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First titled "Resistance to Civil Government," Henri David Thoreau' "Civil Disobedience" states that the American government is "but a tradition...endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity...." Then Thoreau compares government to a wooden gun that cannot be used as a real one without breaking.
That is, Thoreau contends that the government is not the people of a country. It is not what keeps a country free or educates the populace. Rather, it is the "character inherent in the American people" that accomplishes improvements in the way of life of the country, not the government. The real power of a country is in the people themselves; it is they who must act according to their consciences and do what it right--not any government. By protesting what is wrong, the people will effect change, for no law can dictate what is right. Using the laws that allow slavery as an example of his point, Thoreau strengthens his argument that government is but a wooden gun.
Thoreau also compares the government to an "unscrupulous man in power" who subjugates all citizens to its edicts, however immoral or unjust. To Thoreau, the government is a malevolent power that uses its "black arts" to turn a living being into "a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity...."
Thoreau contends that the men who serve such a government have little personal agency, whether they be soldiers or legislators. They become mere "machines" of the state and are no more sensible than "wood and earth and stones." He argues that such men may as well be serving the Devil as God, for all the freedom that they have at their disposal.
Thoreau also compares the government to a powerful religious or political entity that oppresses its maverick citizens or any who do not conform to its narrow definitions of patriotism. In his essay, he questions why the government must always seek to "crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels."
Thoreau then compares the government to a machine; in that vein, the conscientious citizen must be the "counter-friction to stop the machine" when injustice reigns. In all, Thoreau asserts that no government has "pure right" to anyone's "person and property," and he resolutely argues that an effective government will "always progress toward a true respect for the individual."
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