Martin King and Henry Thoreau both write persuasive expositions that oppose majority ideals and justify their own causes. While this similarity is clear, the two essays, “Letters from Birmingham Jail” by King and “Civil Disobedience” by Thoreau, do have their fair share of differences. Primarily in the causes themselves, as King persuades white, southern clergy men that segregation is an evil, unjust law that should be defeated through the agitation of direct protesting, and Thoreau, writing to a more broad, non addressed audience, and focusing more on the government itself, contends that at its present state, with the war with Mexico and the institution of slavery, that one should do as he does and refuse to pay government taxes that support such evil practices or “traditions.”
While both Thoreau and King prevail in establishing a firm impression for what they strongly believe in, they each succeed in their persuasive efforts through different means. Chiefly, in the way that King draws emotional appeal with the usage of a burning passion and devotion, and Thoreau, while still making it evident that he is devoted in what he believes in, draws more emotional appeal through being more distressed and concerned than naively hopeful and optimistic. However, similarities remain to be as numerous as differences as both Thoreau and King bring credibility or ethical appeal to their assays essentially with allusions to Christ and the Bible.
First, King’s emotional appeal is what above all contrasts his essay with Thoreau’s. As virtually everything else; the theme of disobeying “unjust laws”, their admiration for the “minority’s viewpoint, and even, coincidently, where they wrote their essays – prison, is all the same. King makes two references to conversations shared with his children. Once with his little girl who wants to go to the public amusement park and is quickly developing “tears in her eyes” as her father has to sadly explain the reality that black children aren’t allowed in “Funtown.” Promptly once again, King refers to being forced to somehow “concoct” an acceptable answer to his five year old son’s question – “why do white people treat colored people so mean?”. King does not stop there with his ability to throw his readers into the harsh emotional realities that he had to face.
While answering the same question of “why we can’t wait” in regards to protesting, King refers to the tragic sadness of how his wife and mother are almost never granted with the respectable title of “Mrs” and how his own name has virtually been transformed from “Martin Luther King” to “Nigger Boy John” in the heartland of discrimination in the South. The rhetorical use of detail is King’s second element that he takes advantage of to draw such tremendous, but necessary emotional appeal.
With his despairing response to the clergy men’s appraisal of the policemen’s ability to maintain “peace” and “order” when he asserts with great detail that maybe they wouldn’t be so “warmly” supportive if they would have been in the streets to witness the police slapping Negro men and boys with “sticks” and pushing and cursing old Negro women and girls in such a cold-hearted and cruel fashion. Furthermore, King’s account of what the South would be like if blacks sided more with the Black Nationalists than himself brings emotion to all that contemplate his perception of streets “flowing with blood” during the central time of the otherwise inevitable “racial nightmare.”
Thoreau, on the other hand, never consents to revealing such frightful nightmares and makes only one brief reference to his children. Instead, Thoreau draws emotional appeal through many different techniques in the art of persuasive writing. Most predominantly, with despaired and concerning rhetorical questions such as when he asks about established government’s viewpoint on great men, “why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?”. And again when he provokes the question of how men assert their grievances when he asks “How can a man be satisfied to entertain and opinion merely and enjoy it?”.
As stated above, Thoreau and King’s great persuasive similarity is in the way they give their essays ethical appeal. They both repetitiously make use to references of the Bible. King first asserts that he is in Birmingham for the same reason that “the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the Gospel of Jesus.” Once again, in comparing his “civil disobedience” to that of Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego when they refused to obey the worship laws of Nebucadnesser. Finally King affirms to not being offended by the criticism of being called an “extremist” by the thought of how many great extremists there where in the past, such as “Abe Lincoln”, “Martin Luther”, and “Jesus Christ.”
Thoreau in the very same manner and with many of the same figures, continues with his own set of biblical allusions. He subscribes to the verse of Christ and the Herodians when they ask him about his stance on taxes and Christ replies to give Caesar “what is Caesars”, and to give God “what is God’s.” And then, more broadly, Thoreau poses the question of why after eighteen hundred years of being written, no legislator in America or anywhere else has taken advantage of the “science of legislation” revealed in the New Testament.
In conclusion, both Thoreau and King succeed in establishing their points on the benefits of civil disobedience. I feel that King does succeed farther with his inclusion of more passionate emotion and easier to understand, heartfelt metaphors. Though it is debatable that the scientific and matter of fact tone Thoreau uses ultimately make his case more credible by establishing his work as not only a great personal exposition, but also a considerable scientific exposition that could be considered among the ranks of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” or even Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”