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Mrs. Ruland's Advanced Placement United States History Class

Unit 5 - Rise of America

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HENRY D. THOREAU JAILED FOR REFUSING TO PAY TAX

Written by Peter Huber for Old News

In the 1840's Sam Staples was tax collector, constable, and jailer in Concord, Massachusetts. Sam did not have a very high opinion of the literary intellectuals who congregated at the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson in Concord. There intellectuals were called "transcendentalists," because they claimed to be in touch with a mystical world which was beyond the limited experience of ordinary mortals like Sam Staples. Sam's opinion of Emerson and his disciples was not improved by several arguments Sam had with Emerson about the location of a common boundary between their properties. Sam once said, "I suppose there's a great many things that Mr. Emerson knows that I could not understand; but I know that there's a damn sight of things that I know that he doesn't know about."

The only one of Emerson's coterie of transcendentalists whom Sam Staples respected was Henry David Thoreau. It seemed to Sam that most of the transcendentalists went around with their heads in the clouds; Thoreau, on the other hand, struck Sam as being down-to-earth. Sam was particularly impressed by Thoreau's practical skills, like land surveying and carpentry.

In 1845 Thoreau began an experiment in which he would test the truth of some of the most cherished beliefs of the transcendentalists. Instead of just preaching like other transcendentalists about communing with nature and becoming independent of other people, he began in the spring of 1845 to make plans to actually live alone in the woods.

Emerson had bought some wooded land near a small lake called Walden Pond, which was two miles from Concord. With Emerson's permission Thoreau built a small cabin along the shore of Walden Pond. He planned to live there while completing his first book, which was about a boat trip he had taken on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He intended to support himself while living at Walden by doing odd jobs and by growing a crop of beans near the pond. Although he would have to continue working on his cabin to ready it for winter habitation, he moved into it on July 4, 1845.

After he started living at Walden he sometimes did not see other people for several days at a time; he found that solitude was conducive to work. Usually, however, he walked to Concord once a day to shop and pick up his mail. At least once a week he entertained visitors at Walden.

In addition to living close to Nature, as advocated by the transcendentalists, Thoreau tested another transcendental principle while living at Walden Pond. The transcendentalists believed that every person should follow the dictates of his own individual conscience, even if in doing so, he would be compelled to break the laws of his land, The transcendentalists believed in the existence of a "higher morality" which "transcended" laws.

Thoreau deliberately broke the law in 1846 by refusing to pay a poll tax. His reason for not paying the tax was that the revenue collected by the tax went to support the Mexican War, which had broken out between Mexico and the United States in April, 1846. Thoreau thought that the purpose of the war was conquest--a large powerful nation seizing land from a weak and backward country. He believed that the war was being fought mainly for the benefit of Southern slaveholders who wanted to extend slavery into the territories taken from the Mexicans.

In late July, 1846, a year after he had moved to Walden, Thoreau set out one evening for Concord. His mission was to pick up a hiking shoe which he had previously left to be repaired at the local cobbler's shop in Concord. He would be needing the shoe the following day as leader of a group of huckleberry pickers.

On the way to the cobbler's shop Thoreau encountered his friend, Sam Staples. In his capacity as local tax collector, Sam politely reminded Thoreau that he had not yet paid his annual poll tax.

When Thoreau was silent, Sam said, "I'll pay your tax, Henry, if you are hard up." Staples also said that he would try to persuade the authorities to reduce the amount of the tax if Thoreau thought it was too high.

Thoreau explained to Staples that it was not lack of money, but moral principles that prevented him from paying his tax.

Sam, who held no such moral principles, asked, "But what can I do about it?"

Thoreau suggested that Staples could quit his job as tax collector.

Staples took Thoreau's suggestion as an intended joke. Trying to convince Thoreau of the seriousness of not paying his tax, Staples said, "Henry, if you don't pay, I shall have to lock you up pretty soon."

To Sam's surprise, Thoreau replied, "As well now as any time, Sam."

"Well," said Staples, "come along then," and he took Thoreau to jail.

The Concord jail was built of granite, three stories high, sixty-five feet long and thirty-two feet wide. A brick wall, ten feet high and topped with sharp iron pickets, surrounded the jail.

When Staples and his prisoner, Thoreau, entered the jail, the prisoners were enjoying a get-together in the prison yard. Staples announced, "Come, boys. It is time to lock up." Staples then introduced Thoreau to his cell mate, whom Staples described as a "first-rate fellow and a clever man."

When the door to their cell was shut and locked, Thoreau's cell mate showed Thoreau where to hang his hat and where other facilities were located.

His fellow prisoner was curious about the nature of Thoreau's alleged crime, but remained uncomprehending abet Thoreau attempted to explain it. Thoreau's new companion said that he was in jail because he had been accused of burning down a barn. "I never did it," said the accused barn burner. So far as Thoreau could determine, his cell mate had fallen asleep in a barn while he was drunk and smoking a pipe. Although the barn had burned three months earlier, the accused arsonist had not yet been tried. Meanwhile, he had not been too unhappy in jail; he obtained free board and room in the jail and was allowed to go outside and work on nearby farms during the day.

During that night in jail, Thoreau was excited at finding himself in a totally different world from that outside the jail. He plied his companion with all sorts of questions about what went on behind prison walls.

At first his companion was pleased by Thoreau's lively interest in goings-on in the prison. Eventually, wearied by Thoreau's unceasing interrogation, the accused arsonist took to his cot and asked Thoreau to blow out the lamp before turning in.

Thoreau was much too keyed up to go to sleep as yet. He stood by an open window, peering through the grating, and listening to the sounds of excited human voices coming from a tavern.

Later in the night a prisoner in a nearby cell started calling out from his window with monotonous repetition: "What is Life?" Tired of the prisoner's repeated query, Thoreau brought his face to the grating and called out in a loud voice, "Well, what is life?"

Thoreau's question brought no response; the prisoner inquiring about the nature of life was silent for the rest of the night.

Lying on a cot in the jail that was located in the heart of Concord, Thoreau's native town, was for him "like traveling into a far country such as I had never expected to behold. . .It seemed to me that I never had heard the town-clock strike before, nor the evening sounds of the village. . .They were the voices of old burghers that I heard in the streets. I was an involuntary spectator and auditor of whatever was done and said in the kitchen or the adjacent village inn--a wholly new and rare experience to me. It was a closer view of my native town. I was fairly inside of it. I never had seen its institutions before. This was one of its peculiar institutions. . .I began to comprehend what its inhabitants were about."

While Thoreau was in jail, viewing Concord from inside-out, the news of his imprisonment spread rapidly through the village. When his mother heard the news she went to the prison to check its accuracy. After she had confirmed that her son was indeed behind bars, she went home to consult with her family about what they should do.

Meanwhile, Sam Staples had gone out for a while. When he came home later in the evening his daughter told him that someone had called during his absence and handed her a package, saying, "Here is the money to pay Mr. Thoreau's tax."

When Staples received this information he was removing his boots and did not want to go to the trouble of putting them back on. He said that it would do Thoreau no harm to spend the night in jail and be released in the morning.

In the morning Thoreau and the other prisoners were served their breakfast of bread and a pint of chocolate. Before leaving the prison to go to his labors on a farm, Thoreau's cell mate bade him farewell, saying that he doubted whether he would ever see Thoreau again.

When Staples arrived at the jail and told Thoreau about the payment of his tax, Staples was astounded to learn that Thoreau did not want to leave the jail. In all of his years as a jailer, Staples had never met another prisoner who was not overjoyed to be released.

According to Stapes, Thoreau was "mad as the devil" about being liberated from jail. Being jailed was the climax of the drama he had staged. He argued with Staples that he, himself, had not paid the tax, and therefore he should not be released from jail. But Staples told him, "Henry, if you do not go of your own accord, I shall put you out, for you cannot stay here any longer."

Reluctantly, Thoreau ceased arguing with Sam and went on his way. As it turned out, one night in jail was sufficiently dramatic for him to have made his point.

He picked up his mended shoe at the cobbler's and within an hour was happily leading his huckleberry pickers to a patch on a hillside two miles form town, were, he said, "the State was nowhere to be seen."

Everyone in Concord soon knew about Thoreau's imprisonment, and Thoreau was aware as he walked through the village that many curious heads turned to see him pass. His fellow citizens knew that he was a nonconformist, but they had never thought of him as a criminal.

His former mentor, Emerson, was disapproving of his protégé's unconventional behavior, which Emerson described to a friend as being "mean, skulking, and in bad taste." Although Emerson espoused radical causes and made revolutionary statements, his personal behavior was circumspect and conventional. He was disturbed by Thoreau's defiance of property and law and order.

When Emerson and Thoreau first saw each other after Thoreau's night in jail, Emerson asked Thoreau why he had gone to jail. Thoreau's retort was, "Why did you not?"

Very few of Thoreau's fellow townspeople in Concord had any understanding of why he had refused to pay the tax or of why he had gone to jail for not paying it. To satisfy their curiosity Thoreau prepared a lecture which he delivered in January, 1848, at the Concord Lyceum. The lecture was well attended and was consequently repeated for a second audience three weeks after the first lecture.

Thoreau continued his friendly relationship with his former jailer, Same Staples. Sam boasted that Thoreau had been his most distinguished prisoner. Thoreau often hired Sam as his assistant in conducting land surveys. Sam was one of Thoreau's final visitors before Thoreau died of tuberculosis in 1862 at age forty-five.

After his death Thoreau's lecture to the Concord Lyceum was published under the title of "Civil Disobedience." Hardly anyone read it during the nineteenth century. A century after it was composed, however, it was read by an increasing number of people. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., claimed to have been deeply influenced by Thoreau in their adoption of passive resistance as a tactic in social reform.

No one knows for sure who the person was who paid Thoreau's tax for him. Sam Staples was questioned by many people for the rest of his life about the identity of Thoreau's benefactor but apparently gave conflicting answers. Many people believed that it was Thoreau's mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who brought the money to gain Thoreau's release. But most of the evidence points to Thoreau's Aunt Maria as his deliverer. Aunt Maria not only paid his tax in 1846 but in subsequent years as well, in order to avoid a repetition of his incarceration.

OPPOSITION TO THE MEXICAN WAR

It might be said that the 1816-1818 war waged by the United States against Mexico was this country's first venture into aggressive international war-making. As such, it was accompanied by loud voices of protest and dissent.

The Mexican War was the crowning glory of "Manifest Destiny"--the expansionist mood of the early 19th century. After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the United States spanned the continent. The Treaty gave final authority to the American annexation of Texas, and provided that Mexico cede California, New Mexico, and Arizona to the United States.

The future of this territory was the basis for much opposition to the war. Cotton was king in much of the territory east of the Mississippi, and with cotton went slavery. New England Whigs in Congress, led by former President John Quincy Adams, denounced the war as nothing more than a move to expand slavery--"bigger pens to cram slaves in," said abolitionist James Russell Lowell. The protest by the "Conscience Whigs," as this faction was known, was part of a vigorous New England abolitionist movement. Anti-slavery Whigs attempted to stem the westward tide of slavery with the Wilmot Proviso, a rider to an appropriations bill, which called for slavery to be outlawed in newly-acquired territory. The bill was voted on again and again, to pass the House and fail in the Senate.

Several legislators were concerned over the legality of the war, and raised serious questions about the war-making powers of the President. Many wondered if Democratic President James K. Polk hadn't had war on his mind during his campaign, and if, through his orders to General Taylor, he hadn't provoked the Mexicans into the incident he used to justify his war declaration. However, once the war had begun, and Congress had voted a declaration, Polk had little trouble getting appropriations through Congress. He was even able to get the votes of men who opposed the war in principle. They would not vote against supplies for troops already in the field. In January, 1848, Abraham Lincoln, who voted for supply bills in Congress, said of Polk's boundary-line justification for the war, "the whole of this--issue and evidence--is, from the beginning to end, the sheerest deception." Earlier he had joined in passing, 85 to 81, a resolution put forward by the Conscience Whigs "declaring that the war with Mexico was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President."

Those who opposed the Mexican War, for political or moral reasons, had no real success in halting it. The war was waged, and the country was divided. Henry David Thoreau was virtually alone in his tax refusal. But the nation did hear the voice of opposition, and a sizeable faction on Capital Hill learned to flex its muscles and to buck the man in the White House.

In the end, the dissenters proved prophetic. The argument over the future of the newly-acquired Mexican Territory helped unite the North around a free-soil doctrine which deepened the sectional conflict and, ironically, helped bring on the Civil War.

Will Powers

 

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Last updated October 10, 2002

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