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Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations. 1989.

AUTHOR: Henry David Thoreau (1817–62)
QUOTATION: 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. Carried out, 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 kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.
ATTRIBUTION: HENRY DAVID THOREAU, Civil Disobedience, first paragraph, Walden and Civil Disobedience, ed. Owen Thomas, p. 224 (1966). This essay was first published in 1849.

The motto Thoreau referred to was almost certainly that of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, a literary-political monthly: “The best government is that which governs least.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed a similar sentiment in his essay “Politics:” “Hence the less government we have the better—the fewer laws and the less confided power.”—Essays: Second Series, in The Complete Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1, p. 302 (1929).
SUBJECTS: Government