In Civil Disobedience, How does Thoreau suggest people can contribute to improving the government?Please include quotes!

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It's strange, but I think that Thoreau is probably more of the logic that suggests individuals have more of a moral clarity than government does.  Thoreau holds little hope for the institution of government.  Similar to a Classical Liberal, Thoreau hopes for the government to "get out of the way" of an individual's call to action and demand to adhere to a morally transcendent law.  Thoreau argues that individuals can improve their government as an institution and governing body by adhering to this law and speaking out when there is transgression against it.  For Thoreau, when citizens are able to heed this call without hesitation, accepting whatever temporal consequences might come as a result, this level of spiritual liberation and action will allow individuals to achieve a higher moral plane and their government and social settings, both temporary conditions, will follow suit.

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perfectsilence | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Assistant Educator

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To Henry David Thoreau, people can best improve the government by being the best, moral people that they can be.  He believes that people are most often restrained from bettering society through their believed need of government in the first place.  He says "the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have." To Thoreau, "government" is simply a normalized idea.  It is a concept in the minds of people rather than an actual necessity of life.  To further this perspective on government: he states that while many claim the government is responsible for the accomplishments of the country,

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.

It is the people that accomplish, not the system they adhere to.  Further, even counter-measures such as demonstrating, or voting people in or out of office, that appear on the surface to shift the balance toward something "better," are all nevertheless part of the too-complex system that has been established.  To Thoreau, protesting a government is not enough when it comes to enacting real change because those who protest are still supporting the system in place through their adherence to other laws (such as paying taxes):

Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support and undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform.

Further, even the idea of demonstrating to raise awareness and gain allies for a cause is ineffective: 

Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them.  They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil.

What then, would Thoreau suggest to improve the government?  Thoreau believes that the best way to improve an unjust government is to lose the government.  In his own words:

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth, - certainly the machine will wear out.  If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.  Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.

Even an act as simply as paying a tax that one does not agree with or voting in an election makes one an agent of injustice, because the money from the tax and the consent to the electoral process both fuel the system of injustice.  In this case, one should let go.  Stop paying, stop voting, and face the consequences.  Thoreau says that "[u]nder a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."  In other words, the best thing a person can do to improve the government is to live a just life and disconnect, even if that means the just life is lived in prison.


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