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    A Summary of Resistance to Civil Government, an Essay by Henry David Thoreau

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    Thoreau’s opinion is a little more complicated than it might seem on the surface. For instance, when he opens his essay with an endorsement of the motto that “That government is best which governs least,” one might think that Thoreau is against government existence altogether.

    Anticipating this, Thoreau states clearly, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” He felt that government is generally ineffective and that it was difficult for people to establish just laws because they would be perverted by the government before they could be established. Therefore, he felt that men should govern themselves by their own consciences and that, in doing so, they would be more likely to obtain a better government and society.

    In my humble opinion, Thoreau’s essay is one of disdain for those who do nothing and an exhortation to the same. He expresses his disdain for the idle hand with comments such as, “if one HONEST man in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America… But we love better to talk about it.”

    Thoreau felt that if just one person would stand up to government, even if he wasn’t successful in ending slavery, he would begin a movement that would. However, seeing no one, Thoreau makes his voice heard against those who refuse to speak. His essay is not purely condemning, though. He also includes many earnest exhortations such as, “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” According to Thoreau, it wasn’t enough to merely place your vote and hope that right prevailed; he encouraged us to do everything in our power to ensure that justice be upheld, even if that meant breaking the law.

    Thoreau was very much against a standing army. He felt soldiers that blindly followed the will of the government were no better than dogs or wooden soldiers. He boldly states that “Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt.” Thoreau felt that these individuals deserved so little respect because they simply did as they were told without consulting the command of their conscience.

    Moreover, Thoreau’s lack of respect for an immoral government was even greater as evidenced by the essay itself. He held that those who don’t leave a corrupt government are supporting it. The only way to relinquish one’s support, he felt, was to relinquish one’s office: “When the subject has refused allegiance and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.”

    Thoreau argued that the way a man became rich was by permission from the state, for if he were to refuse to pay taxes, for example, they would seize his property. Therefore, in the quote he is saying he would rather lose his property or even his life by being imprisoned than to follow an unjust government and be rich: “It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the state than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less in that case.” One can purchase plenty of property, but when it comes at the cost of one’s conscience, it may very well be too great a price to pay.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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    A Summary of Resistance to Civil Government, an Essay by Henry David Thoreau. (2022, Dec 13). Retrieved from

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