Civil Disobedience – Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

“That government is best which is governs not at all, and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they have.”

“Government is at its best 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 before the people can act through it.”

“The American government – what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired, but each instant losing its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single man living, for a single man can bend it to his will.”

“The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished, and it would have been done somewhat more if the government had not sometimes got in its way.”

“Trade and Commerce if they were not made of India Rubber would never manage to bounce over the obstacles which legislators are constantly putting in their way, and if one were to judge these men wholly by their intentions, they would deserve to be  classed and punished with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railways.”

“But to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.”

“Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step towards obtaining it.”

“I think we should be men first and subjects second.”

“It is not so desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”

“The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly but as machines with their bodies.”

“They put themselves on the level of wood and stone and earth, and wooden men can be perhaps manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or lumps of dirt. They have the same worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these are commonly esteemed as good citizens.”

“A wise man will not be useful as a man, and will not submit to be “clay” and stop a hole to keep the wind away.”

“I am too high-born to be propertied. To be at secondary control. Or useful serving-man or instrument. To any sovereign state throughout the world.”

“All men recognize the right to revolution, that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.”

“Be just. Cost what it may.”

“I quarrel not with far off foes, but with those who, near at home, co-operate with and do the bidding those far away, and without whom the latter would be harmless.”

“There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them, who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down, with their hands in their pockets. And say they know not what to do, and do nothing, who even postpone the question of freedom for the question of free trade. They hesitate, they regret, and sometimes they petition, but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they no longer have to regret it. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right (virtuous) as it goes by them.”

“What is the price-current for an honest man and a patriot today?”

“There are 999 patrons of virtue to one virtuous man, but it is easier to deal with the possessor a thing than with the temporary guardian of it.”

“All voting is a sort of gaming, like cheques or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it; a playing with right and wrong.”

“Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.”

“A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There us but little virtue in the action of masses of men.”

“A man who is a man, has in his back a bone which you cannot pass your hand through.”

“If I devote myself to others pursuits & contemplation, I must first see that I do not pursue them sitting upon another mans shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplation’s too.

“Unjust laws exist, should we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, or obey them until we have succeed or shall we transgress them at once?”

“For it matters bot how small the beginning may seem to be; what is once done well is done forever. But we love better to talk about it; that we say is our mission. Reform keeps many scores of newspapers in service, but not one man.”

“Under a government who imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is prison.”

“Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but whole influence.”

“A minority is powerless if it conforms to the majority; it is not even the minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.”

“When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood should flow. IS there not some kind of blood-shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a mans real-man-hood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flow now.”

“The best thing a man can do for his culture when he is rich is to carry out those schemes which he entertained  when he was poor.”

“Absolutely speaking, the more money the less virtue.”

“You must live within yourself, always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs.”

“Confucius said, “If a state is governed by the principles of reason, poverty and misery are subjects of shame, if a State is not governed by the principles of reason, reason and honors are the subjects of shame.”

“I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived. I saw to what extent the people among who I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends that their friendship was for the summer weather only, that they did not greatly purpose to do right, that they were a distinct race from me by their superstitions and prejudices.

“Let him see that he does only what belongs to himself & the hour.”

“I think sometimes. Why this people they mean well, they are only ignorant; they would do better if they knew how.”

“I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish to split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as better than my neighbors. I seek rather, I may say, an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land. I am but too ready to conform to them.”

“Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all of its faults, is very good; the law and the courts, are very respectable, even this State and this American government are in many respects very admirable and rare things to be thankful for, such as great many have described them, but from a point of view a little higher, they are what I have described them, seen from higher still, and the highest , who shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking at a thinking of at all?”


Civil Disobedience and Other Essays (Dover Thrift Editions)



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