University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau it is very relevant that he is very opposed to government involvement of any kind. He doesn’t believe that the government should be involved in everyday life. Thoreau doesn’t understand the point of having a government system that will be useful to everyone and not just a select few. Thoreau proceeds to explain his many reasons as to why the “government is best [when it] governs [the] least.” He thought people should stand up to the very ones that made society so corrupt and weak. Thoreau believes the government puts personal selfish interests on a pedestal.
Thoreau’s opening statement set the tone for his entire essay. He begins his essay by saying that the government, so far, has rarely proven to be useful. He believes that the power the government has derived from the majority rather than the few. This is mainly because the majority is the strongest group not because their viewpoint is right but because they have many in numbers. He then continues to express the fact that many people do what they believe is right and not to just follow the law created by the majority. He insists that people should do away with the law all together when the legal system becomes unjust. Thoreau then states that the United States is a perfect example of an unjust government.
He believes that is because of the fact that they have shown support of slavery and they have participated in the practice of aggressive war. In regards to a man following his first obligation, Thoreau believes that a man isn’t obligated to get rid of the evils of the world, but he is obligated not to take part in these evils. This means that no man should feel the need to participate in an unruly government if he does not choose to do so. Thoreau asks, “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 afterward.” He is basically stating that it is far more important to develop respect for what is right, rather than a respect for law. Thoreau sets a very powerful and aggressive tone by choosing to open his essay this way.
Thoreau doesn’t see the effectiveness of reform within the US government. Thus, he wants his readers to feel the same way. He then says that he is convinced that petitioning and voting for change achieves very little. Thoreau uses a wide variety of examples, some personal, that depict the unjust system that he discusses. By using his own personal experiences, he is allowing the reader to fully understand everything he is trying to depict. He speaks on the fact that during a protest against slavery, he refused to pay the taxes that were issued to him. Because of his refusal to pay the taxes, he spent the night in jail. But, overall his thoughts and opinions dissociated him from the government because he chose not to participate in its institutions.
He then states that one can’t see the government for what it really is because one is still working within it. And, in this way they believe that everything is justified because they are a part of the strong majority. He feels that having too much respect for law causes people to do wild things. For example, he believes that the government has turned soldiers into machines for their own personal use making them a shadow of what is real. Thoreau is very passionate and honest about everything that he says. He wants the reader to know exactly where in his heart these words are coming from. He never uses a harsh syntax or diction when writing because he doesn’t want to sound angry.
Throughout his essay, Thoreau uses an intense appeal to pathos. He mostly uses pathos when he describes a conversation with his cell mate. Thoreau asks his fellow prisoner what he got put in jail for and the man replied saying, “they accuse me of burning a barn; but I never done it.” Thoreau does this to appeal to the emotion of his readers by showing them that what the government does isn’t fair. He also shows this when he says that he has been waiting 3 months for his trial, and he will probably have to wait another 3 months before he actually gets his trial. Thoreau describes the conversation to paint a picture in the minds of his readers, of an innocent man that had to wait a half a year to attempt to prove innocence. The fact that this innocent man was spending his waiting time in jail, draws a lot of sympathy from his readers.
Thoreau also uses a great deal of imagery in this essay. When describing his jail cell, he used “the rooms were white…washed once a month…” He was doing this to show his audience that his punishment really wasn’t as bad as most people thought it would be. Thoreau even said that he viewed his cell almost as if it were an apartment, and the jail house, a city. This supports his idea that jail technically isn’t a punishment for those in it. Thoreau, here, is trying to persuade the readers to stand together and revolt against the government because it is their duty to do so. He then goes on to say that neither him, nor his cell mate pose any real threat to society. This makes the reader question his place in jail. If he really wasn’t a threat, then why was he locked up?
Thoreau is very opinionated about his very broad views of the government. He believes that the government has only lasted this long because people refuse to execute their own will. And, until this happens, no changes will ever be made. Thoreau wishes for a society in which man makes decisions of his own mind and not the mind of those that are trying to suppress the truth. In some aspects Thoreau is right. Some current laws are not honorable. Overall, Thoreau just wants to conform to the laws set in place, but he feels that that phenomenon won’t happen.
In his essay, Thoreau makes it very clear of his idea that “government is best [when it] governs [the] least.” He uses many rhetorical strategies such as imagery, symbolism and pathos as an effort to persuade the readers that the best kind of government is one of laissez-faire. His main ideas were present in his writing. He wanted to show people that a hands-off government is not the best thing for everyone. Because if he was thrown in jail for one night due to the fact he didn’t pay poll tax for six years, then why don’t people step up and revolt against the government? He wanted the reader to feel empowered by his words so that there could truly be a change in government policies.