Henry David Thoreau was a staunch abolitionist during a period of American history when government was under threat from those who supported (or ignored the call for reform) slavery and those opposed.
In 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico. Thoreau believed U.S. land expansion was an expansion of slavery, and, governmental rule upon the poor. In an act of civil disobedience, Thoreau had did not pay the toll tax instituted to support the government’s war efforts, for six years.
He was arrested and spent an evening in jail (until a relative paid his poll tax). Thoreau seemed perplexed by the imprisonment and wrote,
“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, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, 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. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way.”
Retreating back to Walden Pond, the setting for Walden, Henry David Thoreau drafted the essay Resistance to Civil Government, the title of which later came to be known as Civil Disobedience.
The essay was his attempt to explain his action of protest and provides Thoreau’s argument as to why the individual is morally obligated to only the individual and his or her personal sense of right and wrong.
Thoreau argued that it was not good enough to state one’s opposition to a moral wrong, it was an individual’s obligation to act against or upon the wrong.
He believed the individual held the right to cancel its recognition of a government which would perpetuate crimes the individual himself believed to be morally wrong.
He referred to the “right” action being that which was affected by the “devine” and believed that the devine would remain the only and higher calling to which the individual was obligated.
His act of civil disobedience was the withholding of the poll tax.
He wrote, “A man has not every thing to do, but something; and because be cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong.”
Thoreau took issue with a government which would perpetuate slavery, whether individual politicians were calling for its abolition or not.
He believed the individual held right and greater still – an obligation – to challenge the authority of a government which would allow sins, such as slavery, to continue.
To read the full text of Resistance to Government by Henry David Thoreau, 1849.