Part I – A Jail
Henry David Thoreau
Henry Thoreau who lived from 1817 – 1862, was a writer, philosopher, and naturalist.
Thoreau believed that government interfered too much in the lives of men. He felt that people should act according to their beliefs and not do anything because it was the accepted thing to do. The first selection which follows is from his essay on Civil Disobedience, which was his main contribution to political thought. His principle of passive resistance – has influenced many men in their struggle for freedom and independence.
Throughout his life, Thoreau was an individualist. He thought that society was becoming too complicated, and he felt that many of life’s problems could he solved by living a free, simple and independent life. When he was twenty-eight years old, he built a small cabin in the woods by Walden Pond, a short distance from his home in Concord Massachusetts. He lived there alone for two years, studying, writing, and observing mature. The second selection is an excerpt from his book Walden which describes this period of his life.
I have paid no taxes for six years. I was put into jail once because of this, for one night.
As I stood looking at the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron bars over the window. I could not help but think how foolish that government was which locked me up. I wondered that it should have decided finally that this was the best use it could make of me, and had never thought to use my services in some other way. I saw that, if there was a small of stone between me and my townsmen, there was still a more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be free as I was. Since my mind could not be get to be free as I was. Since my mind could not be imprisoned, the walls seemed a great waste of stone and concrete. I was amused to see how carefully they locked the door on my beliefs, which followed them locked the door on my beliefs, which followed them out again without any problem. As they could not touch my opinions, they had made up their minds to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot attack some person against whom they have a grievance, will attack his dog.
Let us see who is stranger. When government says to me, “Your money of your life,” why should I be in a hurry to give it my money? It may be a great need, and not know what to do, but I cannot help that. It must help itself as I do. I know that when two young threes live side by side, the one does not stop growing to permit room for the other, but both obey their own laws, and grow and mature as best they can, till one, perhaps, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.
The night in prison was new and interesting enough. It was like traveling into a far country, such as I had never expected to see. It seemed to me that I had never heard the sound of the town clock before, nor the evening noises of the village. That one night gave me a closer view of my native town.
When I came out of prison (for someone interfered in my affairs and paid the tax). I saw even more clearly the State in which I lived. I saw that the people among whom I lived were not really good neighbors and friends: their friendship was for summer weather only. They weren’t so concerned with doing what was right, but reacted stubbornly to their narrow-minded opinions and unreasonable beliefs. In their great dedication to humanity, they would face no danger, not even their property. This may be to judge my neighbors too hard.
I had been put into jail as I was going to the shoemaker’s to get a shoe which had been repaired. When I came out the next morning. I finished my errand, and having put on my shoe, met a group who were going off for a picnic and were anxious to have me with them and in half an hour I was in the middle of a field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off, and then the State was nowhere to be seen.
This was the whole history of my time in prison.