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The tone of the second paragraph of Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience might best be described as ironic, mocking, derisive, and sardonic, with an occasional touch of idealism. Thoreau makes it clear that he does not admire the American government (or governments in general), and he employs a number of strategies to emphasize this point of view.
At one point, for instance, Thoreau uses balanced sentence structure to emphasize the ways that a supposedly democratic and representative government can be corrupted through the influence of powerful persons:
It [that is, government] has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will.
Here the irony of the statement becomes obvious in the clause following the semicolon.
Next, Thoreau uses a vivid metaphor to suggest that democratic government, as it exists in his day, is actually a sham:
It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves.
In other words, Thoreau suggests that government gives people the mere illusion of power while actually leaving them powerless.
Thoreau makes it clear, however, that the people are not simply victims of government; instead, they are its willing victims, because they almost want to be deceived. Here again his tone is mocking:
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.
In sentences such as these, the irony of the paragraph is blatant.
Thoreau’s writing in this paragraph, however, is not entirely ironic and mocking. Sometimes he writes passionately about his own ideas of what government should be and do (and what it should not be and what it cannot do):
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.
Thoreau’s tone, in short, is mostly ironic and critical, but at times in this paragraph he also strongly suggests the ideals about government that motivate his criticism of the government that actually exists.
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