One of the most important themes throughout Thoreau's work is the notion of individualism. Deeply skeptical of government, Thoreau rejects the view that a person must sacrifice or marginalize her values out of loyalty to her government. Furthermore, he argues that if an individual supports the government in any way—even by simply respecting its authority as a government—then that person is complicit in injustices forwarded by the government.

This lays an extremely heavy responsibility on the individual: to compromise, negotiate, or passively accept is to betray one's integrity and commit a crime. But, consider how unstable a community would be if it followed this viewpoint: Can a society function if everybody is a "man first and a subject afterwards"? But, even if Thoreau's principle does become implausible when universalized, does this mean that it cannot pertain to a particular person's actions? Thoreau would say "no." Indeed, Thoreau knew that not everybody was going to follow his individualistic values; he argued that his duty was to set a standard for himself. This attitude can be understood as either imprudent or brave. It is worth noting, though, that a strong sense of individualism and skepticism toward government has served as the basis for many important reform movements; they are particularly American values and have allowed America to become a nation of relative freedom.

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