Civil Disobedience Questions and Answers
by Henry David Thoreau

Civil Disobedience book cover
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Explain this quote ¨Yet 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¨

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Philip Arrington eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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This quote needs to be understood within the context of the overall essay.

"On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau extols individuality and disparages government. Thoreau states that ideally, there should be no government, and that people should be free to govern themselves as they see fit. Although government is meant to serve a practical purpose, it usually does more harm than good.

It finally amounts to this, which I also believe, - "That government is best which governs not at all;" and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.

The above quote speaks of governments in general, but in the quote within the question - "Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise but by the alacrity by which it got out of its way..." Thoreau is writing specifically about the government of the United States in the mid-19th century. He is saying that the government interfering in the affairs of its citizens does not contribute to education, commerce, and the settlement of the West, and that if the government backed off and became less involved, people would be able to accomplish more. Thoreau makes it clear, though, that the United States is not in a position or stage of growth to abolish government completely when he says in the next paragraph: "I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government."

This is an example of Thoreau's individualism and strong stand of the importance of conscience above the unjust dictates of government that later profoundly influenced people such as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

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writer1010 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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This quote from Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” succinctly summarizes one of the key sentiments negotiated in the text. In the essay, Thoreau argues against governmental overreach and governmental involvement in the affairs of American citizens. In the second paragraph, Thoreau calls the government “a sort of wooden gun” and a “complicated machinery” which serves “to satisfy that idea of government which they [the citizens] have.” What Thoreau seems to suggest here is that the government serves a symbolic function, or that it is an abstract idea necessary for citizens to have a sense of security and perhaps a shared purpose. In light of this, the quote under consideration here seems to suggest that it is not the government itself but rather the citizens, who populate the social, economic, geographic, and cultural space that represents the power of the country. In other words, Thoreau seems to think of the government as an empty shell that only receives its power and authority from people who do the work.     

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