What does Thoreau say is the best government?

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It first should be said that the quote you're likely referring to, "the government is best which governs least," is not a direct quote. While it is frequently attributed to many sources, the original speaker or writer is unknown. Regardless, Thoreau was one of the foremost voices of transcendentalism, championing...

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It first should be said that the quote you're likely referring to, "the government is best which governs least," is not a direct quote. While it is frequently attributed to many sources, the original speaker or writer is unknown. Regardless, Thoreau was one of the foremost voices of transcendentalism, championing a simple, ascetic, and survivalist virtue. He was skeptical even of the benefits of organized and metropolitan society, to say nothing of his distrust of organized government. Thoreau believed that the best possible government was one that interfered with the lives of its people as little as possible, and only when completely necessary.

The quote comes from a reference that Thoreau used in his essay titled "Civil Disobedience," which outlines not only the right but the necessity and duty of citizens to resist and even react with violence to a governing body deemed to be unjust and self-serving. Thoreau had a skeptical and cynical idea about the true nature of men and often considered that humans only pursue governance for the sense of power that it gives them. Thoreau was not a complete anarchist, however, and knew that government was necessary for a secure society. He did, however, believe that it should be very strictly limited.

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"Resistance to Civil Government," or "Civil Disobedience" as it is often called for short, is Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay arguing that the conscience of the individual should not allow itself to be corrupted by its government, and that the individual has a duty to stand up to their government if the situation calls for it. It is a lesson that still rings true today, when many argue the world is becoming overrun with too much nationalism and tribalism.

To open his pamphlet, Thoreau states that “The government is best which governs least.” Sometimes this quote is misattributed to Thoreau. But it is only a motto which he agreed with, and nobody is sure of who said it first. It is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but there is no evidence that he penned it either.

The meaning of the quote, and indeed the foundation of Thoreau’s pamphlet, is that government should not reach too far into the lives of private citizens. He saw government as a system to help the people, but not necessarily to lead them in any particular direction or special interest. If Thoreau were around today, he would probably be labeled as a libertarian.

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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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"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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