On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau
On the Duty of Civil
by Henry David

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Title: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
Author: Henry David Thoreau
Release Date: Jun, 1993 [EBook #71] [Most recently updated: May 29,
Edition: 11
Language: English
Character set encoding: ASCII

Typed by Sameer Parekh ([email protected])

On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
by Henry David Thoreau
[1849, original title: Resistance to Civil Goverment]

I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs
least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and
systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I
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 the
will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most
governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes,
inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a
standing army, and they are many 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, which is only the mode which the people have
chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted
before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war,
the work of comparatively a 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 recent
one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired 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 or other,
and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have.
Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed upon,
even impose on themselves, for their own advantage. It is excellent, we
must 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 people 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 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 classed and punished with those
mischievious persons who put obstructions on the 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
toward obtaining it.

After all, the practical reason why, 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 because they are most likely
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