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Picture of Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden; or, Life in the Woods; nineteenth century American Literature

July 23, 1846
Henry David Thoreau   (1817 - 1862)
Thoreau, Taxes, Disobedience
by Steve King

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On this day in 1846, Henry David Thoreau was jailed for not paying his poll tax. Thoreau was almost exactly half-way through his Walden stay, and had come to Concord to pick up a shoe at the cobblers; this came to the attention of Sam Staples, tax collector and warden of the county jail, who was under orders from the town fathers to confront and, if necessary, confine this most contrary of its sons. Thoreau was willing to pay his highway taxes, and generally felt himself to be "as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject," but he saw no choice with tax dollars that might buy "a man, or a musket to shoot one with." Sam Staples had similarly jailed Bronson Alcott three years earlier -- "I believe it was nothing but principle," concluded Sam, "for I never heard a man talk honester" -- but he offered Thoreau a neighborly loan just in case. This Thoreau refused; and he was not happy to hear, the next morning, that his tax had been anonymously paid for him. Now released, he was again left with no choice: "I proceeded to finish my errand, and, having put on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party who were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour -- for the horse was soon tackled -- I was in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off, and then the State was nowhere to be seen."

A year and a half later, Thoreau delivered his principle, and his new perspective on Concord, in a speech at the local lyceum; "Resistance to Civil Government," posthumously retitled "Civil Disobedience," was first published in 1849:
    It was like traveling into a far country, such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night. It seemed to me that I never heard the town-clock strike before, nor the evening sounds of the village; for we slept with the windows open, which were inside the grating. It was to see my native village in the light of the Middle Ages, and our Concord was turned into a Rhine stream, and visions of knights and castles passed before me. . . .

    I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly propose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions, as the Chinamen and Malays are. . . .

    Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all its faults, is very good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even this State and this American government are, in many respects, very admirable and rare things, to be thankful for, such as a great many have described them; but seen from a point of view a little higher, they are what I have described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking of at all?. . . .

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Related authors:  Iris Murdoch, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman
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