What does Thoreau say is the best government?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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"That government governs best that governs least," Henry David Thoreau writes in his renowned political protest essay, "Resistance to Civil Government." In this piece, Thoreau also writes,

The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.... Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice."

Thoreau's ideas were profoundly influenced by the Transcendental movement in which Emerson and he were involved; this movement held that self-realization and reform started with self-examination. Thus, Thoreau's belief in the rights and the reliability of the individual were attacked by both slavery and the Mexican-American war, so he went to jail rather than pay a tax which would provide subsidies for these two issues. 

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amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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If we consider that Thoreau's idea of the "best government" is one that does not govern, then the best government is no government. But just as a matter a practical logic, no government is the absence of any government, so of existing possible governments, what would Thoreau consider the best? Reading through his essay, "Civil Disobedience," he argues that a better government is possible (with the utopic idea of no government sometime later). He adds that a government ruled by majority democracy is not necessarily the best in terms of justice. Immediate acceptance of the laws enforced by government officials and majority rule makes people into machines rather than conscious, conscientious human beings. Therefore, the best government allows for individuals to use their consciences to determine what is right; not simply adhering to a set of pre-established laws. 

Electing congressmen and then simply abiding by their decisions is not good enough. A better government will have the "sanction and consent of the governed." Thoreau continually champions the individual. He wonders if a government could be better than a democracy. In the closing paragraph of the essay, he imagines such an idea: "There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly." The best government is one which gives power to the free individual; not one which imposes its own power upon that individual. 

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jkab714 | eNotes Newbie

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In Civil Disobedience Thoreau argues that the best government is that which "governs least";and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I 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." Thus, Thoreau sees government as a means ("expedient"=means of attaining an end), not an end in itself, making his view controversial and verging on anarchical.

In this work (Civil Disobedience) Thoreau argues that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or govern their individual consciences, and that they should avoid allowing such acceptance of government control to enable the government to make them accomplices in unjust endeavors like slavery and the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 . 

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