputations. One such blacklisted Hollywood playwright, Arthur Miller, wrote a play titled “The Crucible” about the inconsistencies of the Salem Witch Trials and the unfortunate effects of ill-wishes on an entire society. Despite backlash and tiring efforts, all of the three figures sought fairness and fought to achieve it. Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and Arthur Miller all emphasized that to keep society equal and just, one must protest injustices, even if it demands sacrifice and suffering.

As the fundamental act of protest in American history, Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence to explain Great Britain’s injustices to the American people that led them to protest by declaring independence from British rule. For many years, Great Britain let the colonies act freely with trade and regulations. Though, after wars in Europe, Britain was in heavy debt and to pay it off, they began strictly enforcing the taxation of many colonial imports, exports, and goods. Because of this loss of self-sufficiency and the American way of life, politicians and laymen alike brought about the idea of protesting the British with events such as the Boston Tea Party and boycotting of British goods. As the colonists became more and more oppressed, they finally decided on independence. To justify and credit their actions, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson believed that in order to give credibility for independence, stating the causes for it were necessary.  Jefferson explained the colonial vision to oppressive powers when he wrote:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government… The history of the present King… is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these states… And for the support of this Declaration… we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor (Jefferson 1, 2).

Jefferson believed the King had “establish[ed] an absolute Tyranny” over the American people with his constant abuses. He used the metaphor of “a long train” to compare the long history of the King’s violations of the basic rights of people to the “abuses and usurpations” to the colonists right now. The colonists were taxed heavily without any representation in Parliament similar to subjects of the British empire living in England for hundreds of years. For Jefferson, enough of rights or “the same Object” had already been broken, and the colonies would not take any more of it. Furthermore, Jefferson uses ethos with the phrase “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such [despotic] government” to communicate a righteous tone. Jefferson makes the logical assertion that a government that oppresses its people should be thrown over by the population to then create a government that safeguards against those injustices. Lastly, he uses pathos with the repetition of “our” to resonate a sense of togetherness between the colonists to fight the usurpations of the King. This emotional use of words is what rostered colonial support for the Revolutionary War and convinced many into sacrificing their entire lives for the cause of independence. Because of the suffering of countless individuals, America broke free from Britain and it fueled various revolutions around the world.

Resonating with the sentiments of Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau was a philosopher who, in the 1850’s, protested the government as misrepresenting the American philosophy in his essay “Civil Disobedience”. Thoreau followed a movement called Transcendentalism and agreed with the ideology of social reform at an individual level first. For a few years, he built a hut on Walden Pond in Concord, MA and reflected on the simplicity of nature and a quiet life. Though, in 1846, during the presidency of James K. Polk, the US declared war on Mexico. Thoreau saw this as a plot to expand slavery in the Southwest as American’s Manifest Destiny. Already anti-slavery, Thoreau stopped paying taxes in protest. The tax collector ignored this, but after Thoreau publicly condemned the Mexican-American, he was jailed. This prompted him to write his essay. Thoreau’s minor act of defiance let him to understand that it was not enough to just condemn actions, it was necessary for a person of clean conscience to act in “Civil Disobedience”. Thoreau describes what he would do with a corrupt government when he states:

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will smooth – certainly the machine will wear out… but if [law] requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine” (Thoreau 8).

Thoreau believed that unless people disobey unjust laws, they allow them to continue and hurt others. Using the running metaphor of “the machine of government” comparing the government to a machine that has friction and wears out, he acknowledges that governments have problems, but they may go away. If not, “certainly the machine will wear out”, meaning the injustice will burden the government too much and have to be fixed. Thoreau also makes the argument that if the law requires someone to bring injustice on someone else, then they should let their life counter the law and stop that injustice. Thoreau elicits pathos with a stern tone of breaking the law for justice and not letting personal gains get in the way. He wanted people to never have the need to give in to injustices if they are morally just men. Even going as far as jail or death is better than letting the “machine” keep running. Any action that brings an unjust government to a stop is a commendable one for Thoreau. He believes one should sacrifice their lives fighting to end ideologies they deem unjust and immoral.

In the Declaration, Jefferson uses the “train” as Thoreau uses friction for injustices to slowly build up until the people of the government overthrow it to assert their rights. Jefferson also says that a government should not be overthrown for small “light and transient” issues, just as Thoreau believed, but instead for events that affect basic principles of humans. Just as King George III acted as a tyrant to the colonists, people that bring injustices upon other people act in the same way. Lastly, Jefferson tried working with Parliament, but he gets “repeated injury in return” just as Thoreau gets jailed and this fueled both of their activism. For both Jefferson and Thoreau, government is made to work for the people, but when things get in the way of that purpose, people must stand up and protest to bring the government back to its original intent.

Looking back to ideologies of the likes of Jefferson and Thoreau, Hollywood playwright Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible” during the McCarthyism era to warn against the dire effects of not protesting an unjust authority and to continue protest so one does not submit to an injustice. Miller was prominent in the entertainment industry and was therefore subject to the Senate interrogations by Joseph McCarthy who capitalized on the fearmongering of Communism with Americans to make himself powerful. His want for media attention and fame led him to supposedly have names of Communist sympathizers in America and create mass hysteria after WW2. McCarthy’s harsh interrogations coupled with the logic that if a person agreed to Communist ties and named other people they knew would be freed and whitelisted, but, if a person denounced allegations, they were automatically considered to be hiding Communist information and then blacklisted led to almost every accused individual to falsely confess and name others who were brought in for questioning. This was very similar to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and Miller wrote “The Crucible” about the Salem trials as an allegory to McCarthyism. Miller hoped that well-learned individuals would realize the stupidity of McCarthy and take action by denouncing his actions.

In the play, the main character John Proctor is accused of witchcraft and must make the difficult choice of confessing and freed or to denounce it and be hanged. John was well respected in Salem and had a high status, so, for the judge, Danforth, to convince him to confess, would be an achievement and authenticate the argument of witchcraft in Salem. John realized what they were trying to do when Miller said:

PROCTOR: You will not use me… I am John Proctor… I have sold my friends… I blacken all of them when this [his confession] is nailed to the church the very day they hang for silence!

DANFORTH: Mr. Proctor, I must have good and legal proof… Do you mean to deny this confession when you are free?

PROCTOR: Because it is my name! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang… I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

DANFORTH: Is that document a lie? If it is a lie I will not accept it… You will give me your honest confession or I cannot keep you from the rope. Which way do you go Mister!

PROCTOR: … His eyes staring, Proctor tears the paper and crumples it.

(Miller Act IV).

Miller portrays Proctor as an honest man who has committed sins but will now stand up for justice. Miller uses imagery when Proctor says he “has sold [his] friends… I blacken all of them when this is nailed to the church…” to create a feeling of gloom to the reader of how the lie that frees Proctor would nullify the silent protest of other friends that killed them. There are also two others who are to be hanged with Proctor, and they would be betrayed after Proctor had talked so much about the truth. Next, Danforth asks Proctor a rhetorical question about if he denies his confession. Using the phrase “when you are free” implies that Danforth is really trying to get Proctor to confess; he could have just asked if what Proctor said was a lie or not. Proctor then goes on to personify lies by signing himself away to them. He also uses a metaphor comparing himself to not even worth the dust on the feet of people who hang because they are hanged for a righteous cause. He also pleads with Danforth to leave him his name as he has already given his soul to lies. Proctor says all of this in an extremely ashamed tone because he knows what he is trying to do is very wrong and actually, instead, ends up confessing his lies to Danforth about compacting with the devil. Lastly, Danforth, realizing what has happened, tries one last time and threatens Proctor “I cannot keep you from the rope”. Danforth uses an assertive tone to hope that the final choice of death or freedom will be enough to scare him. John, knowing the right thing to do would be to hang for the truth, not to live in guilt for lying, tears up his confession and is hanged. He realizes that his influence in the town could change public perception of witchcraft, so he sacrifices himself even when he had multiple opportunities to be freed. Proctor fought for the truth and ultimately suffered for the common good. This started the end of witch hunts in Salem after it became clear witchcraft did not exist. Miller used “The Crucible” to convince people to not feed names to McCarthy but instead, protest by following their conscience and truth, even if they are tarnished.

In “Civil Disobedience”, Thoreau argues that just people should protest together, similar to Miller when he said:

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also prison… A minority is powerless if it conforms to the majority… if the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate to choose” (Thoreau 9).

Thoreau believed that if a government jails clean people unjustly, then the right place for a just person is jail. Thoreau asked a rhetorical question on what reform would occur if everyone is in jail. This is how Miller argues what would happen if everyone stands together and protests: reform would occur and people like McCarthy would be denounced. Unfortunately, many believed that their voice makes no difference, so they might as well save themselves, and this is what Miller and Thoreau are against when “a minority is powerless if it conforms to the majority”, and they are not able to protest with credibility. Even if there is a majority, they will remain silent and become a minority instead. Similarly, in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson warns against the dangers of not protesting when he writes, “Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies: and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government” (Jefferson 1). Jefferson states that the colonies have been suffering for too long without any positive response from Britain and they now would protest policies and declare independence. This is very similar to Miller’s argument where Miller states that waiting too long for protesting and asking for change could have consequences.

In conclusion, Jefferson, Thoreau, and Miller’s rhetoric of sacrifice and suffering to maintain an equal and just society have all shaped political and social viewpoints around the world. Jefferson fought for freedom from tyrannical rule, Thoreau fought for righteous representation of the American philosophy of government, and Miller fought against submission to an unjust authority. Even today, individuals are protesting many issues that affect them each and every day. The sacrifice and suffering throughout American history to protest injustices is something to look back to and further in today’s society.

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