Henry David Thoreau said “government is best which governs least” or “not at all”

Henry David Thoreau said “government is best which governs least” or “not at all”

Thoreau wrote these words in Civil Disobedience published in 1849, his renowned essay about the necessity of individual resistance to unjust government. Thoreau wrote, “ 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.”

Thoreau was actually referencing another source, which is almost certainly the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, a political and literary journal that contains the words, “ the best government is that which governs least” in its first issue published in 1837.

The quote is often attributed to Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson, who were both, like Thoreau, outspoken in defense of individual rights and limited government. The quote is not found in the writings of either man, and it is not clear why they are both reputed to be the progenitors. It is possible that these words, or something similar to them, were often spoken in conversations among the group of intellectuals to which both Paine and Jefferson belonged. If that’s the case, Thoreau picked them up and wrote them down, thus ensuring their place in the Towering tomes of famed quotes.

In Civil Disobedience, side by side with the “governs least” quote, is the first appearance of a similar yet more provocative passage that has also survived the test of time. Thoreau said, ”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 will be the government which they will have.”

thoreau governs least

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