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Majority and Government: Thoreau’s Views on Civil Disobedience

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Majority can be defined as, the greater number or part; a number more than half of the total; and can also be defined as, the political party, group, or faction having the most power by virtue of its larger representation or electoral strength. Majority in the sense of government does not refer to the greatest number of people, most of the time. The government consists of a few powerful individuals that control society and the population. Thoreau uses the example of the Mexican war to show that the standing government is used by a few individuals to carry out acts that are not always supported by the people. Thoreau says that the actual majority, the people, are instruments of the few individuals who are permitted to govern because they are stronger and the people will not act against those individuals, but they will live around the issues. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau makes the point that the strongest are the majority and they use their power to govern over the weaker even though they may be more.

The actual majority are mere instruments of the few individuals in government. This majority would consist of the greater number which is the people but power turns those few individuals into a majority. That majority of few individuals use the masses, the people, as instruments because people follow laws with undue respect. These laws are created and put to practice by the majority as a way to control the people. The people follow and respect the laws because following the law is doing right, but the laws themselves are sometimes not what an individual may believe is right or just. The people follow these laws because of their undue respect for laws. Following the laws because they are laws and not because of the justice they promote makes the people the instrument of the government or the majority. The government can pass any law, and the minority, the people, will follow like puppets. Thoreau says “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” (2). Laws in some cases can be unjust but are still followed by the people because of the respect they have for it. People follow military law even if the law is not correct and just in their perception. When people follow these laws mindlessly they are not doing what is right and following personal beliefs but instead following the beliefs of the majority, the few powerful individuals.

The majority rules because it is given permission to do so. The majority is those individuals with power that control and are in charge of the government. The minority, put their vote towards those who they want to be ruled by and step back to follow without checking that what the government is doing is just and correct. According to Thoreau, when power is in the hands of the people, a majority is permitted to rule because they are physically the strongest (2). Society gives, or lets, the power be handled by the majority not because it is fair to them, or right, but just because they are stronger. The power is found in a few individuals because they are considered stronger in the eyes of the minority. These few individuals become the majority and govern over the actual majority, the people which are greater in number. The majority, being legislators, congressmen and those with power in the government, use the power they have to impose what is in their benefits over the minority. The minority, being all the people in the country, the tax payers, the average working class man and even those in lower classes should step up to make sure that the majority does what is in the best interests of the minority.

The people know they have a right to revolution, but they will not act for what they believe in. When something is not going right because of the decisions made by the government, the people have the right to act against it and create a revolution. In the past revolution brought about change, and most of the time, good change. Nevertheless, these revolts where not because the minority is unwilling to act against the government. Instead of standing for a cause the people believe in, the minority lets the acts continue, ignoring it by avoiding the injustice occurring around.

Thoreau uses the example of someone saying the government is bad because of the taxes that were put on certain foreign goods but the people will not do anything about it because they can do with out that good (3), to show how people are letting themselves be overruled. The minority should have a voice and if they do not have a voice, the minority has the right to do something to obtain it, but they do not act. Being indifferent to a wrong is just as bad as supporting it. The minority again lets itself be governed by the majority even though they as a minority include a greater mass of people. Therefore, by not acting, or creating a revolution, the majority, that greater number of people, is being ruled by those few in power.

Solutions given by Thoreau, for a better government, include a government of conscious men and a government in which majority decides only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable. By the ‘rule of expediency’, Thoreau means, that the individual should submit to the governments will as long as the government acts in the interest of the entire minority. Men should do what they think is right; they should be men of conscious that act as men first and subjects afterwards (Thoreau 2). A government of conscious men will do more good especially if controlled and balanced by a majority of conscious people.

The number of people in a group doesn’t make them majority or minority, but power does when talking about government. A small majority governs and rules over the people, the minority. This situation occurs because the people become instruments of the majority through the laws. The majority is permitted to govern and pass any laws because of their power. People know that they can go against this power and create a revolution because they are greater in number but they will not do this because there is a lack of will. The people are pressured by the power of the government and do not feel like fighting against it, either because of fear or simple laziness. If all these issues are resolved and the minority is given a voice and the government becomes conscientious, a better and more organized country and government will arise. “We are accustomed to say, that the mass of men are unprepared; but improvement is slow …” (Thoreau 4). It is fair to say that as long as the lesser of more power are in control and govern the greater people of less power, government will work in favor of only those in power.

Works Cited

Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience”

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