How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also.

All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of '75. If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should not make an ado about it, for I can do without them. All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counterbalance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer. In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.

How can I paraphrase this sentence? The sentence comes from On the Duty of Civil Disobedience Para. 8.

If "this" refers to friction, friction has a useful effect on counterbalancing the evil, what does counterbalance mean in this sentence? But if friction means disagreement or tension between people or groups of people, isn't it the same as evil? Then why does he say "it is a great evil" and "make a stir"?

  • You should include more of the text surrounding your quoted text in order to allow others a better chance of understanding of what this sentence is referring to. Mar 11, 2017 at 10:30
  • I agree with Mark Ripley. This paragraph is hard to understand, especially beginning with the "All machines..." sentence. Consider editing your question so that after the paragraph you include a paraphrase of the idea you are trying to get across, even if the grammar is less than perfect.
    – Stephen C
    Mar 12, 2017 at 2:49
  • I just thought it would be too long to read, I've edited, it's from Para. 8 On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.
    – Leon Zero
    Mar 12, 2017 at 3:24

1 Answer 1


Let's start from the top. Thoreau asserts that it's man's duty to disobey/protest/resist the government "when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable." He believed that 1849 was such a time when the government's tyranny had reached an unendurable level, but nobody else seemed to care. Those who disagreed with Thoreau argued that 1775 (right before the American revolution) was a true state of oppression, and that American in 1849 was not in a state of oppression worth starting a revolution over. Thoreau sets out to make this claim look foolish.

Now, for your question. When Thoreau says...

All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counterbalance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it.

...he's saying that all machines have a weak point (friction) - something that counteracts their evil and works against their success. When the solution (friction) to the machine's oppression is simple, there's no need to have a revolution - no need to "make a stir." Specifically, Thoreau is saying that revolution in 1776 may have been a bit of an overreaction to taxation of imports. Instead, a solution would have been to simply to stop buying the imported products, since they could easily be lived without.

Thoreau continues on in hopes of demonstrating why 1849 is exactly the time to start a revolution. He argues that, when the "friction comes to have its machine" (i.e. when the solution to the problem of oppression/tyranny is itself a system of oppression/tyranny), something needs to change. This, says Thoreau, is exactly what was happening in 1849 America. We had founded the country on principles idea of liberty and freedom, yet one sixth of the country's population was enslaved and we had just finished (unjustly, according to Thoreau) invading Mexico.

  • "All men recognize the right of revolution" does "recognize" here mean realize or approve? Can I specify "the evil" as oppression/tyranny so as to paraphrase the sentence into "possibly friction can help a lot to prevent their beinging tyranny"?
    – Leon Zero
    Mar 12, 2017 at 13:47
  • Here, "all men recognize the right of revolution" is basically saying all men realize the necessity of revolution in dire circumstances. A good summary of your highlighted statement "Many systems of oppression and tyranny can be counteracted, and it is unnecessary to revolt or start a revolution against an easily counteracted system."
    – nmar
    Mar 12, 2017 at 20:54

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