The Wisdom of Henry David Thoreau, Lover of Liberty

HENRY David Thoreau is best remembered for Walden, but an 1848 lecture later published as Civil Disobedience had much farther-reaching effects. It helped inspire the World War II resistance, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, those struggling against apartheid, and others. And it still has much to say today, if we will listen:

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. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe—“that government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that is the kind of government which they will have.

Government is at best an expedient, but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.

The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted.

Statesmen and legislators … all their wit and usefulness lie within certain not very wide limits. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations.

The state … is not armed with superior honesty, but with superior physical strength. Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think we should be men first, and subjects afterwards.

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.

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