The Machine of Government

Cecilia Kiely ‘04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

In his essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau introduces his critique of the American government by describing it in mechanistic terms:

This American government--what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring 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; for a single man can bend it to his will. It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves. But it is not the less necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have. Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed upon, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage. It is excellent, we must all allow. Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate.

Thoreau later returns to this idea of machinery in his discussion of remedying injustice:

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth--certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

1. Rather than demonizing the American government, Thoreau strips it of agency (“It has not the vitality and force of a single living man” and “It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate.”) How does the way he portrays the government affect what he sees as a citizen’s duty in stopping injustice? What is the function of comparing the government to a machine? Is the metaphor effective? What are the implications of the metaphor?

2. Throughout the essay, Thoreau employs a technique common to sage-writers, alternating between first and second person. A clear example of this is when he abruptly switches from a series of commands (“Let it go,” “break the law,” “let your life be a counter-friction”) to a first-person statement: “What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.” Specifically, does you see this move as an example where Thoreau places himself above his reader in a position of moral authority?


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Last modified 7 October 2003