Civil Disobedience Questions and Answers
by Henry David Thoreau

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How does Thoreau respond to being jailed?

In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau responds to being jailed almost as if he were doing research to prepare for a writing project. He calls the night spent in jail "interesting enough." However, he wonders about alternate forms of punishment that could be more productive by making use of his labor. Thoreau's concept is similar to today's concept of courts sentencing non-violent offenders to perform acts of community service.

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Thoreau responds to being jailed by treating it almost as if it were research preparation to do for an essay he intended to write. In fact, he does write the essay “Civil Disobediance,” in which he notes that

The night in prison was novel and interesting enough.

Thoreau had performed an act of civil disobedience to protest poll taxes by not paying his for several years. He was jailed. He interacts with the jailer and with his fellow prisoners. He observes the inside of the prison cell and the outer world that he can see from his cell window.

The experience was not unpleasant for him, although we should keep in mind that it lasted for only one night. He notes that in the essay, saying, “I was put into a jail...for one night.” As he looked around at the stone walls imprisoning him, he began to think about alternate forms of punishment that the government could have exerted rather than locking him up. He thinks that the government could have put him to work in some way, which would have been a more productive form of punishment because society would have made use of his labor.

Thoreau writes,

I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution [the jail]...I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use [society] could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way.

In fact, in today’s society, courts often sentence non-violent offenders to perform community service. This thinking is not dissimilar from Thoreau’s idea that this form of punishment will teach the person not to break whatever rule he or she broke again and helps society in some way because the person must perform a useful task.

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