One evening in late July 1846, Henry David Thoreau walked into the village of Concord from Walden Pond to pick up a shoe he had left at the cobbler's. He was stopped on the street by the local constable, Sam Staples, and asked to pay his poll tax, which he had not paid for three or four years.
"I'll pay your poll tax, Henry, if you are too hard up," offered Staples. He also suggested that Thoreau might appeal to the selectmen of the town to reduce his tax. Thoreau responded that he had not paid his tax as a matter of principle and didn't intend to pay it or have it lowered. When Staples asked Thoreau what he should do about it, Thoreau told him if he didn't like it, then he should resign his office. That didn't go over too well, and since Thoreau did not promptly pay up, Staples hauled him off to jail, where he was locked up for the night.
Although it's not well known now, Thoreau was not the first in Concord to have protested the poll tax. Three and a half years before, on January 17, 1843, Staples had arrested Thoreau's friend, Bronson Alcott, on a similar charge. And in mid-December 1843, an Englishman named Charles Lane had been arrested too.
The poll tax in Massachusetts was imposed on every adult male, and resistance to the tax had been seized upon by most abolitionists as a way of dramatizing their opposition to slavery. What was unique about Alcott and Lane was that they were protesting the very existence of a government that sanctioned slavery. Theirs were the first known acts of generalized tax resistance on conscientious grounds in American history.
After Alcott's arrest, Lane wrote a series of letters for the radical abolitionist journals, defending tax resistance as a strategy for challenging governments. Particularly those which upheld slavery, he viewed as nothing more than criminals raised to the throne. His call for "A Voluntary Political Government" involved divesting government of the power to collect compulsory taxes and recognizing that no government has the right to violate individual rights of person or property. Lane made it clear that Alcott's opposition to the poll tax was a general opposition to compulsory government. It didn't make any difference to Alcott whether his tax money went to catch fugitive slaves or educate children: he objected to the coercive power of a government to collect the tax, not to how the tax money was spent.
Lane, like Alcott, saw the coercive state on a par with "forced" Christianity. "Everyone can see that the Church is wrong when it comes to men with the Bible in one hand, and the sword in the other," said Lane. "Is it not equally diabolical for the State to do so?" He believed that governmental rule was tolerated by public opinion only because people had not yet recognized that the true purposes of the state might be carried out on what he termed the "voluntary principle." The very fact that state-sponsored activities required coerced tax support in order to be carried out, argued Lane, provided absolute proof of their inherent weakness. "If the work is desirable," he said, it will be done; if not, then it should not be done.
Lane shared with many radical abolitionists an aversion to politics. He recognized that government control rested on the acquiescence of the citizenry. What was needed was for reform to begin within the individual so that eventually enough people would withdraw their support from the state.
What would happen if there were a total abstinence from the ballot box? Lane urged his fellow abolitionists to go as far as possible from human government, although he recognized that for "a season perhaps, it is the misfortune of everyone to fall into this delusion of imagining that human good can be served by political means." He finally asked, "What are we to do?" His answer was, leave the beast alone. "Like all our enemies, State oppression will die of itself if we meddle not with it," he concluded.
Thoreau's friendship with Lane and Alcott made him particularly aware of these views. Thoreau's mother and sisters were ardent abolitionists who subscribed to the antislavery journals that featured these ideas. He undoubtedly read Lane's letters in them. Also, the radicals who visited Concord boarded at his mother's house. "It is safe to say," concludes Thoreau scholar Walter Harding, "that there was probably hardly a single prominent New England abolitionist of those times that Thoreau did not meet at least once across his mother's dining room table." Thoreau had even written an article endorsing Nathaniel Peabody Rogers's journal, The Herald of Freedom, and it had been published in The Dial in 1844.
The radical abolitionists in those years split philosophically into two groups. Generally all of them argued that slavery should be ended as soon as possible and that none of them should run for political office or participate in political parties. However, William Lloyd Garrison and his followers wanted mass action against slavery and called for the formation of large, powerful antislavery societies. On the other hand, those like Nathaniel Peabody Rogers believed that the moral reformation of the individual was more important than mass movements. Rogers feared that Garrison's approach would lead to the institutionalization of the anti-slavery societies, rather than the moral awakening of the individual person.
It was the latter stance that attracted a transcendentalist like Thoreau. His ideas and those of his teacher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, placed primary emphasis on individual reformation. "Above all be true to your own conscience" might have been their watchword. So when Thoreau felt called to action, it was natural that he adopted an individual rather than an organized approach to protest.
Had it not been for Staples, Thoreau might not even have had the opportunity to protest the poll tax. Staples had ignored Thoreau for several years, but in 1846 he was about to give up his job as tax collector. It is quite likely that he wanted to clear his books of any arrears.
In fact, Thoreau spent his one night in Concord jail only because Staples was too lazy to put his boots back on. When Thoreau's family learned of his imprisonment, someone anonymously went to Staples's home and paid the tax. But Staples was already by the fire with his boots removed when his daughter informed him that the tax had been paid. He declared that he wasn't going to the trouble of putting them back on to go back to the jail—Thoreau could wait until morning to be released.
Based on his experience in jail and the examples of Alcott and Lane, Thoreau presented a lecture to the Concord lyceum in 1848 titled "The Relation of the Individual to the State." This was the basis of an article published in 1849 that later became known as his essay "Civil Disobedience."
Thoreau's main point was that men and women should obey the higher law of their own consciences when it clashed with legislated law. The deliberate violation of government law was justified on such occasions as, for example, when the fugitive slave law called for the return of slaves to bondage. From a practical point, civil disobedience represented noncooperation with the state and served to draw the attention of good people everywhere to the evil that was being protested. If the state refused to repeal the law in question and imprisoned many people, then this would serve to disrupt the machinery of the state.
It was this type of direct nonviolent confrontation with the state that Thoreau advocated:
If 1,000 men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. That is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer or any other public officer asks me, as one has done, "But what shall I do?" my answer is "If you really wish to do anything, resign your office." When the subject has refused allegiance and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.
Thoreau's advocacy of civil disobedience developed out of the highly individualistic, libertarian tradition of the 19th century. Subsequent philosophers and political activists like Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King have advocated and sometimes actually used this technique. They all knew of Thoreau and had read his essay "Civil Disobedience," but none of them knew anything at all about Lane or Alcott or of their friendship with Thoreau.
It is an irony of history that nonlibertarians, like those in the civil rights and peace movements, have proved the vast effectiveness of a technique that was pioneered by libertarians.
Cart Watner is an independent scholar and the editor of A Voluntary Political Government: Letters from Charles Lane, recently published by Michael Coughlin Publishers (St. Paul, Minn.).