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Analysis of American Protest Literature

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2847 words Published: 4th Sep 2017

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The protest literature of early to mid-19th century America shares a common theme of moral values. Both Henry David Thoreau and William Apess speak of a moral code that humanity is bound to uphold. Although they addressed it in different ways and proposed different solutions, they ask a similar question: is America truly the great land of principle that it claims to be.

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The essay "The Resistance to Civil Government" was based on a series of lectures Thoreau gave in 1848 and was published in 1849. In it he discussed the shared responsibilities and duties of citizens and their governments. While his thoughts stand alone as a philosophical position, it is important to understand the historical context. Texas gained its independence from Mexico in 1836. The United States did not immediately incorporate the territory into the Union because of the ongoing political battle over the expansion of slavery, however, on December 29, 1845, Texas entered the United States as a slave state. Thoreau was an outspoken abolitionist, as made clear in other of his writings, and was adamantly opposed paying taxes which supported a government that upheld unjust and immoral policies. He based his decision not to comply on the belief that there is a law higher than civil law that demands the obedience of the individual.

Thoreau opened Civil Disobedience with the maxim "That government is best which governs least," (p 843) and he speaks in favor of government that does not intrude upon people's lives. Government, he believed, was a means of attaining an end that existed only because the people chose it to execute their will. Government, however, was susceptible to misuse, corruption, and injustice. When injustice became extreme, such as by allowing slavery, individuals had both the right and duty to rebel against the State through a variety of means such as refusing to pay taxes.

Thoreau did not advocate the dissolution of government. Rather, he called for a "better government" (p 844), one which was limited to decide those issues that it was fitted to consider. Thoreau underscored the power of the individual to effect reform. Reform, he believed, came only through the individual, and moral issues were the individual's concern. "It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law'" he said, "so much as for the right". The individual's obligation was "to do at any time what [he thinks] right" (p 844). He enjoined his audience to wake up and to refuse to be machines that served the State with their bodies or minds. Good people, he contended, must serve the State with their consciences and resist it when its policies and actions conflict with their consciences.

Through this duty to resist, Thoreau introduced the concept of civil disobedience, tying to the birth of the nation through revolution. Merely expressing opposition to slavery was meaningless. Only action - what people did about their objection - mattered. Wrongs could be redressed only by the individual, not through the government since the mechanisms of change provided by the State were too slow or were ineffective. He acknowledged that in practical application a single person might not be able to affect widespread change, however, a person must at least not be guilty of supporting injustice through compliance. Individuals must not support a government whose policies are unjust. Talk is cheap; action is immediate. People must act with principle and must break the law if necessary. Such action, however, comes with a price. People must be willing to bear the consequences of their actions. When the man of conscience acted in variance with the state, he might be punished by force. This force could be against his property, his family, or his person. Because of this potential loss, Thoreau believed it was impossible for a person of conscience to "live honestly and at the same time comfortably" (p 851). However, these penalties cost people of conscience less than the price they would pay in obeying the State. Therefore, it falls to the State to respect the "higher and independent power" of the individual since it is only through this that it derives its authority (p 857).

The writings of William Apess are also protest literature and, like those of Thoreau, are better understood through their historical context. In 1830, the government passed the Indian Removal Act which authorized the removal of Indians from the lands east of the Mississippi to Indian Territory and other areas considered suitable. In essence, this act spelled the end of Indian rights to live in those states under their own traditional laws. They were given a choice: assimilate and concede to US law or leave their homelands. The Act was based on the white-written history of interactions between Native Americans and European settlers; a history rife with horrific stories and only the occasional act of kindness.

Apess was bi-, or perhaps multi-, racial. Because he was primarily raised by whites, he grew up with stories of the Indians' cruelty. As he grew he learned of the competing truth of the white's cruelty toward the Indians. He converted to Christianity early in his life and ultimately was ordained as a Methodist minister. His faith was integral to his ability to affirm himself as a Pequot and as a person of color, and in Christianity he found both hope and a philosophical framework from which to challenge racial bigotry.

The central theme of An Indian's Looking Glass for the White Man was the failure of white people to recognize the irony and hypocrisy of denying Native Americans, who they considered to be heathens, the "self-evident" rights guaranteed to "all men" by the Declaration of Independence, and their un-Christian treatment of them. As the title indicates, his words were directed to a white audience. According to Apess, materially well-off whites were not superior to the Indians from either a religious or moral perspective because they were unprincipled in their dealings with people of a different skin color. He liberally used the word "principle," or some variant thereof, for the purpose of establishing the unprincipled actions of white men in regard to red men. What if, he asked, all the world's "different skins were put together, and each skin had its national crimes written upon it-which skin do you think would have the greatest?" (p 501).

Apess outrage at the mistreatment of Indians extended to the mistreatment of blacks. His charge against the white citizens of the United States was not only that they had robbed "a nation almost of their whole continent, and murder[ed] their women and children," but that they had also subjugated "another nation to till their ground and welter out their days under the lash" (p 501). He used the word black to metaphorically describe the Christian morals and principles that were corrupted by the aversion to colored skins.  If "black or red skins or any other skin of color" were disgraceful in God's eye, he said, "it appears that he has disgraced himself a great deal-for he has made fifteen colored people to one white and placed them here upon this earth" (p 501). He went even further and implied that Jesus, himself, had been a person of color.

Apess implored the American people to think for themselves and act upon the morals that they held dear. As a minister he was able to incorporate quotes from the Bible in support of his position.  He used every detail he could to present the moral contradictions in American policy and used the philosophical underpinnings of America to support his argument against them. He concluded with a blistering indictment of bigotry directed at his audience: "By what you read, you may learn how deep your principles are. I should say they were skin deep" (p 504), yet he maintained hope due to the actions of those who spoke out against mistreatment.

Thoreau's The Resistance to Civil Government and Apess' An Indian's Looking Glass for the White Man can be seen as protests against a government that had failed to live up to its stated ideals and failed to protect the rights of its people. Both call upon the moral conscience to bring an end to injustice; both appeal to the founding principles of the nation; both call people to action.

Question 7:

Literature speaks truths about the past to which history cannot give voice. The writings of Pontiac, William Apess, and James Fenimore Cooper all express the concerns of native Americans, but through different perspectives. Cooper attempts to portray the Native Americans as honorable, albeit stereotypical, savages, Pontiac laments the destruction of traditional Indian culture, and Apess condemns the hypocrisy and bigotry of white society. Within all these writings are both overlapping and unique concerns that give voice to the challenges faced by a culture forced to change.

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James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, subtitled A Narrative of 1757, was published in 1826, however it harkens back to an earlier period of American expansion.  By the time it was written the prevailing view was that humans were divided into distinct races and that some races were inferior to others. Indians (savages) were fated to vanish before the superior (civilized) white men, and there was no changing fate.  Cooper sought to promote a true understanding of ethnological problems in a rapidly changing America.  His prose was infused with a belief that shared humanity could be communicated across cultural and linguistic differences and could dispel the idea of the unknowable "otherness" that promoted fear and justified exploitation. Hawk-eye and Chingachgook were depicted as individuals who displayed, through their friendship, the ideal of human relationships between Native and European Americans. Cooper embraced the concept of the "noble savage," but at the same time he also promulgated racial stereotypes. In his description of Chingachgook he noted that, "His body, which was nearly naked, presented a terrific emblem of death…" (p 486).

Cooper's attitudes toward race were complicated even for his time. He was, after all, a white man and his characters reflected an obsession with systems of classification by which race was distinguished from race, nation from nation, and tribe from tribe. Hawk-eye and Chingachgook are both concerned with racial purity. "…the worst enemy I have on earth… daren't deny that I am genuine white," declared Hawk-eye (p 487). They respected each other and could work together, but both rejected the idea of interracial marriage. Hawk-eye frequently displayed his superior knowledge, as when he presented Chingachgook as ignorant because he did not understand about tides. Drawn in this way, their partnership did not threaten the racial status quo.

From an historical perspective, this story was set during the French and Indian War (1754-60), a proxy war which pitted the British Empire, its American colonies, and their Indian allies against the French Empire, its Canadian colonies, and their Indian allies. It was the North American theater of a much broader international conflict known as the Seven Years' War. The Treaty of Paris that ended the French and Indian War led to a flood of English settlers moving across the Alleghenies into Indian territory. The French had gained the loyalty of their Native American allies by providing them with ammunition and supplies. The Indians viewed the French as tenants on their land who had provided gunpowder, rum, and other goods as a type of rent. The British, on the other hand, believed themselves to be governed by international law and felt no obligation to the region's original inhabitants. Native Americans were not members of the "family of nations" and had no more rights than the animals they hunted. They were no longer welcome at the forts and intermarriage was discouraged. From the Indian viewpoint, the lack of support and disrespect were a breach of protocol and an insult to the Indian nations and their leaders. American Indian resistance began to grow.

Pontiac was an Ottawa Indian chief who had been very successful in protecting his land and his people. During the  French and Indian War, Pontiac was an ally of the French. The changes brought by the British victory did not sit well with Chief  Pontiac. On April 27, 1763, a council gathering was held near Detroit. Pontiac gave a speech in which he recounted the indignities that the Indians had suffered at the hands of the British. He believed that his people needed return to the customs and weapons of their ancestors, throw away the implements they had acquired from the white man, abstain from whiskey, and take up the hatchet against the British. He realized that in adopting the white men's customs and in using their food, blankets, and weapons, his people had become dependent upon them. He remembered the stories, heard in childhood, of the might of the Ottawas in the days when they lived according to the old customs and longed for a return to the traditional ways.

Pontiac was strongly influenced by the story of Neolin. Neolin was a respected visionary and spiritual leader of  the Delaware people.  Pontiac also understood the power that story telling had in his culture. Stories were guides that taught them how to act and live their lives. He used the story of Neolin's encounter with "The Great Spirit" in order to convince the leaders of the neighboring tribes to join him in a rebellion.  He reminded them of what the Great Spirit said to Neolin: "The land on which you live I have made for you, and not for others. Why do you suffer the white man to live among you?" (p 223) The Great Spirit then instructed Neolin to "Fling all these things away; live as your wise forefathers lived before you. And as for these English, - these dogs dressed in red who have come to rob you of your hunting grounds, and drive away the game,- you must lift the hatchet against them. Wipe them from the face of the earth, and then you will win my favor back again, and once more be happy and prosperous" (p 224)

William Apess' approach was different and can be best characterized as embracing the goal of nation-building. His work documented many past injustices endured by Native Americans and lamented the state of their current life in and around Connecticut and Massachusetts. During this period, the relationship between Native Americans and the dominant white culture was viewed as a struggle between assimilation and cultural tradition.  Apess revealed how false this dichotomy was. His was an authentic voice arising from the personal experience of his bi-racial identity. Instead of the either/or of cultural tradition or assimilation, Apess sought to promote affiliation.

With the authority granted to an ordained Methodist minister, Apess relied upon religious engagement as a means to bring to light the hypocrisy of thePilgrims who would fight to destroy any perceived threat to their land or livelihood, but would not grant this same right to Native Americans. In doing so he also demonstrated the Native Americans' capacity to affiliate themselves with Christian values. "God," he said, "will show no favor to outward appearances but will judge righteousness" (p 499).

Apess was the antithesis of the Christian nationalist. Growing up he described how was terrified of his own people because his white caretakers told him stereotypical stories about Indian cruelty but never told him how cruelly they treated Indians. This past that they embraced was sacred to them; to him it was a degrading myth. They used their position  to build churches, dispatch missionaries, and educate the people they deemed savages; to him their authority was morally bankrupt. Apess challenged people to live up to the stated values of their government and their church. If they talked the talk then they also had to walk the walk. To profess a belief in liberty and justice for all or the equality of all God's children was not enough. People needed to act in accordance with their beliefs. If they failed to do so then they were hypocrites.

Native Americans faced a variety of concern in the early to mid-19th century. They faced the loss of their traditional homeland, the dissolution of their cultural heritage, and the very real consequences of institutionalized bigotry. What can be seen in the speech by Pontiac and the writings of James Fenimore Cooper and William Apess is the complexity of the cultural forces at work at that time. The portrayal of the savage or contemptible Indian was as much a creation of the white man as was the civilized, and Christianized Indian, who was created in the white man's image. Native Americans were unique and complex individuals with the same needs and longings as any other people.


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