"That government governs best that governs least,"--these words of Thomas Jefferson are cited at the beginning of Thoreau's essay and set the tone for the remainder of it. For, the Transcendentalist Thoreau holds with the ideal of self-culture; that is, the theme that the individual should carry the responsibilities of a good citizen within himself and, therefore, not need to be suppressed by an oppressive government.
Protesting a tax that he felt brought disgrace upon him if he paid it, Thoreau spent a night in jail as a matter of principle. As an independent individual he perceived his acquiescence to this tax would make him a mere subject, whereas he should be "a man first." Thus, Thoreau thought that people who are willing victims to a government become powerless:
The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines with their bodies.
According to Thoreau an authoritative government [what today is called "big government"] has no respect for the individual. Thoreau held, instead, with self-culture, the acceptance of responsibility by the individual without interference from government:
I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor, which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it...who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow men.
Interestingly, in the final sentence of his letter from a Birmingham jail after having been arrested for his own social protest in 1963, Martin Luther King quoted directly from Thoreau's essay, citing the contention of Thoreau that one in good conscience must protest unjust laws.