Civil Disobedience Questions and Answers
by Henry David Thoreau

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In "Civil Disobedience," what does Thoreau conclude about freedom while he is in jail?

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Olen Bruce eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Henry Thoreau, who went to prison when he did not pay his taxes in protest of the Mexican War, concluded that it was the American people, not the government, that kept the U.S. free. He wrote about the government, "It does not keep the country free...The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished." In fact, he believed that the people could have been a great deal freer if the government had not gotten in their way. 

Under a government that supported the Mexican War, Thoreau felt that the freest people were in prison. He wrote, "the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons." He believed that as the Mexican War was fought to support slavery, the only place a person could be free in a slave state was in a prison. He was freer in jail because he had taken actions in line with his conscience. By refusing to pay taxes to a government that supported slavery, Thoreau felt that he was imprisoned as a freer man than the people who supported the slave state by paying taxes and remaining outside of jail. 

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Elinor Lowery eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Thoreau concludes that prison is the only place for free and honorable men if they are living in a slave state.  He argues that it is necessary for these men of honor to stand up against the government, and the government has nothing else to do with them except throw them in prison.  Therefore, by living out the freedom to go against the government, just men will end up in prison.

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