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Thoreau begins his essay by establishing his definition of what a government is, then examining what basis a government has for exerting authority or power, and finally proposing what he considers as the limits that should be applied to governmental power. Through all of these positions, he is explaining how he distinguishes between a government and a group of people.
Government is defined as "only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will." Thoreau proposes that people will come to need no outside organization to carry out the will of society as a whole or of a particular community, at which point governments will become completely unnecessary. People, in his view, will come to be responsible for conducting their affairs with reason and respect toward each other, and the interference and domination of governmental bodies will be unneeded. In the meantime, "the government is best which governs least."
In the first paragraph of Thoreau's essay, he writes, "That government is best which governs least," but would prefer that a government not rule at all. Thoreau believed that individuals would eventually be capable of ruling themselves without the need of government. He felt that nearly all governments were "inexpedient" (impractical), but are the only mode in which the people have chosen to express their will. Additionally, governments are capable of corruption and abuse before people have the opportunity to act through them. Thoreau then uses the present Mexican War as an example of how the government carries out injustice on the basis of a few individuals while the majority of the population has not consented to its actions. In this opening paragraph, Thoreau clearly defines how he feels a government should act, and expresses his concerns about how governments often operate independently of citizens' decisions. Thoreau felt that a government which acts against the consent of its citizens does not deserve sovereignty, and people have the right to disobey their government if its laws contradict a higher, divine law.
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