Civil Disobedience

Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes. Read his personal anecdote: Does he regret not paying taxes? what does his story here suggest? Do you agree with his viewpoint?

thoreau's civil disobedenice essay

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In Section III, after refusing to pay the poll tax for six years, Thoreau is thrown into jail for one night. His contemplation of the prison walls leads him to reflect on the split between mind and body. Whereas the State considers physical confinement a form of punishment and assumes that the chief desire of the inmate is to "stand on the other side of that stone wall," Thoreau realizes that the punishment is woefully inadequate and useless in his case, since his thoughts are more threatening to the State than any possible action he could undertake outside of prison. The only advantage of the State is "superior physical strength." Otherwise, it is completely devoid of moral or intellectual authority, and even with its brute force, cannot compel him to think a certain way. Thoreau compares the individual conscience and the State to an acorn and a chestnut that "obey their own laws," and must "live according to its nature" or perish. He proceeds to insert a detailed account of his incarceration:

Thoreau is fascinated with his prison roommate, a man claiming to be wrongly accused of arson. He reads the various tracts and verses left by previous occupants of the cell. That night, looking out from his cell window, Thoreau feels that as though he has traveled to "a far country." Confinement gives Thoreau a strangely novel and intimate view of his hometown and its institutions. He overhears fragments of conversation in the neighboring tavern and listens to the ringing of town-clock bells, which evoke in him the image of a medieval town. But Thoreau also feels a sense of alienation upon his release from prison. The townspeople, once familiar, now seem foreign to him; neighbors seem to greet him with bewilderment.

Thoreau reiterates the logic behind his refusal to pay the poll tax: while willing to support other activities of government, such as the building of roads and schools, he is unwilling to "abet the injustice to a greater extent than the State requires." Thoreau realistically recognizes that it is impossible to deprive the government of tax dollars for the specific policies that one wishes to oppose. Still, complete payment of his taxes would be tantamount to expressing complete allegiance to the State.

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