United States and American History: 1846 & Henry David Thoreau

About the history of the United States in 1846 and Henry David Thoreau in prison after refusing to pay a poll tax, leading to Resistance to Civil Government a treatise on civil disobedience


July 23 Protesting slavery as well as his country's involvement in the Mexican War, Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his $1 poll tax and was casually arrested by his friend, the Concord, Mass., constable, and put in jail. Three years later, in "Resistance to Civil Government," a lecture reprinted in a periodical called Aesthetic Papers, Thoreau recalled his incarceration:

"I have paid no poll-tax for 6 years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, 2' or 3' thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. . . . I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was. . . .

"I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it."

It was said that Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau in jail. Emerson asked, "Henry, why are you here?" Thoreau replied, "Waldo, why are you not here?" Beautiful, but the exchange took place later and involved different words.

That night a relative, possibly an aunt, came by the jail and paid Thoreau's poll tax for him. When he woke in the morning, Thoreau was told he could leave. When he objected to this, the constable threatened to use force to remove him. So, "as mad as the devil," Thoreau left the jail, had a shoe mended in town, attended a huckleberry party, and returned to Walden Pond. His account of this experience was later read by Leo Tolstoi, and then by the young Mohandas K. Gandhi and it persuaded them to advocate civil disobedience.

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