Why was Thoreau put in jail, and what were his feelings about the government while he was in jail in "Civil Disobedience"?

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In his essay "Civil Disobedience," essayist and activist Henry David Thoreau describes the experience of being put in jail for one night when he refused to pay a poll tax. He describes his feelings about the event and the government. Thoreau starts his essay stating his belief that...

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In his essay "Civil Disobedience," essayist and activist Henry David Thoreau describes the experience of being put in jail for one night when he refused to pay a poll tax. He describes his feelings about the event and the government. Thoreau starts his essay stating his belief that “that government is best which governs least.”

The government, in his mind, overreaches its authority and is also susceptible to the manipulation and corruption of the people at the top of the leadership ranks. He points to the Mexican War as an example of how the few manipulated the many through the government.

He says in the essay that “the mass of men” do not actively think about their actions when they “serve the State” but act “as machines,” going through the motions like “wooden men.” Thoreau was not willing to serve the state like a machine by paying a tax that could be used to fund something he did not support, including slavery.

In protest, Thoreau exercised his right to civil disobedience and refused to pay the poll tax, which he thought was inappropriate. He writes,

Some years ago, the State met me in behalf of the church, and commanded me to pay a certain sum toward the support of a clergyman whose preaching my father attended, but never I myself. “Pay it,” it said, “or be locked up in the jail.” I declined to pay.

His reasoning was that the money, if he had paid, could have been diverted from its labeled use—to pay for the preaching—and used instead to fund the Mexican War or slavery, which he opposed vehemently.

Another individual paid his poll tax on his behalf, and he was released from jail after one night. In response, he wrote, “Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined.” He did not join the church, he did not listen to its preacher, and he therefore did not want to be taxed to support it. Further on in the essay he adds:

I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick ... I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up.

The people who comprised the government mistakenly believed that Thoreau would be moved to pay the tax by being locked in the jail because of an overwhelming desire to be freed from it. The government, according to Thoreau, was mistaken.

I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations ... As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body ... I saw that the State was half-witted ...

Thus the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion.

He says of the experience, "The night in prison was novel and interesting enough," and "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."

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Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was put in jail in 1846 because he refused to pay a poll tax. He objected to paying it for two reasons. First, he opposed the expansionist war against Mexico. Second, he hated slavery and could not support a government that condoned it. He spent one night in prison before a lady—possibly an aunt—paid the tax for him.

He wrote "Civil Disobedience" to explain his stance in refusing to pay the poll tax. His thesis was that citizens had a duty to challenge unjust laws. His essay attracted very little attention in the nineteenth century, but it inspired civil activism in the twentieth century. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi were influenced by Thoreau.

"Civil Disobedience" was a unique political tract and was not characteristic of Thoreau's literary output. Ralph Waldo Emerson was Thoreau's mentor, and both of them were Transcendentalists. These two men are among the most-renowned American authors of the nineteenth century.

Thoreau is remembered today both for spending the night in jail and for living alone in the woods for two years.

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Thoreau was put in jail because he refused to pay his poll tax, a tax levied on every citizen regardless of income. He knew that money from this tax would go to support the war with Mexico, a war he considered to be unjust, as well as the institution of slavery, again, a practice he could not, morally, support.

The phrase civil disobedience refers to the practice of opposing an unjust law by refusing to obey it: in fact, Thoreau argued that the correct place for a just man to be, when faced with an immoral law, is actually jail. Civil disobedience does not always entail passivity; sometimes it is violent (such as John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, an action supported by Thoreau), and those who commit acts of civil disobedience must be prepared to accept the consequences of their law-breaking. However, they may, at least, feel secure in their consciences that they have done what is right.  

Thoreau looked on government as a hindrance. He felt that it did little or nothing to actually advance society, education, morality, etc. In fact, he thought that government, in reality, got in the way of individuals who were actually trying to make the country better.

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The first man to practice passive resistence, or "civil disobedience," as he coined the phrase, Henry David Thoreau chose to spend a night in jail rather than pay what he considered an unfair tax. Thoreau acted this way in order to protest the United States's war with Mexico and slavery for which the monies from the tax would proceed. 

After his incarceration, Thoreau wrote his seminal essay which examines the relationship between government and the individual. Thoreau's thinking was much more in line with that of the Founding Fathers than it is today in this era of big government. For, he felt that the best government is the one that governs least. That is, it allows men to exercise their individual rights to exercise their own wills and do what is best. After all, Thoreau argues, government is not supposed to dictate to people what they must do; instead, the government should do the bidding of the people. Thoreau believed that the people would not have chosen to go to war with Mexico:

Witness the present Mexican War, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool: for in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure. 

Because he feels that the government has imposed upon him, Thoreau protests by not paying the tax for which he never would have voted if given the choice. He cannot surrender his conscience, Thoreau contends, and paying a tax to support slavery is wrong. 

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