It was late July, 1846 and Thoreau ran into Sam Staples, the local tax collector. He was in Concord to retrieve a shoe from a cobbler. (He had moved to Walden, two miles from town, July 4th the year before, but frequented Concord for supplies, staples, pies from mom, and Sunday meals at Emerson’s house. His sojourn at Walden, in other words, was not the experience of a recluse, as is often thought.) Thoreau was delinquent six years of poll taxes and Staples had found his man. Thoreau refused to pay the taxes and was taken to jail. The poll taxes were used to underwrite the Mexican-American War as well as the institution of slavery–both anathema to Thoreau. And thus, Civil Disobedience was born.
The experience had an expected and profound effect on Thoreau, and like many of his experiences he studied it and whittled it into insight. In this instance, he wrote, “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government” and delivered lectures at the Concord Lyceum. Bronson Alcott was in the audience and recorded this in his journal for January 26th, 1848:
Heard Thoreau’s lecture before the Lyceum on the relation of the individual to the State– an admirable statement of the rights of the individual to self-government, and an attentive audience. His allusions to the Mexican War, to Mr. Hoar’s expulsion from Carolina, his own imprisonment in Concord Jail for refusal to pay his tax, Mr. Hoar’s payment of mine when taken to prison for a similar refusal, were all pertinent, well considered, and reasoned. I took great pleasure in this deed of Thoreau’s.
The redeeming lesson here, for me, is the action taken in accordance with an individual ideal made local. Thoreau would agree, I think, that a condition of a worthy life is living in relation to the ideal we hold. This, most importantly, is a matter of living in a present condition to action, not a future condition, nor a hapless recollection of a past condition, but to be present and simultaneously manifest action. Life should hold us to something we love and along with it, appeal to our sense of a superior ideal.