Civil Disobedience Questions and Answers
by Henry David Thoreau

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What is the tone of the second paragraph of Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience?

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The tone of this paragraph is earnest. Thoreau speaks to his audience as a concerned friend, as someone who has lived and seen and realized and now wants to impart the knowledge he's acquired for our benefit. He wants us to see the truth of government in general and the American government in particular, because we are imposed upon by it although it does not do anything for us that is of any real value. As he says, "It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate." In other words, it is not the government that accomplishes anything; rather, it is the American people themselves that actually get these things done. He continues, "The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way." In fact, if anything, he wants us to realize, the government has actually gotten in our way and not assisted us in these endeavors at all.

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The tone of...

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danialexis | Student

The tone of the second paragraph of Civil Disobedience changes slightly throughout the paragraph. The second paragraph begins in the same earnest tone used in the first paragraph, but by the end, the second paragraph is more critical and biting in tone.

Thoreau begins Civil Disobedience by saying "I heartily accept the motto, - "That government is best which governs least." By doing so, he sets an earnest tone from the outset. Thoreau isn't trying to mock the idea that "that government is best which governs least," or disprove it. Instead, he seeks to use the essay to explain why he "heartily agree[s]" with that statement.

In the second paragraph, Thoreau begins discussing the differences between his ideal government - one that governs "not at all" - and the state of the American government in his time. Here, his basic tone is still earnest. He's still seeking to prove that governments that govern little or not at all are preferable to those that govern much.

Because he sees the American government as governing too much, however, Thoreau's tone in this paragraph is also critical. He begins by noting that the current government is "a tradition," weaker than a single human being, and largely powerless. Then, Thoreau notes that although governments are useless, they aren't unnecessary, because people need some form of government "to satisfy that idea of government which they have."

Here, Thoreau's critical tone becomes more biting. He starts to tear down the popular image of government as a powerful, self-directed entity:

It is excellent, we all must allow; 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.

Governments don't do these things, says Thoreau. People do them, and people could do them more efficiently if governments didn't keep putting regulations in their way.

By the end of the second paragraph, Thoreau's tone is considerably more harsh and critical than it was at the start of the second paragraph. He ends the second paragraph by stating that if we judged politicians by the effects of their actions, "they would deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on railroads." Thoreau still appears to be in earnest, or to believe what he's saying; however, by the end of the second paragraph, he's saying it in a darker, snarkier form.

Thoreau's biting tone here may have been the result of experience. Thoreau first presented Civil Disobedience as a series of lectures about two years after he was arrested for refusing to pay his poll tax, which he did as a means of protesting the Mexican-American War. Although he spent only one night in jail before someone (possibly his mother) paid his poll tax for him, the experience left him feeling unfriendly toward government in general.

Thoreau had already spent about a year living at Walden Pond, writing about the importance of living an examined life in accordance with one's principles. To be arrested and thrown in jail for living his own principles - refusing to pay taxes to support what Thoreau saw as improper governmental meddling in another country's affairs - served as a real-life example of how governments caused pain and strife, rather than getting out of the way of people who would otherwise live peacefully.