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."