What Are The Two Government Policies Thoreau Objects To

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chsmith1957's profile pic

chsmith1957 | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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By spending a night in jail for not paying the state poll tax, Henry David Thoreau took the opportunity to protest two specific government policies: (1) its permission for slavery to persist in the southern states, and (2) its recent entrance into a war with Mexico.

The state poll tax was supposed to be paid annually by each man of voting age, simply for the right to vote in elections. (This kind of tax is now illegal, abolished by the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1964. No one needs to pay to vote anymore.) This seemed to be a way merely for the state to collect money into a general fund that it could use elsewhere—like in supporting slavery and the war. Thoreau didn’t intend to vote; in fact, during his lifetime, he never voted in an election. So he figured the tax didn’t apply to him. Merely voting seemed to him to be a futile act anyway. “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it,” he says in paragraph 11. “It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.” He also didn’t like the fact that the state could not and did not have to show what it was using this tax money for.

Instead, he wanted to see some kind of action taken. His mother and his two sisters were quite active in the anti-slavery movement. They went to regional rallies, and they signed petitions. Thoreau himself helped a few runaway slaves advance along their routes to Canada. But he longed for more action by more people: something that would make the government notice. “There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them,” he says in paragraph 10. He made an impromptu decision to make his own personal stand by refusing to pay the tax when he was confronted by the sheriff. If this decision meant he had to go to jail, then so be it.

mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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While Henry David Thoreau went to jail rather than pay his poll tax, not because he objected to paying taxes, per se, but because he did not want to financially support his state of Massachusetts.  For, he objected to the position of the state government regarding its upholding of the federal government's policies on slavery and the war against Mexico, a dispute over territory and treaties in which the position of the United States as the wronged party was ambiguous, at best.

Thoreau's objection was based upon both his idealism and his common sense.  For, he foresaw that acquiescence to the government could lead to what John Stuart Mill termed "the tyranny of the majority" as the government could make people willing victims--"machines"--of its power.  And, if enough people would object to paying this poll tax, perhaps, an examination of the policies of the state would be re-examined in Massachusetts.  Expressing this ideal of individualism, Thoreau contended,

I think that we should be men first and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.  The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right...

Thoreau firmly believed that a man's duty was to give no support to issues that go against his conscience.