Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau

Section Three

Summary Section Three


Thoreau now turns to his personal experiences with civil disobedience. He says that he hasn't paid a poll tax for six years and that he spent a night in jail once because of this. His experience in jail did not hurt his spirit: "I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to break through, before they could get to be as free as I was." Since the State couldn't reach his essential self, they decided to punish his body. This illustrated the State's ultimate weakness, and Thoreau says that he came to pity the State. The masses can't force him to do anything; he is subject only to those who obey a higher law. He says that he has to obey his own laws and try to flourish in this way.

The night in prison, he recounts, was "novel and interesting enough." His roommate had been accused of burning down a barn, though Thoreau speculated that the man had fallen asleep drunk in the barn while smoking a pipe. Thoreau was let in on the gossip and history of the jail and was shown several verses that were composed in the jail. The workings of the jail fascinated him, and staying in jail that night was like traveling in another country. He felt as if he was seeing his town through the light of the middle ages--as if he had never heard the sounds of his town before. After the first night, however, somebody interfered and paid his tax, and so he was released from prison the next day. Upon Thoreau's release, it seemed some kind of change had come over the town, the State and the country. He realized that the people he lived with were only friends in the good times. They were not interested in justice or in taking any risks. He soon left the town and was out of view of the State again.

Thoreau says that he always pays the highway tax because he wants to be a good neighbor, but, generally, he avoids all taxes. However, his refusal to pay taxes is not based on a desire to boycott one or two government practices in particular or the practices that a certain tax funds. Rather, he is refusing allegiance to the State as a whole. "In fact," he states, "I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases." Considering the anonymous person who paid his tax for him and let him out of jail, he says that if that person paid his tax out of sympathy with the State, then he or she was simply aiding injustice. If the person did it to help him, then he or she was letting his or her private feelings interfere with the public good. Thoreau says that he sometimes wants to respect his neighbors' desires, knowing that they mean well. However, he reminds himself that there are other people (e.g., the slaves) who would be much more hurt if he went along with his neighbors. He does not believe that he must accept men as they are and give up thinking of how they ought to be. In going against his fellow men, he believes that he can have some impact.

Thoreau says that he doesn't want conflicts with any other person or country. Rather, he wants to follow the law, and he looks for reasons to follow it. He quotes a verse: "We must affect [i.e., "treat"] our country as our parents, / And if at any time we alienate / Our love or industry from doing it honor, / We must respect effects and teach the soul / Matter of conscience and religion, / And not desire of rule or benefit." He says that seen from a "lower" point of view, the Constitution and other laws warrant respect, despite their faults. From higher points of view, however, they appear less and less virtuous. But then, he says, the government doesn't concern him very much, and he avoids thinking about it.

Thoreau then writes that he doesn't have patience for lawyers and legislators. Standing within political institutions, they never critically look at these institutions and, therefore, cannot reform them; "They are wont to forget that the world is not governed by policy and expediency." He speaks of Daniel Webster, saying that this politician fails to make fundamental reforms of government. However, compared with other politicians and reformers, Webster is the only sensible one. He is not a leader but a follower, and his actions are defensive, not aggressive. He supports slavery because it was in the original compact of the U.S. Thus, he doesn't have wisdom but only prudence.

Thoreau concludes by saying that no one with legislative genius has yet appeared in America--such people are rare in the world's history. He writes that government's authority is "impure." To be just, authority must be based on the consent of the governed; its only rights are the rights that the individual gives it. The movement toward democracy constitutes progress toward true respect for the individual. However, democracy is not the last step that can be made. He says that he dreams of a State that respects the individual, a State that would not mind if a few individuals even chose to live independent of it altogether. This kind of State would prepare the way for an even more "perfect and glorious State."

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