Thoreau opens his essay with the motto "That government is best which governs least." His distrust of government stems from the tendency of the latter to be "perverted and abused" before the people can actually express their will through it. A case in point is the Mexican war (1846-1848, which extended slavery into new US territories), orchestrated by a small élite of individuals who have manipulated government to their advantage against popular will. Government inherently lends itself to oppressive and corrupt uses since it enables a few men to impose their moral will on the majority and to profit economically from their own position of authority. Thoreau views government as a fundamental hindrance to the creative enterprise of the people it purports to represent. He cites as a prime example the regulation of trade and commerce, and its negative effect on the forces of the free market.
A man has an obligation to act according to the dictates of his conscience, even if the latter goes against majority opinion, the presiding leadership, or the laws of society. In cases where the government supports unjust or immoral laws, Thoreau's notion of service to one's country paradoxically takes the form of resistance against it. Resistance is the highest form of patriotism because it demonstrates a desire not to subvert government but to build a better one in the long term. Along these lines, Thoreau does not advocate a wholesale rejection of government, but resistance to those specific features deemed to be unjust or immoral.
In the American tradition, men have a recognized and cherished right of revolution, from which Thoreau derives the concept of civil disobedience. A man disgraces himself by associating with a government that treats even some of its citizens unjustly, even if he is not the direct victim of its injustice. Thoreau takes issue with William Paley, an English theologian and philosopher, who argues that any movement of resistance to government must balance the enormity of the grievance to be redressed and the "probability and expense" of redressing it. It may not be convenient to resist, and the personal costs may be greater than the injustice to be remedied; however, Thoreau firmly asserts the primacy of individual conscience over collective pragmatism.
Thoreau turns to the issue of effecting change through democratic means. The position of the majority, however legitimate in the context of a democracy, is not tantamount to a moral position. Thoreau believes that the real obstacle to reform lies with those who disapprove of the measures of government while tacitly lending it their practical allegiance. At the very least, if an unjust government is not to be directly resisted, a man of true conviction should cease to lend it his indirect support in the form of taxes. Thoreau acknowledges that it is realistically impossible to deprive the government of tax dollars for the specific policies that one wishes to oppose. Still, complete payment of his taxes would be tantamount to expressing complete allegiance to the State. Thoreau calls on his fellow citizens to withdraw their support from the government of Massachusetts and risk being thrown in prison for their resistance. Forced to keep all men in prison or abolish slavery, the State would quickly exhaust its resources and choose the latter course of action. For Thoreau, out of these acts of conscience flow "a man's real manhood and immortality."
Money is a generally corrupting force because it binds men to the institutions and the government responsible for unjust practices and policies, such as the enslavement of black Americans and the pursuit of war with Mexico. Thoreau sees a paradoxically inverse relationship between money and freedom. The poor man has the greatest liberty to resist because he depends the least on the government for his own welfare and protection.
After refusing to pay the poll tax for six years, Thoreau is thrown into jail for one night. While in prison, Thoreau realizes that the only advantage of the State is "superior physical strength." Otherwise, it is completely devoid of moral or intellectual authority, and even with its brute force, cannot compel him to think a certain way.
Why submit other people to one's own moral standard? Thoreau meditates at length on this question. While seeing his neighbors as essentially well-intentioned and in some respects undeserving of any moral contempt for their apparent indifference to the State's injustice, Thoreau nonetheless concludes that he has a human relation to his neighbors, and through them, millions of other men. He does not expect his neighbors to conform to his own beliefs, nor does he endeavor to change the nature of men. On the other hand, he refuses to tolerate the status quo.
Despite his stance of civil disobedience on the questions of slavery and the Mexican war, Thoreau claims to have great respect and admiration for the ideals of American government and its institutions. Thoreau goes so far as to state that his first instinct has always been conformity. Statesmen, legislators, politicians--in short, any part of the machinery of state bureaucracy--are unable to scrutinize the government that lends them their authority. Thoreau values their contributions to society, their pragmatism and their diplomacy, but feels that only someone outside of government can speak the Truth about it.
The purest sources of truth are, in Thoreau's view, the Constitution and the Bible. Not surprisingly, Thoreau holds in low esteem the entire political class, which he considers incapable of devising the most basic forms of legislation. In his last paragraph, Thoreau comes full circle to discussing the authority and reach of government, which derives from the "sanction and consent of the governed." Democracy is not the last step in the evolution of government, as there is still greater room for the State to recognize the freedom and rights of the individual. Thoreau concludes on an utopic note, saying such a State is one he has imagined "but not yet anywhere seen."