July 18, 2012

“That government is best which governs least.” (Or not all?)


“I heartily accept the motto, — ‘That government is best which governs least.’”
       Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

       American author, philosopher, naturalist and social critic
       In his essay “Civil Disobedience”
       The quotation “That government is best which governs least” is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but without any specific source. No source is given because, as noted by Jefferson scholars and books like Not So!: Popular Myths About America From Columbus to Clinton, there is no record that Jefferson ever said it. Nor did Thomas Paine, another “Founding Father” who is sometimes wrongly credited with the quote.
       Henry David Thoreau did use the line in “Civil Disobedience” (originally titled “Resistance to Civil Government”) and its appearance in that famous essay probably popularized the saying in its best known form.
However, Thoreau seemed to be making it clear that he was citing an existing motto.   
       He may have been paraphrasing the slogan coined by American journalist and editor John Louis O’Sullivan. In 1837, O’Sullivan wrote “The best government is that which governs least” in the opening editorial for his periodical The United States Magazine and Democratic Review. He then used those words as the motto of the Review until it ceased publication in 1859.
       Thoreau’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson also penned an earlier version. In 1844, Emerson wrote in an essay titled “Politics”: “The less government we have, the better.” 
       Modern political conservatives are quite fond of the quote “That government is best which governs least.” But even most conservatives might not agree with what Thoreau went on to say about it in “Civil Disobedience.” He envisioned taking the
axiom to its anarchic extreme, writing: “Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — ‘That government is best which governs not at all.’”


“That government is best which governs best.”
Robert M. Hutchins (1899-1977)
       Dean of Yale Law School  
       Remark made in a speech in New York on January 21, 1959, upon receiving the Sidney Hillman Award for Meritorious Public Service


“It is not true that that government is best which is best administered — it is a sophism invented by tyranny to quiet the inquisitive mind; a good administration is at best but a temporary palliative to a bad government, but it does not alter its nature.”
       William Penn (1644-1718)
       English businessman and Quaker leader who founded the American Province of Pennsylvania
       In an essay published in the Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer, January 2, 1788


‘The government is best that governs least.’ If correct, corporations should be left to pursue their own ends unfettered by government.’”
Thomas Donaldson
       Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics, University of Pennsylvania
       In his book Corporations and Morality (1982)


“For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government...Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that government is best which is most indifferent.”
       Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945)
       Democratic politician and 32nd President of the United States
       In a speech on October 31, 1936, commenting on his Republican predecessors (Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge) and the opponents of his “New Deal” social programs

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Comments? Corrections? Post them on the Famous Quotations Facebook group.

Related reading and viewing…


Copyrights, Disclaimers & Privacy Policy

Creative Commons License
Copyright © Subtropic Productions LLC

The Quote/Counterquote blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. Any duplicative or remixed use of the original text written for this blog and any exact duplications the specific sets of quotations collected for the posts shown here must include an attribution to QuoteCounterquote.com and, if online, a link to http://www.quotecounterquote.com/

To the best of our knowledge, the non-original content posted here is used in a way that is allowed under the fair use doctrine. If you own the copyright to something we've posted and think we may have violated fair use standards, please let me know.

Subtropic Productions LLC and QuoteCounterquote.com are committed to protecting your privacy. We will not sell your email address, etc. For more details, read this blog's full Privacy Policy.