According to Thoreau in "Civil Disobedience," "Government is at best, but an expedient." What does he mean by the word "expedient"? Provide at least two concrete examples of government fulfilling this...

According to Thoreau in "Civil Disobedience," "Government is at best, but an expedient." What does he mean by the word "expedient"? Provide at least two concrete examples of government fulfilling this role in today’s society.

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Erin DuBuque eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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To be able to answer this question, let's first look at a definition of "expedient." According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word "expedient," when used as a noun, means "something done or used to achieve a particular end usually quickly or temporarily: an expedient action or solution." The full sentence referred to in the essay "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau says:

Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.

Before this statement, Thoreau expresses his extreme belief that the best governments do not govern at all. At the close of the paragraph, Thoreau uses the example of the Mexican war that was being fought at the time. In Thoreau's opinion, the United States government had been prodded into the war by private interests, and this was a situation in which it should not have got involved.

Thoreau's meaning of "expedient" in this passage matches the dictionary definition. Governments should achieve the ends for which they were formed and should not go outside these parameters. Thoreau believed that individualism was more important than conformity, and that when the government overreaches its authority, it causes more harm than good. Later on in the essay, he gives the example of trade and commerce, which would function more efficiently if it were not for the government's confining rules and regulations.

A clue to what Thoreau felt was the expedient use of government is found later in the essay, when he writes about why he paid some taxes and not others:

I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject; and, as for supporting schools, I am doing my part to educate my fellow-countrymen now.

This gives some ideas for how the last part of the question can be answered. In today's society, two concrete examples of how the government plays an expedient role would be the building and maintenance of state and national highway systems as well as the upkeep of the public school system.

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chsmith1957 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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This reference comes right away, in the first paragraph of Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience.” The full sentence reads:

Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.

He’s using the term first as a noun, when we most often use it as an adjective. One dictionary defines “expedient” in noun form as “a means to an end.” As an adjective, the word is “based on or offering what is of use or advantage rather than what is right or just; suited to the circumstances or to the occasion; convenient.” In other words: government has to create a base from which to serve and manage a large group of people. It’s going to find a way to do this in the most...

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teachertaylor eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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