In paragraph 1, why does Thoreau begin his essay with the distinction between the government and the people?"Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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As a Transcendentalist and advocate of the importance of the individual, Henry David Thoreau clarifies in the first paragraph of his essay "Civil Disobedience" that governments are merely "expedients," or means to an end, rather than separate entities on their own.  The government of any country is merely the "mode which people have chosen to execute their will," Thoreau asserts.

This first paragraph of Thoreau serves to state his belief that the citizens of a country must never become the servants of their government; their consciences must dictate to them what is right, not the government.

Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

If men serve the state rather than their own consciences, Thoreau believes that they are but machines, not individuals.  Men must be "men first, and subjects afterward." The sanctity of the individual apart from any government must always be preserved.


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