Civil Disobedience – by Henry David Thoreau

Civil Disobedience is an essay that is usually published inside a book that contains other writing by Henry David Thoreau.  The reason is because Civil Disobedience is extremely short.  There’s enough room to put it at the end of Walden.  My copy of Walden was a Barnes & Noble version that included not only Civil disobedience,  but also a timeline of Thoreau’s life, an introduction, and a detailed section that described the meaning behind some of Thoreau’s references that were commonly understood at the time, but mysterious and confusing today.

Civil Disobedience was written in response to real life events that Henry David Thoreau experienced.  In 1846, he traveled through Massachusetts.  His purpose was to go to Concord, to run an errand.  (He needed to got to the cobblers to pick up his shoe that the cobbler repaired).  A man named Sam Staples was the tax collector and warden of the county jail.

Thoreau had been refusing to pay his poll tax. This type of tax dates back to the colonial era of the United States.  In some cases, the poll tax was a fee that people would have to pay before they were allowed to vote.  An eligible voter who could not pay the poll tax would not be allowed to vote.  After the Civil War, a poll tax was often used as a means of preventing blacks from voting.  Encyclopedia.com explains:

…Along with other disenfranchising techniques, the poll tax was designed to be an instrument that could evade the reach of the Fifteenth Amendment (stating that no state may deny or abridge the right of citizens to vote on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude; citizens may not be prevented from voting due to race) and any other federal intervention.  In order to be eligible to vote, an individual had to pay a poll tax.  In some cases, the poll tax had to be paid almost a year in advance of the election, and in other cases the tax had to be paid for a certain period of years….

In some other states, the poll tax was a form of revenue placed upon everyone – not only people who wanted to vote.  In Thoreau’s case, the poll tax functioned in a way that is similar to how tollways do today.  Those who travel on the road must pay some money before they can continue to travel.  Thoreau refers to it as a “highway tax.”

Henry David Thoreau intentionally chose not to pay the poll tax as a protest against the United States government’s support of slavery and the Mexican-American War (which began in April of 1846).  Thoreau believed (and, I am paraphrasing here) that if he paid the tax, his tax dollars could be used to buy “a man, or a musket to shoot one with”.

Thoreau stopped paying his poll tax in 1842, but the consequence of doing so did not catch up to him until 1846.  The sheriff (who was also the warden of the county jail) in Concord was Sam Staples.  He had failed to take action against Thoreau for several years.  The History of Massachusetts website points out a book called “A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau”, which says that the poll tax had nothing to do with the Mexican-American war, and that Thoreau’s arrest was technically illegal.  It said:

…Thoreau’s jailing was, it seems, an accident, and maybe a legal error.  The tax that Thoreau refused to pay was a local one, not connected to the state of Massachusetts or the federal government, and according to one scholar who has studied the issue, it was unrelated to any funding for the Mexican War (Hoeltje, “Misconceptions”).  Another scholar suggested that Staples’s action was illegal; Massachusetts law empowered him to lay hold of Thoreau’s goods and disburse them to pay debts, but not to place Thoreau under arrest…

The year before his arrest, in 1845,  Thoreau moved to live on land that was owned by his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson.  It was there that Thoreau built a cabin near Walden pond, grew his own beans, and lived a very minimalist existence.  It seems to me that there wouldn’t have been much property for the state of Massachusetts to “lay hold of” and “distribute to pay debts” if it had chosen to do so.

In 1848, Thoreau gave a speech called “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government” at the Concord Lyceum.  The essay was first published in 1849 in the first numbers of Aesthetic Papers edited by Elizabeth Peabody, and under the title “Resistance to Civil Government”.  It later became known as Civil Disobedience.

Civil Disobedience  starts with: I heartily accept the motto – the government is best that governs least and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.  From there, he discusses the idea of using ones conscience to determine what is right or wrong, and standing up to the government that fails to do what is right.  Part of that discussion includes:

…Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the Devil, without intending it, as God….

There is a lot in Civil Disobedience that I feel can be applied to the political situations of today.  It is an essay that has often been mentioned, or quoted from, or noted as an inspiration of civil rights leaders who peacefully protest against the actions of a government that they feel is unjust – in the hopes of achieving equality and justice for all.  There is a paragraph in Civil Disobedience that could be applied to a variety of political situations where people are being oppressed:

…If injustice is part of the necessary friction of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth, – certainly the machine will wear out.  If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.  What I have to do is see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn….

In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau describes the night he spent in jail.  It appears that he did not find that night to be terrible at all.  He shared his cell with a roommate, a man who appeared to be nonviolent and who gave Thoreau advice about prison.  Each man had his own bed and his own window, and was given meals.

Someone else, it is unknown who, paid Thoreau’s poll tax for him.   In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau states that the person “interfered”.  In any case, Henry David Thoreau was out of jail.  He picked up his repaired shoe from the cobbler’s and completed his errand.

I recommend that everyone read Civil Disobedience, if for no other reason than to understand why it has been so influential on many people who are interested in civil rights, justice, and equality.  It it not a long read, but can be a difficult read unless the book you picked up includes a section that helps explain what Thoreau was referring to or trying to say.

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