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Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (b.1817.07.12, Concord, MA; d.1862.05.06, Concord)


Major Works


"Most men live lives of quiet desparation."

On Walden Pond

On Civil Disobedience


I heartily accept the motto "that government is best, when it governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this (which I also believe), "That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes in-expedient. The objections which have been brought against standing armies, and they are mighty and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is eaually liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of compararatively few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.


This American government, what is it but a tradition (though a rfecent one), endeavoring to transmit itself un-impaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will. It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves. But, it is not the less necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery of other, and hear its din, to satisfy that the idea of government which they have. Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed on, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage. It is excellent, we all allow. Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. IT does not keep the country free. IT does not settle the West. IT does not educate. The character inherent in the American peoople has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way. For government is an expedient by which men would fain succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been said, when it is most expedient, the governed are most let alone by it. Trade and commerce, if they were not made of india-rubber, would never manage to bounce over the obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way; and, if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of their actions and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be callsed and punnished with those mischevious persons who put obstructions on railroads.


But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but *at once* a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step towards obtaining it.


After all, the practical rewson why,j when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not becuause they are most likely to be right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But, a government in which the majority ruole in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men understan it. Can there not be a governemrent in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? -- in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule is of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his cosncience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivae a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligbation which I have a right to assume is do do at any time what I think right. It is truly enought said that a corporation has no sconscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporatiion *with* a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and by, means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law, is that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powerder monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hile and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpatation of the heart. They have no doubt that is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small moveable forts and magazines, at the serviceof some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts, -- a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniments, though it may be, "Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note, As his corse to the rampart we hurried, Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot, O'er the grave where our hero we buried."
*posse comitatatus*, etc. In most cases, there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with rwood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such commmand no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. THey have the same sort of worth only as horses or dogs. Yet such as these are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others -- as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office holders -- serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without *intending* it, as God. A very few -- as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and *men* -- serve the state with their consciences also, and so neceessarilyu resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be "clay", and "stop a hole to keep the wind away", but leave that office to his dust at least: "I am too high-born to be propertied, To be a secondary at control, Or useful serving-man and instrument To any sovereign state through-out the world".


He that gives himself to his fellow men, appears to them to be useless selfish; but, he who gives himself partially to them if pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.


How deos it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer, that he can not without disgrace be associated with it. I can not for an instant recognize that political organization as *my* government which is the *slave's* government also.


All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and un-endurable. But, almost all say that such is not the case now. But, such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of '75. If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is most probably that I should not make an ado about it, for I can do without them. All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counterbalance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But, when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say let us not have such a machine any longer. In other words, when a sixth of the poluplation of anation which has undertaken to b e the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whold country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreigh army, and subjected to military law, I thin that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgen is the fact that the country so over-run is not our own, but ours is the invading army.


Paley, a common authority with many on moral questions....