Individual Rights and Responsibility in Jefferson, Thoreau and Stanton

Individual dignity, liberty and expression are pivotal themes in the writings of Stanton, Jefferson and Thoreau. Their socio-political discourses highlight the imperativeness of a free and egalitarian society that will cater to the material, moral, spiritual and intellectual interests of its citizenry. As Thoreau put it: “The government is best which governs not at all” (2093). All three argue that liberty and humanity cannot survive, alone exist, in a totalitarian environment. Tyranny and intolerance hamper the growth not just of the individual American but also of the collective America as well.

All three aim at the creation of an America which is inhabitable to all—that is, an America which is nation and home to all Americans regardless of color, creed, and gender. The elimination of racial, sexual and cultural boundaries as the only effective means by which a legitimate nation can be born—a nation not merely in name but also in ideology and spirit. A nation of e pluribus unum: one out of many.

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Definition of the American identity is another important element shared by the three writers. The American Self is that who is entitled to social opportunities and rights under the American government. Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments” for instance, shows how women, “one-half of the people” of America (Stanton 2036) are actually stripped of their American identity and claim (and to some extent, humanity) by preventing them from exercising their “certain and inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Jefferson 919). Stanton writes: “He has deprived her of the first right of a citizen which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men—both natives and foreigners” (2036).

The point is echoed by Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience” where, speaking in behalf of the oppressed blacks and Mexicans, he lashes out at the extreme callousness of the majority of Americans whose regard for fellowmen has been overrun by greed. He writes: “Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians in the South, but a hundred thousand slaves and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and Mexico, cost what it may” (2096). These mass of indifferent and morally degenerate citizens trigger the nation’s downhill slide into decay. Indeed, a progressive and humane society is that which privileges the rights of Americans and, as Thoreau argues, non-Americans alike.

As a result, the existing relationship between the individual and the religious and political institutions that define one are assessed and challenged. The existence of marginalized groups and hegemonic ones are viewed as symptoms of corrosion in the American democracy. These are contested most especially in the writings of Stanton and Thoreau. The writers’ accurate, not to mention radical assessment of the period’s political climate is coupled with a delineation and assertion of rights and responsibilities for ruler and ruled alike. A vehement indictment of values that prove advantageous only to a chosen few is present as well.

In this case, the individual functions as the barometer of social values. The individual, in the context of these writings, generally refers to a person or a group of people bound by a common sentiment that runs contrary to the Establishment. Thoreau’s daredevil declaration aptly illustrates the point: “Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined” (2101). The individual exists outside or on the periphery of society and its institutions. The individual is independent and uncontaminated. It is the container of truth and justice, the “majority of one”  “more right than his neighbors” as Thoreau calls it (2099).

By defining who the individual is, why such ideological entity exists, the true nature of 18th and 19th century America is revealed. In a society wallowing in ills, the individual becomes symbol of counter-ideology which the writers identify to be just, and therefore, divine. The violation of the individual’s rights is tantamount to the desecration of the higher law of God, who in the first place bequeathed such rights: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain and inalienable rights” (Jefferson 919). Stanton, one the one hand, writes how Man in violation of the rights of women “has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself.” By “assigning for (women) a sphere of actions” which supposedly “belongs to her conscience and her God” Man is transgressing a divine order (2039).

Defiance, therefore, is not only necessary. It is right, divine, and therefore justified (contrary to the period’s prevalent culture of slavery, war and patriarchy, which are merely justified, and therefore right). “Civil Disobedience” in the words of Thoreau, becomes a moral obligation. Jefferson himself writes how separation from the collective and the government can be the only means in the preservation of liberty and dignity: “… in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and God entitle them…” (919). In the words of Thoreau: “…but if (injustice) is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law…. What I have to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn” (2098).

The individual is not answerable neither to the government, nor to the collective (which Thoreau sees as mindless, indifferent and pliable) but to God. Its greatest responsibility is to correct the wrong and to ensure that rights are well recognized and preserved. It should contribute in safeguarding a democratic America, doing which is in utmost recognition of the ideals and values of the nation’s forebears.

The individual should not be pawn nor prey to the political body which itself created. It is above the government (Thoreau 2107) in a sense even a government on its own. Nor should it be perpetually suppressed and, as in the case of women, silenced by its fellowmen. Stanton’s discourse, for one, figures as a major breakaway from the fate that has always categorized and compartmentalized women—a fate which is not of their own making. The creation of the self, in this case the female self (another right championed most especially in Thoreau’s romantic rhetoric) is the focal point of her undertaking. “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having indirect object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her” (2035).

Had Stanton and the other feminists remained silent (and tolerant) of the woman question, tyranny, in this case a gender-based one (though in no way small-scale) would have enjoyed impunity. Stanton’s voice from and about the margin illustrates the yawning gap in the white man’s privileged status (moneyed, educated, and free) and the white woman’s subjugated and silenced condition.

For the government to live it should also let the individual live. The same credo applies to every citizen. Recognition of the natural rights of all men and women, their to craft their own fate and identity, without the unjust detriments brought about by moral flaws, is in itself a responsibility. It is democracy. Otherwise, a “plant (that) cannot live according to its nature …dies; and so man” (Thoreau 2102).  With that death inevitably comes the demise of a whole nation as well.