Which did Thoreau think was most important: that government should increase the material equality between citizens or that government should preserve the liberty of its citizens?

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From his essay, Civil Disobedience, it appears that Thoreau is most concerned with government preserving the liberty of its citizens rather than increasing material equality between its citizens.

Thoreau's thoughts about government are evidenced from the very first sentence of his treatise:

I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, — "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.

He asserts that every man has a right to live according to the dictates of his conscience and that this right should not be abrogated (revoked) by government. Furthermore, he believes that no man should have to obey a government which resorts to unlawful actions such as the propagation of slavery or the invasion of another country (in this case, Mexico):

In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.

Thoreau maintains that the state or government has no right to compel anyone to pay for the support of a third party. He cites the example of having been called upon to pay for the support of a clergyman despite not being a member of the clergyman's church. In this situation, Thoreau declined to pay. He also cites the fact that he has paid no poll tax for six years and was put into jail for this infraction once. Thoreau argues that every citizen who feels strongly about the injustices perpetrated by his government should oblige himself to rebel against it. In fact, he says that it becomes one's duty to rebel against such a government:

It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion.

When I meet a government which says to me, "Your money or your life," why should I be in haste to give it my money?

He laments that more people do not view matters in the same light and that they are not the least bit inclined to make a proper stand against an unjust government. They will risk neither their comfort nor their property. For his part, Thoreau asserts that:

In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases.

Thoreau's treatise ends with his stated desire to see the emergence of a government which respects the rights of the individual and renders the individual its true place above that of the state:

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. I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor;...

 

 

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Civil Disobedience

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