In “Civil Disobedience”, why does Thoreau refuse to pay his poll tax?
In Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government”, Henry David Thoreau outlines a utopian society in which each individual would be responsible for governing himself. His opposition to a centralized government is an effort to disassociate with the American government, which at the time was supporting slavery and unjustly invading Mexico. While the individual rule would work well for Thoreau who is a man of conscience, it does not account for the immoral, dishonest or overly ambitious people in the nation.
“Resistance to Civil Government” is a work of political philosophy where Thoreau lays out a plan for the way he believes the American government and society should be structured. The essay discusses the relation between the individual and society.
This essay acts as a plea for individuals to follow their conscience when civil law causes a conflict. Thoreau calls for a conscious rebellion to bring about a radical change in the American constitution; a revolution against the American government. This notion of peaceable revolution is the moral center of this essay.
By refusing to pay taxes he is not objecting the taxes specific use, he is refusing allegiance to the state as a whole. Thoreau does not advocate complete defiance of democracy with his protest as he willingly accepts the consequences of breaking the law. Because Thoreau chooses his integrity over compliance he feels freer in jail than the people outside who follow the law like sheep rather than thinking and acting for themselves.
He accepts the consequence of imprisonment for not paying his lawful tax, believing that by being imprisoned he is forcing the government to consider whether he is in the right by practicing civil disobedience. Thoreau wishes to be separate from the American government because it supports slavery. Thoreau chastises the government.
Thoreau pictures a utopian society where a person’s conscience is a higher rule than that of the law. In Thoreau’s utopia, government would only have the rights the individual allows it to possess, however a person under this government could deny the right to enforce consequences to that government, leaving him free to partake in evil or immoral actions without repercussions. Thoreau seems to believe that if people are given the chance to govern their lives by their conscience they would always do what is right by their conscience.