● I can understand the vice of self-deception by examining the story of John Brown.
● I can compare views of just and unjust laws across time.
● I can summarize the main ideas of historic texts.
● I can create an argument supported by evidence from primary sources.
|Directions: Read the following primary sources from John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Fill out the following graphic organizer related to their views on just and unjust laws.
John Brown’s Speech to the Court at his Trial, November 2, 1859
John Brown gave a speech when given an opportunity to address the court at his trial in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia). Brown was found guilty of murder, inciting slave insurrection, and treason against the state of Virginia, and was executed on December 2, 1859.
|To cause something to start or begin.
|A rebellion or revolt.
|Sought or tried to.
|To give up or hand over something.
Text of Source
|I have, may it please the court, a few words to say. In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted—the design on my part to free the slaves…That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or inciteslaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.
|This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done—as I have always freely admitted I have done—in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments-—I submit; so let it be done!
- Did John Brown agree with his sentence? Explain.
- What does Brown believe is acceptable in his goal of ending slavery?
Abraham Lincoln, “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions,” Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum, Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838
In 1838, Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer and state representative, delivered this address to the Young Men’s Lyceum, a debating society in Springfield, Illinois. His speech was a response to the killing of an abolitionist printer by a pro-slavery mob the previous year, and he cautioned against mob violence at the expense of the rule of law.
|A tendency to think in a certain way.
|Respect or esteem.
Text of Source
I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgement of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth, and an insult to our intelligence, to deny. Accounts of outrages committed by mobs, form the every-day news of the times….
|The question recurs “how shall we fortify against it [mob rule]?” The answer is simple. 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…
|When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws, let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise, for the redress of which, no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say, that, although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed…
…Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence. Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws…
- What are the dangers of mob rule, according to Lincoln?
- How can society combat the dangers of mob rule?
- What does Lincoln say should be done about bad laws?
- What will ensure the future of the country, according to Lincoln?
Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963
Martin Luther King, Jr. called for nonviolent methods to end segregation in the South. In the early 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the most segregated cities in the United States. King traveled there in 1963 to fight against racial discrimination and was arrested. After his arrest, a group of white religious leaders wrote him a letter criticizing the means and timing of his fight for greater equality. The civil rights leader penned a response while in a jail cell and then rewrote it for publication when he was freed.
|A policy that kept Black and white Americans separate.
|A Roman theologian who greatly influenced Western philosophy and Christianity.
|St. Thomas Aquinas
|A medieval theologian who greatly influenced Western philosophy and Christianity.
|1954 decision of the Supreme Court
|Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that separate but equal facilities were constitutional.
Text of Source
|One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
|Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. …IThus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
|Let me give another explanation. An unjust law is a code inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all types of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?
|I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
- How did King define an unjust law?
- When and why must one break the law, according to King?
- What did King believe about a person who broke an unjust law?
- Why is self-deception destructive to individuals and to a healthy political system and civil society?
- When can an individual or a group justifiably decide to break the law?
|Context for Excerpt (Audience? Purpose? Historical Context?)
|What is their view of the rule of law in the United States?
|When can an individual or a group justifiably decide to break the law? How can laws be broken?
|John Brown’s Speech to the Court at his Trial, November 2, 1859
|Abraham Lincoln, “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions,” Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum, Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838
|Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963
Analysis and Reflection Questions
- Think back to your response at the beginning of this lesson: Is it ever morally permissible to disobey the law? Explain your answer.
- Having studied the example of John Brown and compared the writings of Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr., has your response changed? Explain.
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