Henry D. Thoreau was arrested and imprisoned in Concord for one night in 1846 for nonpayment of his poll tax. This act of defiance was a protest against slavery and against the Mexican War, which Thoreau and other abolitionists regarded as a means to expand the slave territory. Individual resistance to the State has a long historical foreground, reaching back to Sophocles' play Antigone, through many episodes of religious dissent against authority, to Thoreau's friend Bronson Alcott's arrest in 1843 who also refused to pay his poll tax.
Thoreau's classic essay popularly known as "Civil Disobedience" was first published as "Resistance to Civil Government" in Aesthetic Papers (1849). Thoreau has no objection to government taxes for highways and schools, which make good neighbors. But government, he charges, is too often based on expediency, which can permit injustice in the name of public convenience. The individual, he insists, is never obliged to surrender conscience to the majority or to the State. If a law "is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another," he declares, "then, I say, break the law." The essay makes it clear that this stance is not a matter of whim but a demanding moral principle.
The appeal of civil disobedience in the North grew in the wake of the Compromise of 1850, which included the hated Fugitive Slave Law, requiring all citizens to aid in the return of escaped slaves to their owners. Though civil disobedience is usually associated with passive resistance, Thoreau came to endorse the more direct action of John Brown, whose ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was intended to incite a slave insurrection.
Thoreau's essay has had a profound influence on reformers worldwide, from Tolstoy in Russia and Gandhi in South Africa and India; to Martin Luther King, Jr's civil rights movement and the opposition to the Vietnam War in the United States; to recent demonstrations for civil rights in the former Soviet Union and China.
Henry David Thoreau was born on this day 200 years ago. A few decades later, aged 32, he wrote an essay that fundamentally influenced twentieth-century protest.
"Civil Disobedience," originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government," was written after Thoreau spent a night in the unsavory confines of the Concord, Massachusetts jail–an activity likely to inspire anyone to civil disobedience. The cause of his incarceration was something which the philosopher found to be equally galling: he hadn’t paid his poll tax, a regular tax that everyone had to pay, in six years.
But Thoreau wasn’t just shirking. “He withheld the tax to protest the existence of slavery and what he saw as an imperialistic war with Mexico,” writes the Library of Congress. He was released when a relative paid the tax for him, and went on to write the eminently quotable essay that included the line “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
While another line in the essay–"I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’”–is also well known, it was his line of thinking about justice, when he argued that conscience can be a higher authority than government, that stuck with civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi.
“Thoreau was the first American to define and use civil disobedience as a means of protest,” Brent Powell wrote for the magazine of the Organization of American Historians. He began the tradition of non-violent protest that King is best known for continuing domestically. But there was an intermediary in their contact: Gandhi, who said that Thoreau’s ideas “greatly influenced” his ideas about protest.
But it wasn’t just these famous figures who rallied around Thoreau’s battle cry, writes Thoreau Society member Richard Lenat: the essay “has more history than many suspect,” he writes.
Thoreau’s ideas about civil disobedience were first spread in the late 1900s by Henry Salt, an English social reformer who introduced them to Gandhi. And Russian author Leo Tolstoy was important to spreading those ideas in continental Europe, wrote literature scholar Walter Harding.
“During World War II, many of the anti-Nazi resisters, particularly in Denmark, adopted Thoreau’s essay as a manual of arms and used it very effectively,” he writes.
In America, anarchists like Emma Goldman used Thoreau’s tactics to oppose the World War I draft, he writes, and those tactics were used again by World War II-era pacificists. But it wasn’t until King came along that the essay became truly prominent in the U.S., Harding wrote. Vietnam War protestors also came to use its ideas, and others.
Despite this later global influence, writes Harding, Thoreau was “ignored in his own lifetime.” It’s not even known exactly who paid his taxes for him, wrote scholar Barbara L. Packer. In an interview 50 years after the incident, the writer’s jailer recalled that he had just reached home for the evening when a messenger told him that a woman, wearing a veil, had appeared with “Mr. Thoreau’s tax.”
“Unwilling to go to the trouble of unlocking the prisoners he had just locked up, [the jailer] waited till morning to release Thoreau–who, he remembered, was ‘mad as the devil when I turned him loose,'” Packer wrote.
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