The Methods of Protecting Civil Rights in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Thoreau's Civil Disobedience

Can one trust the protection of the most critical part of any American’s everyday life to the Government? “Civil Rights” are “enforceable rights or privileges, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury.” Frederick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau discuss occasions when civil rights are violated. Douglass writes with clear and direct language about the abysmal conditions he lived under as a slave, while Thoreau writes a long winded, philosophical protest against the government after he was thrown into jail for refusing to support what he considered to be an unjust war.

A comparison of Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience reveals two contrasting ways for protecting civil rights: let the government protect them, or leave government out of the equation altogether. For Douglass, the foremost way to protect civil rights is to involve the government. In his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Frederick Douglass, a prominent abolitionist and former slave, implies why this is so.

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In the middle of the autobiography, Douglas uses vivid, brutal imagery to describe a beating that he suffered at the hands of his master Mr. Covey when he collapsed from heat stroke: “Mr. Covey took up the hickory slat with which Hughes had been striking off the half-bushel measure, and with it gave me a heavy blow upon the head, making a large wound, and the blood ran freely; and with this again told me to get up.

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Here, the images of “a heavy blow upon the head”, “a large wound” and “blood [running freely” serve to reflect the brutality of the South’s “peculiar institution” and imply that only a greater power – in this case the federal government – can stop this brutality and thereby protect the civil rights of slaves. Additionally, the simplistic, direct language that Douglass uses here is intended to create a simple moral choice; he is appealing to those in the North who are neutral on slavery but committed to doing right. Clearly, Douglass wants his readers in the North to see firsthand the truth of slavery. Then, perhaps they would compel the Federal Government to protect the civil rights of the slaves by abolishing slavery.

Therefore, for Douglass, political inequality and violations of civil rights must be addressed through building moral coalitions or groups of like-minded individuals committed to joining a righteous cause. In addition to recounting the physical abuses slaves underwent on a regular basis, Douglass also details the mental abuses slaves suffered and thereby further implies why the Government should be the institution to protect civil rights. Further along in his Narrative, Douglass matter-of-factly states facts about his mental state: “I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!”

In this passage, the descriptions such as “My natural elasticity was crushed”, “my intellect languished”, etc. serve a similar purpose to the descriptions of the beating in the above paragraph, viz., to reflect on the brutality of slavery and to imply that only the federal government can stop it. The numerous verbs in the third person past tense evoke a sense of despair and desperation that Douglass’ “otherwise neutral but committed to doing right” readers in the North are likely not to have felt; he is guilt-tripping them in a sense into compelling the Federal Government to act on the slaves’ behalf. To hammer home that point, Douglass emotionally states that “the dark night of slavery closed in upon me!”.

Finally, Douglass states that due to slavery, he was “a man transformed into a brute!”. This marked description conflicts with the Enlightenment and the Enlightenment ideals that helped found America. The Enlightenment sought to elevate mankind, but here Douglass is showing slavery doing the exact opposite! Clearly for Douglass, the Federal Government protecting civil rights by abolishing slavery is not only the morally correct choice, but is also the American one.

In contrast with Douglass’ earnest belief that having the Government protect civil rights is best, Thoreau implies that the best way to protect civil rights is to leave out government altogether. In his essay Civil Disobedience, written after he was jailed for not paying taxes to support the Mexican American War, Thoreau eloquently states: “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth–certainly the machine will wear out. ” Thoreau’s vivid description of government as a “machine” suggests that it is inhuman, impersonal, and therefore cannot be trusted, especially with the protection of civil rights.

In addition to being impersonal, the highly mechanical, automatic nature of a “machine of government” is inherently unsuitable for protecting something as important as civil rights. The repetition present in this sentence, “let it go, let it go, perchance it will wear smooth- certainly the machine will wear out.” almost seems like a command, almost a warning of sorts, for individuals to not involve government in anything, especially in in civil rights. Furthermore, it reveals the depths of Thoreau’s conviction in his beliefs about government and civil rights. If the government is supposed to protect civil rights, then why is it fighting a war to deny others (slaves) their civil rights? For Thoreau, who was jailed for not supporting a government that was waging a war against civil rights, this contradiction definitely proves leaving the government out of civil rights is the clear cut choice.

In addition to stating that leaving government out of civil rights is critically important, Thoreau goes even further and implies that government is fundamentally anti-civil rights. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau describes the American government: “In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is that fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.” Here, the first clause reveals the inherent contradiction in government and why Thoreau is so distrusting of it: the country is the “refuge of liberty”, yet slavery and by extension civil rights violations exist.

Furthermore, Thoreau shows his belief and trust in the common man by calling him “honest”. The sentence structure itself, with the alarming description of America at the beginning and the twist at the end, further implies how government is anti-civil rights. Finally, “ours is the invading army” reveals just how far the Government has gone away from the Enlightenment ideals, the “All men are created equal”, etc. of the 18th century. If a government rejects the very ideas it was founded on, such as a belief in the importance of civil rights, the equality of man, etc. how can it be trusted? Both Douglass and Thoreau present convincing arguments for why having or not having the Government protect civil rights is the best choice for ensuring one’s civil rights. Some in America today will say that civil rights is no longer an issue.

While it is true that the Thirteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Fifteenth Amendment, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are in force, violations of civil rights still occur today. Perhaps the most notable examples are the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims, Blacks, and Hispanics; the widely reported shootings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, etc., and the various state bans on same-sex marriage. It is apparent that civil rights and their protection are of critical importance today. As time goes on, the best way of protecting them – either involving government or not – will certainly become apparent.


  1. “Civil Rights.” Civil Rights. Cornell University, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
  2. Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself.
  3. Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience. Written by Femse Henry Davidson Sirvien bisobedience

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The Methods of Protecting Civil Rights in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. (2021, Sep 24). Retrieved from

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