Why does Thoreau think democracy is the last improvement possible in government?

JosbdAnswer: Henry David Thoreau has given his own ideas about the best form of government in his long essay “Civil Disobedience”. His ideas of the form of government do not tally with the prevalent ideas of democracy. Practically speaking, the form of government that Thoreau conceives of, is not found anywhere in the world. So Thoreau’s form of democracy has remained an ideal only. Thoreau cannot be sure whether that ideal will ever be realized.

In the beginning of the essay, Thoreau declares “That government is best which governs least: … carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe — “That government is best which governs not at all.” This statement of Thoreau apparently involves a paradox. The paradox between governing and not governing indeed poses a problem. But yet, Thoreau has stated the main theme of his essay through this paradoxical statement. His main theme is the absolute freedom of the individual, his freedom being based on conscience. If an individual is guided by his conscience, he will not do anything detrimental to other individuals, or to the society as a whole.

Thoreau severely criticizes his contemporary American government. He thinks that it is nothing but a tradition, which endeavors to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity. “It has not the vitality and force of a single living man,… it is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves.” With this sarcastic remark he adds that this wooden gun is not the less necessary for the people because they must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din to satisfy that idea of government which they have. Governments thus show how successfully men can be imposed on, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage. Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. 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 meddled with it. Government is an expedient by which men would complacently succeed in letting one another alone, and when it is most expedient, the people who are governed are most let alone by it. By that the author does not mean that he asks for no government at once; but he means a better government at once. Every man should express his opinion about what kind of government would command his respect. That will be one step toward obtaining it.


The trouble with the contemporary democratic form of government is that once the power is in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems farest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rules in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it.

After scathing the contemporary democratic government in this way, Thoreau puts the questions, “Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?, in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen 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 afterward.”

The author criticizes the different organs of government — the law, the military etc. and finds them short of what should be the ideals in an ideal democratic state. He says about law, “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.” A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is that one may see a file of soldiers marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars. They are working against their common sense and consciences. They seem to be small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power. The mass of men serve the state not as men, but as machines. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables posses comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise of the judgment or of the moral sense. They put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones, and perhaps wooden men can be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. There are other people like legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, who serve the state chiefly with their heads, and as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few of the people, like heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part, and they are commonly treated as enemies.” A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be “clay”, and “stop a hole to keep the wind away.” He who gives himself entirely to his fellow-men, to the service of his brethren, appears to them useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.


The author now questions, “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today?” His own answer to the question is that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. He cannot recognize that political organization as his government which is the slave’s government also. The author is inclined to resist allegiance to such government, and asserts the people’s right to revolution.

The type of government that Thoreau likes is the one which has the sanction and consent of the governed. It cannot have pure right over anybody’s person and property but what he concedes to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. The democracy that the author saw in his country. America was not satisfactory. He thinks it is possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man. In his opinion 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. But at the moment, that is only an ideal. The future will decide whether it can be realized or not.