The line quoted is from the conclusion of Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience." A strong individualist, Thoreau was a firm believer in the individual rights of men, as opposed to majority rule. Each person's moral duty, Thoreau felt, is to obey the leadings of one's own conscience. Civil law, the power of the majority,is not to be first; on the contrary, it should be subjugated to the higher moral law as discerned by the individual. Thoreau wishes to organize the rights of man because with the poll tax the state government--what Thoreau termas the civil government-- comes into conflict with the individual and his rights. When Thoreau writes, "Is it not possible that we recognize and organize the rights of man?" he implies that there cannot be a truly free country until it recognizes that the rights of the individual supercede the power and the authority of the state. For, the individual is "a higher and independent power." As such, men must protest if there is an unjust law.
In modern times, the Civil Rights Movement was based upon Thoreau's ideas as Dr. Martin Luther King felt that men must break laws if they are unjust and violate the rights of the individual. Likewise, protesters of the Vietnam War followed Thoreau's words that men who serve in an unjust war are mere "machines [of the state] with their bodies."