July 23, 1846: On this day in 1846 Henry David Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay his poll tax. Then half-way through his Walden stay, Thoreau had come to Concord to pick up a shoe at the cobblers; this came to the attention of Sam Staples, tax collector and warden of the county jail, who was under orders from the town fathers to confront and, if necessary, confine this most contrary of its sons. Thoreau was willing to pay his highway taxes, and generally felt himself to be “as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject,” but he saw no choice with the poll tax, a general purpose levy which might end up buying “a man, or a musket to shoot one with.”
Sam Staples had similarly jailed Bronson Alcott three years earlier. Perhaps reflecting upon this — “I believe it was nothing but principle,” Sam had concluded, “for I never heard a man talk honester” — he offered his new prisoner a loan. This Thoreau refused, nor was he happy to hear the next morning that his tax had been anonymously paid for him anyway. But he took it in stride: “I proceeded to finish my errand, and, having put on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party who were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour — for the horse was soon tackled — I was in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off, and then the State was nowhere to be seen.”
Eighteen months after his overnight jailing, in the speech “Resistance to Civil Government” (posthumously re-titled “Civil Disobedience”), Thoreau framed his famous political declarations in his personal experience:
It was like traveling into a far country, such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night. It seemed to me that I never heard the town-clock strike before, nor the evening sounds of the village; for we slept with the windows open, which were inside the grating. 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…. I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly propose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions, as the Chinamen and Malays are….