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Throughout "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau uses "the machine" as a running metaphor for government. His essay is, of course, a meditation on the correct course of action to take in a democratic society when one's morals run counter to the actions of government. If a government passes an unjust law, he argues, under some circumstances, the best solution is to break that law. Thoreau is particularly opposed to slavery, and the Mexican War, which he views as fought on behalf of those who sought to expand slavery. This evil, he claims, is the "very Constitution," meaning it is so ingrained in the United States that to simply cast one's vote against it is impossible. So the only thing a person can really do to push back against the "machine" is to break its laws, at least those that a person deems to be unjust, or contrary to higher moral law. Thoreau did so by refusing to pay a poll tax, a decision which landed him in jail, which he described as the "true place for a just man" when the law was unjust. If enough people made the decision that Thoreau made, the state would have to reckon with what amounted to a popular revolt. So in this way, Thoreau, though only a small cog in the machine, hoped to bring about a fundamental change in the way it operated.
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