04 May, 2004

Lincoln on Civil (Dis)Obedience

The following is an assigned essay which was completed for a grade. Unfortunately, some formatting has been lost in the transition to LJ.

Eric J. Herboso
Mr. Mullek
American Political Thought
Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Lincoln on Civil (Dis)Obedience

The issue of civil obedience is of paramount importance in today's society. From Switzerland's etoy.com's illegal yet nonviolent attack upon the now defunct etoys.com to the web sit-ins organized by the Zapatistas in Mexico, the idea of civil disobedience has taken root in today's world society as the only method left for effective change. But while most of those who practice civil disobedience today believe they owe the concept of civil disobedience to Gandhi, King, and Thoreau, the true origins of this way of thinking may come from where most would least expect it: the United States' Abraham Lincoln.

In Lincoln's Lyceum address, what is preached may not at first seem to be civil disobedience, seeing as how he practically says the exact oposite of this: “Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others” (Lincoln 3); but in reality, the idea behind his words are equivalent to what all who practice civil disobedience believe in: change through law, and not through anarchy (Lincoln 2). It is hard to see this at first, because of the name given to civil disobedience, which emphasizes the revolutionary natue of it: breaking the law in an attempt to change the law. But the real crux of the civil disobedience idea is not that laws are broken because they are bad and should not be followed, but because by paying the penalty for an unjust law, others may see its injustice.

Once it is clear that the whole point is not to break a bad law, but rather to be seen to be punished for breaking a bad law, the connection between Lincoln's Lyceum address and King et al becomes much more clear. What at first seemed to be a diametrically opposed position can now be viewed as the same basic idea being put into action in different ways.

To show this more clearly, consider these two passages: “good men, men who love tranquility, who desire to abide by the laws, and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defense of their country; seeing their property destroyed; their families insulted, and their lives endangered; their persons injured; and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better; become tired of, and disgusted with, a Government that offers them no protection; and are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose” (Lincoln 3). In other words: revolution.

And now King: “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth” (King 3). “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue” (King 3). It is obvious that they are agreed on the point of stability. King does not profess a need for revolution, he agrees with and even quotes from Lincoln in his rhetoric.

Lincoln was speaking to a group that was starting to turn to vigilantism: "[there is] the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice" (Lincoln 2). The United States was anything but united at that point, and people were starting to take the law into their own hands. His words, which preached obedience to the law first, were based on the idea that the alternative of chaos will always be far worse. King and other civil disobedience leaders would agree on this fulcrum point, and from there, everything changed. Instead of Marx's call to arms for a universal brotherhood, Plato's removal of adults from the Republic, or even Machiavelli's attempt to temper the tyrant, there was instead a turn toward the nonviolent method of civil disobedience.

The internet group etoy.com was approached at the height of the internet boom in late 1999 by American marketshare powerhouse etoys.com with an offer to buy out the former group's domain name, which had been registered and in use for many years by that time. When etoy.com refused to sell repeated times, the American based corporation giant pursued a legal remedy, and completely shut down access to etoy.com. Enraged by their flagrant use of money to abuse the legal system governing international suits between litigants in separate countries, etoy.com got the word out in cyberspace, and the following Christmas, thousands upon thousands of angry anti-big business net users simultaneously used programs to automatically log onto etoys.com, place large amounts of random items in the shopping carts, and then canceled their purchases right before checkout. The huge traffic volume that continued for twelve days, twenty-four hours a day nonstop during the already busy Christmas season completely clogged the etoys.com servers, and by March of next year, etoys.com filed for bankruptcy. (Note that the action taken, while illegal, was still nonviolent, and would have been perfectly legal if every participant had individually written his or her own program to clog the server.) The purpose of the action was to bring attention to the existence of a bad loophole in international law with regard to domain registry, and it succeeded (Wishart 2). This process, most similar to King's sit-ins organized in the southern United States, is flawed only in that it only has the capacity to hit one site at a time, and thus cannot have the same affect as sit-ins which occur in every segregated café on the block. Because of this, the organizers must choose particularly bad sites to hit; and the effect of hitting a particularly bad site probably only makes the other less offensive sites look that much better. In other words, this method of civil disobedience is less effective at changing policy even while it is more effective in efficiency and target viability.

In 1991, Peter Singer brought Lincoln's ideas to the forefront once again, but this time in regard to animal rights. The problem was that whereas Lincoln spoke in terms of following the law even at the expense of justice (because of the debatable opinion that without law, there can be no justice), and King elaborated merely upon the exposing of a bad law, Singer had to come up with a method of trying to get a nonexistent good law placed into effect. Singer, whose argument is based upon the premise that all living beings with the capacity to feel pain should be awarded the same basic rights regardless of species, believes that it is imperative that a law restricting the legality of humans to hurt other species should be implemented immediately, and with all due haste (Singer 3). Whatever one's opinion on the matter may be, it must be admitted that if Singer's premise is correct, then the absence of a law protecting animals from such abuse is of a far more alarming nature than any civil rights violation made since Pol Pot.

What makes these contemporary examples of civil disobedience so interesting is not only their particular nature as current events, but also as clear examples of how civil disobedience (and the civil obedience that follows from it) has evolved since Lincoln's time.

Lincoln, Abraham, au. “Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions”, or the Lyceum Address, American Political Rhetoric, 4e. Peter Lawler & Robert Schaefer, ed.
Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, MD: 2001.

King, Martin Luther, Jr., au. “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, American Political Rhetoric, 4e. Peter Lawler & Robert Schaefer, ed.
Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, MD: 2001.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation.
Avon: New York, NY: 1991.

Wishart, Adam & Regula Bochsler. Leaving Reality Behind.
Ecco: Switzerland: 2003.

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