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Pt. 6, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

by Henry David Thoreau Monday, Dec. 30, 2002 at 8:01 AM

Thoreau despised the thought of his tax dollars going to the state, which he opposed, that enslaved people, and was carrying out a senseless war against Mexico.

Part six, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

It was like traveling into a far country, such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night. It seemed to me that I had never heard the town clock strike before, nor the evening sounds of the village; for we slept with the windows open, which were inside the grating. It was to see my native village in the light of the middle ages, and our concord was turned into a Rhine stream, and visions of knights and castles passed before me. 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 of 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 intentions before. This is one of its peculiar institutions; for it is a shire town. I began to comprehend what the inhabitants were about.
In the morning, our breakfasts were put through the hole in the door, in small oblong-square tin pans, made to fit, and holding a pint of chocolate, with brown bread, and an iron spoon. When they called for the vessel again, I was green enough to return what bread I had left; but my comrade seized it, and said that I should lie that up for lunch or dinner. Soon after, he was let out to work at haying in the neighboring field, whither he went every day, and would not be back till noon; so he bade me good-day, saying that he doubted if he should see me again.
When I came out of prison, - for some one interfered, and paid the tax, - I did not perceive that great changes had taken place on the common, such as he observed who went in a youth, and emerged a tottering and gray-headed man; and yet a change had to my eyes come over the scene, - the town, and State, and country, - greater than any mere time could effect. I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly purpose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions, as the Chinamen and Malays are; that, in their sacrifices to humanity, they ran no risks, not even to their property; that, after all, they were not so noble but they treated the thief, as he had treated them, and hoped, by a certain outward observance and a few prayers, and by walking in a particular straight though useless path from time to time to save their souls. This may be to judge my neighbors harshly; for I believe that most of them are not aware that they have such an institution as the jail in their village.
It was formerly the custom in our village, when a poor debtor came out of jail, for his acquaintances to salute him, looking through their fingers, which were crossed to represent the grating of a jail window, “How do ye do?” My neighbors did not salute me, but first looked at me, and then at one another, as I had returned from a long journey. I was put into jail as I was going to the shoemaker’s to get a shoe which was mended. When I was out the next morning, I proceeded to finish my errand, and having put on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party, who were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour, - for the horse was soon tackled, - was in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off; and then the State was nowhere to be seen.
This is the whole history of “My Prisons.”
I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject; and, as for supporting schools, I am doing my part to educate my fellow- countrymen now. It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man, or a musket to shoot one with, -the dollar is innocent,-but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance. In fact, 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.
If others pay the tax which is demanded of me, from sympathy with the State, they do but what they have already done in their own case, or rather they abet injustice to a greater extent than the State requires. If they pay a tax from a mistaken interest in the individual taxed, to save his going to jail, it is because they have not considered wisely how far they let their private feelings interfere with public good.
This then, is my position at present. But one cannot be too much on his guard in such a case, lest his action be biased by obstinacy, or of an undue regard for the opinions of men. Let him see that he does only what belongs to himself and to the hour. I think sometimes, why, this people mean well; they are only ignorant; they would do better if they knew how; why give your neighbors this pain to treat you as they are not inclined to? But, I think again, this is no reason why I should do as they do, or permit others to suffer much greater pain of a different kind. Again, I sometimes say to myself, when many millions of men, without heat, without ill-will, without personal feeling of any kind, demand of you a few schillings only, without the possibility, such is their constitution, of retracting or altering their present demand, and without the possibility, on your side, of appeal to any other millions, why expose yourself to this overwhelming brute force? You do not resist cold and hunger, the winds and the waves, thus obstinately; you quietly submit to a thousand similar necessities. You do not put your head into the fire. But just in proportion as I regard this as not wholly a brute force, but partly a human force, and consider that I have relations to those millions as to so many millions of men, and not of mere brute or inanimate things, I see that appeal is possible, first and instantaneously, from them to the maker of them, and, from them to themselves. But, if I put my head deliberately into the fire, there is no appeal to the fire or to the Maker of fire, and I have only myself to blame. If I could convince myself that I have any right to be satisfied with men as they are, and to treat them accordingly, and not according, in some respects, to my requisitions and expectations of what they and I ought to be, then, like a good Musulman and fatalist, I should endeavor to be satisfied with things as they are, and say it is the will of God. And, above all, there is this difference between resisting this and a purely brute or natural force, that I can resist this, with some effect; but I cannot expect, like Orpheus, to change the nature of rocks and trees and beasts.
I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish to split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as better than my neighbors. I seek rather, I may say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land. I am but too ready to conform to them.
Indeed I have reason to suspect myself on this head; and each year, as the tax-gatherer comes around, I find myself disposed to view the acts and position of the general and state governments, and the spirit of the people, to discover a pretext for conformity. I believe that the State will soon be able to take all my work of this sort out of my hands,
And then I shall be no better a patriot than my fellow- country- men. Seen from a lower point of view, the constitution,, with all its faults, is very good; the law and its courts are very respectable; even this State and this American government are, in many respects, very admirable and rare things, to be thankful for, such as a great many have described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they are, or what they are worth looking at or thinking of at all?



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