Literature Study GuidesCivil DisobedienceSection 1 Why The Best Government Governs Least Summary

Civil Disobedience | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Civil Disobedience | Section 1 (Why the Best Government Governs Least) | Summary



Henry David Thoreau supports the motto, "That government is best which governs least," but really thinks the best government shouldn't govern at all, for a government can be easily "abused and perverted." For example, only a small percentage of people in America agreed to the Mexican War; most people opposed it. Rather than a vital force of the people, the government is a "wooden gun to the people." Any good accomplishment, such as education, freedom, and settlement of the West, comes from the hard work of individual Americans. Government blocks more work than it allows.

Thoreau does not want government to disappear; rather, he wants it to improve immediately. He envisions a State in which conscience, not majority rule, decides right and wrong, in which one's first obligation is to do right, not to obey the law. Law itself, he says, can make decent men do unjust things. Soldiers he sees marching to wars, for instance, are serving powerful leaders and the State "not as men mainly, but as machines." Meanwhile, citizens view the soldiers and corrupt leaders as patriots and view the true patriots—people of conscience—as "enemies." This view is the consequence of people not exercising their consciences and moral judgments.

No man can align himself with this country's government "without disgrace," for Americans are living under leadership that allows slavery. Thoreau believes all men understand the right of citizens to revolt against tyranny, as they did in the American Revolution of 1776. Why did men rebel in 1776 against a government that "taxed certain foreign commodities" but now see no need to rebel when the United States, in the mid-1800s, organizes "oppression and robbery"? One sixth of the American population is enslaved, and Americans have unjustly invaded Mexico. It is time for another rebellion.

He mentions William Paley, who argues in "Duty of Submission to Civil Government" (part of the longer work called The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, published in 1785) that citizens must obey established rulers for society to function. About resisting government, Paley writes, "Every man shall judge for himself" whether resistance costs too much. Here, Thoreau thinks Paley has missed the essence of resistance: sometimes resistance costs a great deal, but it is still right to resist. The United States and Massachusetts, similarly, are accepting the convenience of slavery and the Mexican War at the expense of conscience.


The quotation "That government is best which governs least" mirrors the statement Ralph Waldo Emerson makes in his essay "Politics": "The less government we have the better." The version Henry David Thoreau uses may have come from Thomas Jefferson. Thoreau's vision of a limited government and respect for individual power is similar to the political movement known today as libertarianism. Libertarian thinkers include Jefferson, American writer Thomas Paine, Scottish philosopher David Hume, and others who believe the best government leaves individuals alone, giving each person dignity and respect, or "liberty under law."

When Thoreau says the American government is a "tradition," he is using the word tradition in the way transcendentalists often did, to mean "authority that should be questioned." In his essay "Nature," Emerson calls for "a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition." Thoreau is advocating a similar idea here. Because Americans have traditionally followed their government into war does not mean they should continue to do so, especially if they disagree with the war.

Further explaining his stance on government, Thoreau distinguishes himself from the "no-government men," possibly referring to a type of protester called a "nonresistant." Abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Non-Resistance Society in 1930 as a pacifist rejection of violence, specifically state violence. Nonresistants did not participate at all in government; they neither held office nor voted. Thoreau ascertains his agenda is different from that of the nonresistants. He is definitely not opposed to following government regulations or even paying taxes. But he wants better regulations and taxes that go to worthwhile causes. He keeps his argument broad and understandable, his only obligation being "to do what I think right."

The metaphors Thoreau uses to describe government emphasize his disregard for the present system. He personifies the standing army as "only an arm" of a larger body, unable to think for itself. Government is "a wooden gun" pointed at the people; it looks intimidating, but it is really fragile. Trade and commerce are "made of India rubber," a flexible material able to spring over governmental red tape.

The extended metaphor Thoreau employs in the essay is the comparison of government to a machine. In the second paragraph, he introduces the image of a machine by explaining how people need to think of a government as distant, vague "complicated machinery" to feel protected and safe. He believes citizens are more connected to the machinery than they realize. Soldiers and government employees become parts of the machine, no longer men but "forts and magazines" or, in their failure to act from moral judgment and their conscience, they are on the level of "wood and earth and stones." Even men not in the military serve the state as "machines" by failing to disobey. (The posse comitatus is a group hired to enforce the law, similar to a police force.) Serving government leads to physical inhumanity. Cold and impersonal, a machine is in constant motion. If men are not guided by their moral judgment and conscience, then as individual parts of the machine, men have no control in what they do; they neither act nor think for themselves. However, a human being can change and act as an individual, moving against the machine's motion, and accept the costs of such action.

Thoreau's negative views on war become clear in this section, as he describes war in general, and the Mexican War in particular, as shameful for a nation. If all soldiers know war is a "damnable business," what, he wonders, do veterans die for? Why are they considered heroes for doing something they know is wrong? The first piece of poetry Thoreau quotes—"Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note"— is from "The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna," an elegy, or poem to honor the dead, by British poet Charles Wolfe honoring Sir John Moore, a British Lieutenant-General who died in battle. Like Moore, Thoreau suggests, soldiers may die with no ceremony, be buried in the Navy Yard, or simply be "laid out alive and standing," stripped of their humanity.

Thoreau makes his argument more specific as he discusses "the right of revolution." He recognizes people have a different perspective of the past than they do of the present. Free men in the North don't see themselves as oppressed by tyranny. They might even think the Mexican War is more justifiable, and takes less of a toll, because "ours is the invading army." But Thoreau thinks the opposite: being associated with the invading army is worse than being invaded. Americans in 1775 fought over the minor "friction" of a trade tax on goods, but in the 19th century they are ignoring human rights abuses and engaging in unnecessary wars.

The second series of quotations is from Shakespeare. "Clay" and "stop a hole to keep the wind away" are from Hamlet; at Ophelia's open grave Hamlet mentions the dead Caesar: "Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,/Might stop a hole to keep the wind away." The longer verse, "I am too high-born to be propertied," is from King John. The character Thoreau quotes, Louis the Dauphin, refuses to submit to orders from another man. The word propertied echoes Thoreau's conception of men as part of a machine and the practice of slavery, in which human beings are considered property. As a transcendentalist Thoreau asserts the dignity of the individual. Living according to conscience is not selfishness; on the contrary, it is the most selfless way of life he can imagine, acting as a martyr who "gives himself entirely to his fellow-men."

English clergyman William Paley, whose ideas Thoreau discusses, believes in "expediency," or convenience and practicality at the expense of morality. The title Thoreau chose for this essay, "Resistance to Civil Government," recalls Paley's chapter "Duty of Submission to Civil Government" in The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. Paley emphasizes avoiding "public inconveniency" or any interruption of ordinary life; in Section 3 of "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau takes legislators like Daniel Webster to task for promoting "efficiency" or government running as scheduled. If everything functions as it should, people are willing to overlook a few human rights abuses. The situation seems more urgent to Thoreau, however. He makes the dramatic comparison of saving a drowning man; it will not be convenient or efficient and may well cost him his life. He uses the phrase cost what it may to emphasize the actions he is suggesting will be risky and, indeed, may have grave consequences.

"Does any one think that Massachusetts does exactly what is right ..." is a rhetorical question, a question asked not to get an answer but to emphasize a point. This kind of question appears frequently in persuasive writing as a tool of rhetoric or debate. The quotation beginning, "A drab of state ..." is from the play The Revenger's Tragedy by 16th-century playwright Cyril Tourneur. The state is compared to a woman with her "soul trail[ing] in the dirt": shamed and disgraced.
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